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. …