Thursday, June 05, 2008

Obama position on Cherokee issue builds ties with Native Americans

By Kevin Bogardus

Democratic presidential front-runner Sen. Barack Obama’s support for the Cherokee Nation in its controversial battle with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is helping him win support from Native American leaders.

That support has translated into votes in Democratic primaries, and could also help the Illinoisan in a general-election fight with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Obama has weighed in against legislation supported by other CBC members that would cut off federal funds to the Cherokee Nation. The CBC is upset with the Cherokee for excluding Freedmen — descendants of slaves once owned by tribal members — from tribal membership.

Obama has said that he disagrees with the decision, but opposes cutting off funds to the Cherokee, saying tribes have a right to be self-governing.

To most black lawmakers, the move by the Cherokee Nation smacked of racism and discrimination. But many Native Americans see tribal membership as an issue of sovereignty and resent any federal intrusion.

Chairman Joe Brings Plenty of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe in South Dakota said if Obama had sided with the CBC on the issue, it would have weighed on Native American voters’ minds.

“It would have been costly,” Brings Plenty said. “If Congress is allowed to step and just rearrange the constitution, what is going to happen to our constitution? The seriousness of the issue is that comes down directly to interfering with the nations.”

Obama easily won the two South Dakota counties where Brings Plenty’s reservation is located on Tuesday, although it wasn’t enough for him to win the entire state. He also benefited from strong wins in Indian counties in Montana, where he did defeat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

According to Obama’s advisers and supporters, a number of states might go Democratic in this year’s general election because of Native American votes. They cite Montana, a state where more than 6 percent of the population is Native American. It has voted Republican in the last several presidential campaigns, but Obama trails McCain by an average of only seven points, according to polls monitored by RealClearPolitics.

Another example cited by Obama’s supporters is North Carolina. While its population is only a little more than 1 percent American Indian, it is seen as a swing state where Obama might be able to edge out a narrow victory.

If Obama had sided with the CBC, Brings Plenty, who has no position on the substance of the Freedmen dispute, said he would not have retracted his endorsement but would have requested a meeting with the senator to offer his perspective on the issue.

Brings Plenty isn’t alone in praising Obama’s position on the Cherokee issue. Indian Country Today, a Native American news service, praised him for meeting “Indian issues head-on, even where they could put him at odds with other voters.”

“It was smart of Obama to put out a position. I’m glad he’s on the record. This is something tribes definitely want to hear,” said Lillian Sparks, a member of the Rosebud Sioux and executive director of the National Indian Education Association.

The CBC reaction has been less positive.

In an op-ed in The Hill, Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.), who endorsed Clinton for president, said the Democratic front-runner’s statement on the Freedmen shows he is without “a clear understanding of the issue.”

“What Sen. Obama fails to understand is that the Freedmen issue is about treaty rights, not tribal sovereignty,” wrote Watson.

Obama has taken other positions to win over Native American voters. He backs more education and healthcare funding for tribes, and has promised as president to hold an annual meeting with tribal leaders and to hire a senior White House aide to handle Native American issues.

“At the heart of his campaign is the need to be inclusive, particularly for communities that have felt they have been left out. For Indian Country, that resonates,” said Keith Harper, a Cherokee member and partner at Kilpatrick Stockton who heads up the Obama campaign’s 50-member Native American policy advisory committee.

Obama has met with tribal leaders in five states so far, including Tuesday’s Democratic primary states, according to his campaign. He also held a conference call with tribal leaders from across the nation in July 2007.

Brings Plenty soon started hearing from Obama campaign aides in October 2007 about an endorsement, although his nearly 16,000-member tribe is based in South Dakota and was not voting until June.

“I was surprised because he had knowledge of native issues even then,” said Brings Plenty about Obama when listening in to the conference call. “When I found out [former Sen. Tom] Daschle [D-S.D.] was one of his advisers, I knew that’s why he knows.”

Brings Plenty endorsed Obama personally in November 2007 and later had a tribal resolution passed officially supporting the senator in February this year.

Kalyn Free, a member of the Democratic National Committee and Oklahoma superdelegate, was disappointed when Obama did not attend an August 2007 Native American forum also skipped by several other candidates. But she’s since endorsed Obama, whom she said plans to attend a national tribal leader forum she’s organizing this summer.

