Obama, Clinton woo American Indian voters

Crow Agency_The purification ceremony isn't an everyday ritual of U.S. presidential politics.

The newly named Awe Kooda Bilaxpak Kuuxshish - better known as Barack Obama - faced east, the symbolic source of new life. His adopted Crow father, Hartford Black Eagle, prayed over him.

Afterward, they walked arm-in-arm with Black Eagle's wife, Mary, to a podium, where Obama promised to live up to the meaning of his new name: "One Who Helps People Throughout the Land."

"I want you to know that I will never forget you," Obama told the crowd, who had not seen a visitor of such political importance since Lady Bird Johnson came to the Montana reservation in the 1960s. "You will be on my mind every day that I am in the White House."

In a tight Democratic race, American Indians living in poor conditions on isolated prairie reservations could have a pivotal voice in the selection of a presidential candidate. As a result, they're hearing a lot of promises from politicians: better health care, improved housing and stepped-up law enforcement in Indian country.

Their votes could be decisive in the last two Democratic primaries, the June 3 votes in Montana and South Dakota, that Obama would very much like to win to bring him closer to the Democratic nomination. He and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who'd like victories just as much, are wooing the oft-ignored Indian vote - which is small, but big enough to matter this year.

"Indian country could make the difference in South Dakota and Montana, no question about it," said former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, an Obama supporter who narrowly lost re-election in 2004 after campaigning extensively on reservations.

To get out the vote on reservations, both campaigns dispatched American Indian outreach coordinators to educate voters. The candidates themselves held several one-on-one meetings with tribal leaders.

"For a presidential campaign there has never been anything quite like this," Daschle said.

Reservations, especially the poor, remote tribal areas in the High Plains, have rarely been campaign stops in recent years.

President Bill Clinton visited South Dakota's Pine Ridge reservation - home to several thousand members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and one of the most remote, destitute areas of the country - one year before he left office, the first president since Calvin Coolidge to visit a reservation.

Almost 9 percent of South Dakota's roughly 800,000 residents are American Indian - the third highest population in the country. Around 6 percent of Montana's slightly larger population are American Indian. Those voters are traditionally Democratic, though Republicans have worked hard to woo them in recent elections.

In 2002, South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat, won re-election by just 524 votes after launching the largest get-out-the-vote campaign on Indian reservations in the state's history. In 2006, Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican, lost his seat by less than 4,000 votes after American Indian leaders criticized him for taking money from convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to bilking tribes out of millions of dollars.

Indian communities appear split between the two Democrats, as both have made specific promises of a better life.

In a speech Wednesday on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation, Clinton touted better health care and jobs for those out of work. She has also pledged to increase money for Indian Head Start programs and to fight diabetes among Indian youth.

The New York senator also has benefited from her husband's record. Thomas Shortbull, president of South Dakota's Oglala Lakota College, supports Clinton because her husband worked to get more education and housing money to reservations in the 1990s. "We know what we'll get with a Clinton administration and we don't know what we'll get with an Obama presidency," Shortbull said.

Obama has focused on inclusion.

"I know what it's like to struggle," he told the Crow audience. He said the federal government is out of touch.

"We need to shake up that bureaucracy - get them out of Washington, have them come here to Indian country and start getting a sense of what's going on," he said. "You guys pay taxes, too."

The Republicans' likely nominee, John McCain, a former Senate Indian Affairs Committee chairman, is bidding for their votes too. He met with tribal leaders last week, promising, like Clinton and Obama, to create a new White House position to oversee Indian affairs.

"We don't rely on promises so much as we do their ability to understand our issues," said Robert Moore, an elected official in South Dakota's Rosebud Sioux Tribe and volunteer organizer for Obama.

No matter who wins, say leaders, American Indians expect more attention from the next administration.

"This is a phenomenal year for us," said Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. "We have three candidates who actually know something about Indian country."


Jalonick reported from Washington.
Matthew Brown, AP Writer © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.