Native Americans Wield New Political Clout

Article excerpt

Just as they occupy a unique spot in US history, Indians are carving a path to greater political influence unlike that of any other minority group.

Yet as Indians' level of political activism surges in the late 1990s, their greater involvement in nontribal affairs increasingly worries some native Americans as the seed that could ultimately undermine their cherished sovereignty.

The rise of Indian activism and influence is strongly evident in California, where three native American tribes were among the top 10 contributors to state campaigns in the 1997-98 election, according to data from the California Common Cause.

In addition, Indians here successfully waged the most expensive ballot-initiative campaign in US history last November, winning voter approval for expanded gambling operations on tribal lands. While the courts recently declared the ballot initiative unconstitutional, Gov. Gray Davis quickly hammered out a compromise, one further sign of the Indians' growing clout in the state capital.

Indian political involvement is growing elsewhere, too. The Mashantucket Pequot Tribe of Connecticut, for instance, in 1994 gave $500,000 to the Democratic National Committee and $100,000 to the Democratic Parties of California and New York.

In New Mexico, Indian dollars in gubernatorial campaigns grew sharply from the late 1980s to the 1994 and 1998 election cycles. Indian donations aided the successful campaign of Republican Gov. Gary Johnson last November. While Indians are mostly Democrats, Governor Johnson's support for Indian casinos earned him more financial backing, say analysts.

And nationally, Minnesota tribes gave $350,000 to the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection effort, a move that stirred allegations it was a reward for the rejection of a bid by Indians in Wisconsin to build a competing casino. But no indictments were sought.

Indians' path to power is distinct because it starts with two premises not shared by other minority groups. First, say experts, Indians have historically fought for sovereignty and independence, as opposed to other minorities who seek inclusion within the US system. This sets up a source of conflict that dogs virtually every step Indians take in the political arena. It causes tension within tribes, competition between tribes, and often contentious relationships with the government entities they seek to influence.

Second, because Indians make up less than 1 percent of the population nationally, they place little emphasis on voting as a lever of real influence. This is in sharp contrast to the importance of voting in the quest for greater political clout by African- Americans, Latinos, and even Asian Americans.

But what Indians lack in ballot-box strength, they're making up for with dollars.

Though their numbers and land base in California are relatively small, Indian tribes outspent every other group with donations of $3.6 million in the 1997-98 election. Indians, notes Common Cause director Jim Knox, "have now surpassed the political giving of perennial special-interest powerhouses including California's teachers, trial lawyers, and doctors."

While those who worry about the influence of money in politics may bemoan the inclusion of Indians among the big spenders, others see a separate danger. …