Free aims to hold the forum in New Mexico, “the most purple of battleground states,” Free said. “Indians are and can be the pivotal and the deciding factor on who wins the White House.”

A Note from Max Forte: On the future of the CAC and KACIKE

Dear friends,

if you will allow me a personal announcement, this might be of some minimal interest to a few readers of this blog.

By the end of this year I will have formally withdrawn from the Caribbean Amerindian Centrelink, which will either pass into new hands, some new hands, or none and remain archived online at a new location. The current location of the CAC is at The new location, where there has already been a start in remodeling the CAC is The CAC is being renamed the Indigenous Caribbean Center, and restructured using blog site architecture so that it should be much easier to manage and update by anyone else. It will also go back to being on a free site, which should also make an eventual transfer much easier. The domain,, will cease to exist by the start of 2009.

Also by the start of 2009, I will no longer be involved with KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology at That site will also be moved over to, once again to make it easier to manage, update, and maintain without any personal financial expenditures.

I will also be withdrawing from this blog by the end of this year.

Finally, I will no longer be the webmaster for the Santa Rosa Carib Community.

It has been a fantastic journey that I have traveled in the company of great people who have made my life much better, richer, and more interesting for having known them. The time has come for me to move on to new areas. Once my current projects, both large and small, are finally wrapped up within the coming three years, I will no longer be engaged in any kind of work focusing on the indigenous Caribbean. You should, I imagine, still find me in the Indigenous Caribbean Network.

If I can insert my two cents' worth here (and I may be overvaluing my words, by at least two cents), for a number of years I have thought that the CAC should be fully indigenous-controlled. KACIKE was always an academic site, oriented to audiences with academic interests, so perhaps that case is not as straightforward.

I am making this announcement in case there are any individuals "out there", among those of you reading this message, who might be interested in getting involved to take the reins of these sites and to eventually reshape them to better suit your interests and needs. In that vein, please feel free to contact either myself or Jorge Estevez, and we will make sure that your messages get passed on to all concerned.

Many thanks again to all of you, the past decade online, and longer offline, has truly been an experience worth treasuring. For those who have benefited from these online resources, you are very welcome.

Maximilian C. Forte

The Puzzle of Race and Politics, from Counterpunch

June 4, 2008
The Puerto Rican Experience

The Puzzle of Race and Politics

The application of United States frameworks and perspectives to understand Puerto Rican politics and society always derive distorted results. To apply the same lenses we use in the United States to understand political dynamics in Puerto Rico will lead to failure. The analysis of the recent United States primaries in Puerto Rico in CounterPunch by Nikolas Kozloff is a good example of this. The historical record is full of examples of how misinterpretation of local social dynamics derived from the frames used to interpret them.

The United States Bureau of the Census learned this when the 2000 decennial census staff was preparing to develop items for the questionnaire to be used in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico, since 1958, as a result of former Governor Luis Muñoz Marin’s negotiations with the U.S. Department of Commerce determined a process to develop the survey instrument to be used in the island. The process would consist of an inter-agency committee, led by the Puerto Rico Planning Board, that would include “consumers” of census data and would determine which kinds of survey items are needed in Puerto Rico. One of their decisions was that the question of race, would not be included in the survey instrument to be utilized in the 1960s census. Since the 1950s the question of race has not been included in the Puerto Rican census.

In 1980, the Legal Services Corporation (legal advocacy group) requested that in order to ascertain the level of racial discrimination in the island some data gathering about race was needed. The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico eventually decided there was no need for the gathering of such data in Puerto Rico. The climate for considering questions about race changed dramatically after the 1992 election of Governor Pedro Rossello, of the New Progressive Party (NPP) and a supporter for statehood for the island. In the years previous to the 2000 decennial census, the Inter-Agency committee, chaired by Lillian Torres, director for the social and economic planning for census activities with the Puerto Rico Planning Board discussed the need for data on race but decided not to use the items in the United States Census. They proposed to develop items more in line with the social reality of the island. Their decision was rejected and Governor Rossello himself made the decision to use the entire U.S. census survey instrument without any modification in tune with the social, economic and political reality of Puerto Rico. The outcome, in an island with a strong African and Taino cultural and phenotypical influence, resulted in 80.5% of the population self-identifying as white. Therefore, Puerto Rico is “whiter” than the United States.

