American Indian voices not heard at forum
RAPID CITY, S.D. - The Democratic Brown and Black Forum with the presidential candidates held on Dec. 1 in Des Moines, Iowa, fulfilled its purpose, but American Indians did not have a voice and were mentioned only briefly by one candidate.
Ten people from South Dakota attended the forum and were among a large number of people who were non-white. The crowd consisted mainly of Muslims, Hispanics and blacks, and the general climate of the meeting was said to be positive.
The American Indian delegation from South Dakota comprised the only group of indigenous attendees. None of them was selected to ask questions of the candidates. The only candidate who acknowledged Indians at all was Rep. Dennis Kucinich, according to Mary Ann Bear Heels McCowan, a Lakota political activist.
While American Indians make up only 1 percent of the population, because of their unique involvement with the federal government and its fiduciary responsibility, the expectation is that most candidates should develop an American Indian policy.
The forum was organized around community action, and those community groups brought out a different dialogue from the candidates than the usual mega-issues that affect the entire nation. Overall, the comments made were positive for the entire nation, she said.
''They addressed racial profiling, veterans, family situations and community-based situations,'' McCowan said. Muslim attendees asked the question about racial profiling, which affects all non-white peoples.
Expectations of getting to speak to or ask questions of the candidates were not high, but the group did learn from the experience because they experienced part of the political process and possibly saw the next president.
''The biggest thing if we had an opportunity to ask would be one about national Indian policy; states rights; and third, where are we nationally with Indian affairs?'' McCowan said.
''We want them to know Native American issues and speak to them [the candidates] in a way to Indian country, and we would want to know what they would do to promote trust responsibility for health care,'' said Andrew Iron Shell from the Western South Dakota Native American Organizing Project, who organized the trip.
An important note about the group is that all except Iron Shell were women, elders, health care workers, educators - a group of people that could speak of American Indian life.
The group knew they may not have access, formal or informal, with the candidates because all such access was limited. The candidates had the questions before they appeared on stage, but nothing was asked about Indian country.
What the group expected to hear from the candidates was their policy to guarantee protection of lands, health care and sovereign rights that are guaranteed by treaty. States rights are a real issue because the present administration - which has no Indian policy - has further given rights to states over tribes, a trend that started with the Reagan administration.
''It appears the states are intent on draining what little resources we have,'' McCowan said.
So which candidates do American Indians in the Great Plains talk about most? McCowan moves within her community and is privy to other arenas, and said the candidate most on peoples' minds and lips is Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, followed by New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. Kucinich is mentioned and in the background is John Edwards, who has not expressed any American Indian policy or addressed any of the issues that affect Indian country. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also interests many American Indian voters in the Great Plains.
McCowan said that people talk about Obama because he is a man of color and could understand the plight of others.
''A man of color that knows what it's like growing up, it kind of weighs a bit,'' she said.