For Natives, It Feels Good to be Change-Makers

In Denver, some 134 delegates from across Indian Country are convening, hoping to showcase the power of the Indian vote this presidential season and grab the attention of the nation’s leaders.


The Indian vote is making the difference in Montana, said Jason Smith and Ryan Rusche, right.

Wolf Point is a long way from anywhere, but the small Montana town on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation far on the windy flats of eastern Montana has a field office for Barack Obama.

When the Obama campaign telephoned Ryan Rusche, an Obama delegate and the county attorney there, asking how long it would take him to find office space, he replied, “About 15 minutes.”

At noon Monday, Rusche and Jason Smith, of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes from the Flathead Indian Reservation, gathered with most of the rest of the 134 delegates from across Indian Country in a room in the Colorado Convention Center in Denver on the first day of the Democratic National Convention.

While some in the room extolled the record number of delegates, Rusche and Smith talked about the decade-long swell of the Indian vote’s importance in Montana.

“You could argue that Indians tipped the balance in the Senate,” Smith said, referring to the high turnout on Montana reservations in 2006 that gave an edge to challenger Jon Tester, a Democrat, in his white-knuckle-tight race against Republican Sen. Conrad Burns. Tester helped give the Democrats a slim majority in the Senate.

The same could happen this year in the presidential race, he said.

This year primaries in some Montana districts had Indians running against Indians, added Rusche. Then the two talked about the importance of Indian candidates and the reservation vote in Montana.

Not everyone in the room felt buoyed by their state. The Washington tribes had only three delegates this year, compared to five in 2004. Washington did have several representatives of its Native get-out-the-vote campaign.

“I’m a Lummi,” said Julie Johnson of Clollam County, “and I’m a delegate from Washington state.”

Johnson said she had been telling young people to get involved.

“I thought, ‘Maybe I’d better get involved,’” she said with a laugh. She was sitting next to her friend and the former chairwoman of the Pine Ridge Reservation, Cecelia Fire Thunder.

“Obama had better mention Indian people Thursday night in his speech,” Fire Thunder said, “Or I’m not going to campaign for him.”

Johnson wrapped her arm around Fire Thunder’s shoulders, laughing, “Don’t say that!”

“I mean it. He’d better mention Indian people Thursday night. He needs to recognize us in his speech.”

Then Fire Thunder got serious.

“I wanted Hillary in there,” she said. “For Hillary to get as far as she did, it’s a blessing. It shows we can break away from oppression, that we can think, feel and be politicians as good as anyone.”

The same goes for Obama, Fire Thunder added.

“I never thought I’d see a woman or a person of color make it this far. It’s not a good-old-white-boy’s-club anymore,” she said.


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Filed under 2008, Old News Stories and Columns

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