The bureaucratic decision of former Governor Rossello basically enabled a “whitening” process that was accelerated by Puerto Rico’s colonial status. Since the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico, while it has not experienced a dramatically large black emigration (or received white immigrants to the island in large numbers) Puerto Rico’s “white” population has grown from 48.5% (1802) to 80.5% in 2000.

The colonial experience has also been a racializing experience that has internalized even more the ideas that white is better (the colonial power is white). Also, the system of race is more fluid and elastic. In contrast with the polarized binary nature of the United States system of racial classification, between white and nonwhite, like in most of Latin America the system is more like a continuum where color gradations and other factors create a larger number of racial categories. While the system still is constructed along the two poles of white/black, the system, in sorting people, works quite differently than in the United States. The “one drop rule,” which guides racial classification in the United States, does not operate in the same way in the island. In the United States, for example, at one point in the state of Louisiana, a person who had 1/32 African ancestry would be considered “colored” regarded of its physical appearance. This makes African ancestry a very powerful factor in determining the racial classification of a person. The United States’ system adds to the nonwhite side of the racial ledger. In contrast, in Puerto Rico, the complex combination of color, type of hair, socioeconomic status, gender give European ancestry more weight in the racial classification. A person of high socioeconomic status, high education, whose skin is not extremely dark would be considered white and his peers would consider him white too. “Whiteness” is a very elastic category in Puerto Rico as part of a system that adds to the white side of the racial ledger.

For example, to assume that “ugly racial fissures” (Nikolas Kozloff, “The Puerto Rico Primary
Obama's Latino Problem Getting Worse, Counterpunch, June 2, 2008) can be read from CNN exit polls in Puerto Rico is reading too much on data that is not very reliable. The only thing we can glean from this last election is that we are not quite sure about the role of race unless we do much focused research into what happened. Also, given that racial dynamics in Puerto Rico are so different from Latinos in the United States (even among mainland Puerto Ricans) comparisons or extrapolations run the risk of being unanchored in any empirical certainty.

For example, the turnout for this primary is one of the weakest in recent Puerto Rican political history. Only 16 per cent of the registered voters participated in the primaries despite all the hoopla around the local visits by Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama. In the 2000 and the 2004 general elections, 82.4 % and 81.7% of Puerto Ricans voted, a much higher rate than in the electoral process those years in the United States which were 51.2% and 56.7% respectively (see Manuel Alvarez Rivera, 2008).

Also, a majority of those who voted were overwhelming pro-statehood. 59% of voters identified as favoring statehood supported Sen. Clinton by 81% while those who favored Commonwealth divided themselves among both candidates. Sen. Clinton also received widespread support across age, income and education groups. However, many union activists and left of center voters (which could have potentially supported Obama) were involved in a march that Sunday against the primaries (including some left of center members of the local governing party and a new environmentalist party).

Ironically, as Matt Barreto, a political scientist from the University of Washington discussed in a recent posting of the Latino Section of the American Political Science list serve, those who said race was an issue were more likely to vote for Obama (63% Clinton and 37% for Obama) On the contrary, those who said race was not an issue were less likely to vote for Obama (71% Clinton and 29% for Obama). This is contrary to the experience in the United States where those that responded that race was an issue had much higher percentages of support for Sen. Clinton. Another problem with the CNN exit poll is that it does not ask people to identify themselves on the basis of race (as in the U.S. exit polls), so we cannot ascertain what racial dynamics might be behind these numbers.

But the main ideological factor that clouds any understanding of race and politics in Puerto Rico is the pervasiveness of a color-blind ideology in the island. Until we understand what sustains this denial of race and racism in Puerto Rico, and until we do not apply external paradigms that are not rooted in the Puerto Rican social formation we will reach the wrong conclusions.

Victor M. Rodriguez is a professor of sociology of race and ethnicity in the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies, California State University, Long Beach, his most recent book Latino Politics in the United States: Race, Ethnicity, Class and Gender in the Mexican American and Puerto Rican Experience, Kendall Hunt, 2005.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Barack Obama Commits to the Rights of Indigenous Nations

"You will be on my mind every day I am in the White House"

My Indian policy starts with honoring the unique government to government relationship between tribes and the federal government and ensuring that our treaty obligations are met and ensuring that Native Americans have a voice in the White House.

