Media influenced Native American voters

by JESSICA DUNN

The Black Eagle family of the Crow Tribe adopted president-elect Barack Obama, whose new name is “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land,” during his visit to the Crow Nation in Montana on May 19, 2008.

Obama was the first presidential candidate to visit the reservations of the Crow Nation. He was adopted in a private ceremony, and then he gave a speech ensuring Native Americans that their well-being is a priority to him.

He promised to honor the government-to-government relationships and treaties, to appoint an American Indian policy advisor and to host an annual summit with tribal leaders. Obama also vowed to improve trust funds, education and health care for reservations all over the country.

“I want you to know that I will never forget you,” Obama said in his speech to the Crow Nation. “You will be on my mind every day that I am in the White House.”

Obama’s visit and speech had an impact on the early support from Native Americans.

“I think people were impressed with his commitment he showed by just going to the reservation,” said Harlan McKosato, the host for Native America Calling, in a phone interview.

Native Americans overwhelmingly supported Obama by more than 80 percent, according to a poll conducted by Native Vote Washington, a voter advocacy group based in the state of Washington. And like most demographics this election, voter turnout for Native Americans also saw an increase.

“Before a lot of people didn’t vote because they said it didn’t matter who was in the administration because things didn’t change for Native peoples. They were treated the same and ignored the same,” said Donna Maldonado, general manager of KRCL. “The tribes saw promise in Obama. … I think he is our hope for the future.”

Native American support can be attributed to many factors, including Obama’s promise of change and better voter education overall.

Change

Obama has promised change to the Native American community. And while most are skeptical about promises made by a politician, a lot of people think he can change things, McKosato said.

Native Americans see Obama as someone they can identify with because of his diverse heritage, said Ella Dayzie, executive director of the Indian Walk-In Center in Salt Lake City, in an e-mail interview.

A follow-through on those promises will first be seen through Obama’s appointments within his cabinet and other positions. He has promised to create an American Indian advisor position to better meet the needs of the Native communities. Obama has also proposed an annual summit with Native American tribal leaders.

“With a Native American cabinet chair, the hope is that the U.S. government can now be well informed about the special set of challenges American Indians face, from issues of sovereignty to access to affordable health/behavioral health care,” Dayzie said. “One cannot ignore what is in front of him/her daily.”

Obama has already named six Native Americans to various transition teams. Mary Smith, Mary McNeil and Yvette Roubideaux have been assigned to work on justice, agriculture and health issues respectively, and John Echohawk, Keith Harper and Robert Anderson will advise Obama on changes within the Interior Department, according to Change.gov.

Obama has also promised money towards improvements for Native American health care and education. His economic and infrastructure development plan includes an increase in the federal minimum wage and adequate funding for the Indian Housing Block grant, according to the First Americans Fact Sheet at Obama’s Web site.

Obama’s promises to Native Americans created greater interest in the election within the Native communities. Voter education on the issues and candidates also influenced voter turnout.

Voter Education

Voters had a vast amount of information at hand about the election, from the newspaper and television to the Internet and YouTube. Most of the sources contained general information on candidates and issues. However, some programs focused on Native American issues and voting.

KRCL-FM is a public radio station in Salt Lake City, Utah, founded in 1979 as a community radio station where all issues could be discussed. KRCL has always been committed to having diverse voices on the air, said Maldonado general manager of KRCL.

Various ethnic groups, including Native Americans, have had airtime since the beginning. Today, the Native American slot is on Sunday mornings. Native America Calling, a live call-in program based in Albuquerque, N.M., that discusses issues specific to the Native American community, is rebroadcast on KRCL at 6 a.m. And, at 7 a.m., Living the Circle of Life plays traditional powwow music and contemporary American Indian music from local and national artists.

Native America Calling is an hour-long program that airs every weekday at 1 p.m. Eastern time on select stations. The program’s topics range from financial issues to a book of the month. During the presidential campaign, the program evaluated the topics and candidates from a Native American point of view.

“Native [America] Calling on KRCL helped in bringing news/reports about the issues that matter to Native American voters,” Ella Dayzie said.

Some of the election topics included discussions about political parties, Native veterans, women’s vote, young voters and planning for Election Day. The program also talked about the reaction to Obama’s win and discussed the promises Obama made to Native Americans.

Native America Calling has had full phone lines each time the election was discussed, said McKosato, the show host.

“People were more interested in this campaign than ever before,” he said.

Native America Calling helped get the issues out to Native Americans. The show used politics related to the community to spark an interest in the election and get people motivated to vote. 

AIROS Native Radio Network also used the radio and Internet to give Native American voters a voice. AIROS is an all-Indian Internet radio that is broadcast 24 hours a day through web streaming. It had audio, video, news articles and podcasts covering the election from a Native perspective. AIROS reporters used their stories to link Native communities to the election. They covered the 2008 Native Vote Initiative campaigns, presidential candidate rallies and Native American support.

The National Congress of American Indians expanded its Native Vote Initiative this year in an aggressive campaign to get more Native Americans to vote. The 2008 initiative had four core plans: provide training to educate, engage and mobilize voters; ensure fairness of voting laws and protect Native voters; educate candidates on issues important to Indian Country; and get the Native Vote message to media and the general public. Volunteers from tribal communities visited with people, even going door to door, to educate individuals about issues and help them register to vote.

“The NCAI’s Native Vote team has done a great job on getting the ‘vote’ out and educating the American Indians about both parties so that [they] can make an informed decision,” Dayzie said.

The End Result

Obama’s goals and promises to better Indian Country have brought a new hope to Native Americans. And due to a focus on the Native American voters and issues, Obama now has the opportunity to keep his promises to them and people all over the United States.