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In Pursuit of the US Native American Vote - 2002-09-23

One of the closest political races in the country is taking place in the Western state of South Dakota, where incumbent Democratic Senator Tim Johnson is being challenged by the state's only Congressman John Thune. A win by Representative Thune could shift control of the U.S. Senate to the Republican Party - making every vote the Democrats can garner crucial to Senator Johnson's re-election bid.

To that end, the Democratic Party is focusing on the state's Native Americans, who have traditionally voted as Democrats - when and if they get to the polls. Jim Kent visited the Pine Ridge Reservation to explore the Democratic Party's effort to "get out the Indian vote" with American Indian field representatives who register their fellow tribal members and, they hope, inspire them to vote the Democratic ticket.

Most American Indians in South Dakota are more accustomed to seeing Democrats on their reservations than Republicans. For example, when Senator Tim Johnson visited the recent Oglala Lakota Nation Pow Wow, he brought the Party's congressional and gubernatorial candidates with him and enough food to feed 1,200 people. John Thune, the Republican candidate running for Senator Johnson's seat, sent campaign staffers and posters. Congressman Thune and other Republicans have visited tribal communities, but many Lakota feel much more comfortable with the Democrats.

Cecelia Fire Thunder, the Democratic Party's field representative on the Pine Ridge Reservation, says "I also feel very strongly that the Democratic Party has been most responsive to the Indian needs in Indian Country. You can look at [South Dakota] Senator Tom Daschle's record and Senator Johnson's record in the last five years and see their response to the needs of Indian people in the state of South Dakota."

She's says it was her parents who first taught her about the importance of voting. Miss Fire Thunder notes that Native Americans who don't vote in national elections stay home because they just aren't aware of how their participation can impact their daily lives.

"All aspects of our lives on the reservation are determined by how much money comes from Congress. I also remind people, much of what comes to Pine Ridge and other reservations are treaty obligations. Treaty obligations are health care, education, it's about taking care of our roads, taking care of our land, taking care of our water. Those were written down in treaties as obligations that this government has to these people, my people, Lakota people, in the state of South Dakota for giving up all the land around us," she said.

Having a clear understanding of those treaty obligations is vital to any politician seeking the Lakota vote, according Brian Drapeaux. Mr. Drapeaux, who supervises the Democrats' tribal field representatives, adds that once that understanding is in place, there's still something else a candidate has to do.

"Show up!" he laughed. "I think that's a big part of it because politics are local. I just keep going back to that. And what I've advised the Johnson campaign is that, you know, our people need to know you. They need to know who you are and what you're about and know you as a person. And that just takes being around, you know."

That argument made sense to Toni Rouillard, the field representative for the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation. She says that's the primary reason she began working for the Democratic Party. "Because they took the time to come down and talk to us, get to know us. They took their time out of their life to come down and show us what they're doing, about the issues that are important to us," she said.

But Miss Rouillard says she's not twisting anyone's arm to become a Democrat. "Basically, I'm telling them I don't really care who they vote for either, I'm more interested in that they are registered to vote and that they are voting, no matter who it's for...that they're at least taking part in that. Native Americans have an opportunity to do so much, but they just have to get over that fear of the government," she said.

But many Lakota Sioux say it's impossible to dismiss more than a century of broken promises. When it comes to non-Indian politicians and the federal government, their trust is gone.

One Indian woman says, "For years, politicians have come and gone...we voted for whoever we thought was good in presenting us and so far we haven't seen that, because the promises are there but they were never adhered to," she said.

Another man says, "We've been told so many things by politicians, by government officials, and then we come to find out that it's just deception to get what they want. I don't have much of a perspective because their appearances are seasonal and in between there's quite a void. I wasn't there to hear the promises.

"But if the promises made were like the promises that were made in the past, they wouldn't mean much. We'd still be on the short end of the stick. The Indian would still be a loser," yet another said. Nevertheless, the Democratic Party's Native American field representatives continue to pursue the Indian vote. Toni Rouillard says she's managed to register 95 percent of eligible voters on her reservation. Party spokesperson Sarah Feinburg says the Democrats will provide transportation to the polls for any voter in the state who requests it an incentive for Indians living in remote rural areas. But as far as tribal official Harvey White Woman is concerned, it doesn't matter how many Lakota cast their votes, or who wins the election.

"Despite what the outcome is, it's still gonna be a struggle for Indian people...for generations to come unless we start turning that mentality around in Washington to let them know that no matter who is in the office up there, no matter who is the so-called majority leader in the Senate or in the House, or who is president Republican or Democrat, they still have those treaty obligations," he said.

As the race between Tim Johnson and John Thune continues to be a tight one, success in November may depend on which candidate can convince the Lakota people his mentality is closest to their own.