Indian nations have never asked much of the United States, only for what was promised by the treaty obligations made by their forebears. So let me be clear: I believe that treaty commitments are paramount law, I’ll fulfill those commitments as president of the United States.

See also the "First Americans" section of the Obama campaign website.

  • Actually has an "Indian policy"
  • An American Indian adviser on tribal policy
  • End a century of mismanagement of Indian Trusts
  • Treaty commitments are paramount law
  • World class health care and education on Reserves

'Obamamania' hits the Crow Nation
Indian Country Today
May 23, 2008
by Adrian Jawort

Sen. Barack Obama makes first visit to Indian country

CROW AGENCY, Mont. - "I like my new name: Barack Black Eagle. That is a good name," Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama told the crowd of some 4,000 people gathered at Crow Agency May 19. He referenced having been adopted into the tribe moments earlier by his new "parents," Hartford and Mary Black Eagle.

Obama's official new American Indian name, given to him by the Crow Nation, was translated as "One who helps people throughout the land."

"It is not just done for show," Robert Old Horn explained after he announced the tribe's newest honorary member. "But it is done with sincereness - adopting one into a family, with brothers and sisters."

Crow Tribal Chairman Carl Venne introduced Obama, thanking the Illinois senator for co-sponsoring the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and presenting Obama with gifts to share with his family.

"We ask that you, senator, commit to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People," Venne said. The U.S. is one of four countries that voted against that declaration.

In turn, Obama thanked and listed every tribe in Montana, and thanked the rest of Indian country for its support. He also praised the work of his director of Native American Outreach in Montana, Samuel Kohn, Crow.

Having the senator come to the reservation was the manifestation of a lot of hard work on behalf of Kohn and other tribal Obama supporters.

"We've been doing all kinds of things: community organizing, meeting up with each of the tribal leaders, traveled all over the state," Kohn said. "We've really ran the gauntlet."

Kohn said that because Obama makes every person feel involved, it has made his work more rewarding with a tremendous increase of voters on reservations.

He was touched when his work to get people to vote was heeded by one elderly man on the northern Montana Rocky Boy's Reservation.

"And at a meeting, a man 74 years old came up," Kohn said. "He said nobody cared enough to ask him to vote, or cared enough to even show him what he should do to register to vote. But when he said he was going to vote for the first time in his life, he said, 'I'm going to vote for Barack Obama.'

"For the first time, I feel that a candidate really cares about improving the life of American Indians. There's no other candidate that has sat down face-to-face with American Indians and genuinely cared about them."

One Northern Cheyenne voter present at the Obama rally, Donna Gonzalez, said she was disillusioned with the current administration and was impressed that Obama would put Indians in his cabinet. "I'm a Republican, but I'm voting for a Democrat this year," she said.

Obama's words at the rally were a strong indication that Kohn was right in his feelings about the candidate and his commitment to American Indians.

"Few have been ignored by Washington for as long as the Native Americans, the first Americans," Obama said. "Too often Washington has paid lip service to working with tribes, while taking a 'one size fits all' approach with tribal communities across the nation. That will change when I'm president of the United States."

Obama said that he'd work with tribes to settle mismanagement of Indian trusts, and would even host an annual summit at the White House with tribal leaders to come up with an agenda for tribal communities while making sure treaty obligations are met while honoring the tribal and federal government relationship.

"Because that's how we'll make sure that you have a seat at the table when important decisions are being made about your lives, about your nations, about your people," he said about the proposed annual tribal White House summit.

Obama acknowledged that the U.S. government has had a tragic history with tribal nations, and that it hasn't always been honest with them.

"And that's history we have to acknowledge if we are going to move forward in a fair and honest way. Indian nations have never asked much of the United States, only for what was promised by the treaty obligations made by their forebears.

"So let me be clear: I believe that treaty commitments are paramount law, I'll fulfill those commitments as president of the United States."

He said in addition to co-sponsoring the IHCIA, he's fighting to ensure full funding of IHS, as well as increase tribal college and education funding for all American Indian children.

Obama told of how when he grew up in Hawaii and because he was black, he felt he was often deemed an "outsider," the same as many American Indians perhaps have felt in their own country.

"And because I have that experience, I want you to know that you will never be forgotten. You will be on my mind every day that I'm in the White House.

"We will never be able to undo the wrongs that were committed against Native Americans. But what we can do is make sure that we have a president who's committed to doing what's right with Native Americans - being a full partner.

"Respecting you, honoring you, working with you. That's the commitment I'm making to you; and since now I'm a member of the [Crow and American Indian] family, you know that I won't break my commitment to my own brothers, and my own sisters."

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Questions about Race, Indigeneity, and Photography

Given the debate surrounding the proposed ban of "mixed-blood" marriages among Dominica's Caribs, and the unexplained assertion that 1,000 "full blood Caribs" remain there, added to assertions made in the Taino Revival book that contemporary Tainos are really black people trying to deny their blackness by choosing a Taino identity, there seems to be a whole bundle of very contentious ideas, and some of these are re-provoked by the New Old World photo exhibition reproduced by the National Museum of the American Indian (see the earlier post about this here).

Arguments made in the Taino Revival book might apply with greater force in the case of the approach taken by Chief Williams, when it is almost impossible at this point to argue that anyone in Dominica is a "full blood Carib," and where asserting purity in the face of persistent mixture becomes really questionable. Had the contributors to the Taino Revival book directed their criticisms at concrete cases such as this, then I might have agreed with their arguments.

In the case of many of the Tainos I see online, please forgive me for being crass and superficial, but it is just not clear to my eyes by what definition or criteria they should be seen as "black" -- unless the blackness that is asserted is carelessly racial shorthand for something deeper, that is cultural rather than biological. Anyway, it is not my job to fix their argument for them. The notion that Tainos are really just black people strikes me as taking the one-drop rule to the extreme, and without any reference to anyone's actual genealogy. Even in the U.S., where we are commonly told that a slight wave in the hair might qualify someone as "black," it is still not clear to me how one would view the Tainos and conclude that, really, they are black. By the way, I am sure that "wave in the hair" is an exaggeration, since by that rule most Italian immigrants would have been reclassified as black. All I am saying is that I do not see how and why the blackness issue would surface. And what I do believe is that a person who "looks" fully black to most North Americans, with their ethnic and racial biases and criteria, could still be entitled to call himself/herself Taino, because indigeneity is not about race, and apparent blackness does not erase multiple ancestries, and different ways of life that do not correspond with superficial appearance.

But when one mounts a photo exhibition showing continuing indigeneity in the Caribbean, that is when we will run into some of the problems raised in the Taino Revival book. I am very familiar with at least one, arguably two, of the communities depicted in the photographs, the Caribs of Trinidad and Dominica. What I noticed is a tendency to show the full face of those persons whose appearance would meet the stereotypical expectations of what a "real Indian" should look like, while others, perhaps "too mixed", are photographed behind smoke, with their faces down. This can be a subtle, perhaps not deliberate, perhaps unconscious, way of conveying shame, embarrassment, and an attempt to disguise.

Face, full front, the real Carib
Face down, covered by smoke, the unreal Carib

No shame here -- any of a number of images of Cristo Adonis online,
facing the camera straight

I don't like it and I do not want to waste time making excuses for someone else's work. I think it humiliates people I know and deeply admire, people who are proud to show their faces and would not want to be seen face down like they were bowing and hiding. It masks their identity, and obscures their self-identification, and thus offends them indirectly, but in public, online. This photographic approach surrenders to everything the Taino Revival authors have argued, and Museums and photographers working with indigenous peoples today ought to be more sensitive, more cautious, and decidedly more conscious about their practices.

The presentation of photos at the National Museum of the American Indian also speaks to the power of the photographic image in Western culture. What I mean is that it reaffirms and fortifies it, as does the Museum itself which of course bases its practice on all that which is tangible, physical and visible. In the end, it's Western culture, Western media, and Western technology that win.

The problem with that is that indigeneity is often not reducible to the observable, to the body, the face, that which can be seen. Thus one form of visibility comes at the expense of acknowledging that which is rendered invisible by photography, or the head bowed away from the camera. The bigger problem here is that attempting to photograph indigeneity can reduce it to a physical substance, and reaffirm racial ideas in the process.