Pine Ridge, S.D. Bruce Whalen sighed heavily as he walked the old reservation neighborhood, talking to American Indians about something many have never done: go to the polls and vote.
Along the way, he passed boarded-up homes, barbed-wire fences and cars with shattered windshields.
"This is despair," said Whalen, a political organizer and Oglala Lakota raised on the Pine Ridge reservation near the border with Nebraska. "Outsiders call this place a Third World country. But the people who live here want change."
Advocates such as Whalen and Cecilia Fire Thunder are encouraging Indians to pursue change -- and break generations of historical and cultural barriers -- with a bigger voice in American politics. And they're getting help from tribal elders: Pine Ridge has moved its tribal polling day to Nov. 2 to coincide with federal and state elections, making it easier for the 12,000 voting-age residents to participate in both.
Many see Whalen as a harbinger, battling his tribe's rampant unemployment, addiction and spousal abuse through the ballot box. The 42-year-old college student is working on behalf of Republican candidate John Thune in this year's South Dakota Senate race because he believes Thune will bring fresh ideas to the reservation.
Watching from Washington
From the Dakotas and Oklahoma to Arizona, California and Washington, the Navajo, Cherokee, Yakama and other American Indian tribes are being aggressively courted by both parties as never before.
Candidates took a greater interest after watching how tribes helped turn elections in Washington and South Dakota in 2000 and 2002, as well as how American Indians voted to support gaming initiatives in several states.
In what may be a close race for president this year, such a voting bloc could be pivotal in swing states with large American Indian populations, such as Arizona, New Mexico and Washington.
Many tribes are funding ambitious get-out-the-vote efforts across isolated reservations without rural address numbering systems and where many residents live without automobiles or telephones. The National Congress of American Indians has pledged to register a million new voters in 2004.
The message: Though long detached from the American political system, American Indians can make a difference, electing candidates who can improve life on and off the reservations.
Although there are no statistics on general election voter turnout among the nation's 4.1 million American Indians, experts estimate the figure to be between 20 percent and 40 percent, significantly below the nation's average turnout of 50 percent. American Indians vote more often in tribal elections, achieving rates as high as 70 percent.
The new push for American Indian votes was apparent this spring at a national tribal conference where nearly all the Democratic presidential candidates talked up such issues as American Indian self-determination and small-business development. The Republican National Committee developed its first American Indian Web site this year. And Arizona GOP officials will canvas the Navajo reservation with Native-language brochures.
American Indians are responding to the organizing efforts -- and having success.
In 2000, Northwest tribes raised more than a half-million dollars for an advertising campaign to help defeat U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who was viewed as anti-Indian for challenging tribal sovereignty. Two years later, South Dakota tribes worked together to help elect Democrat Tim Johnson to the U.S. Senate over Republican Thune.
But many American Indians believe non-Indians don't want them to vote. The ACLU went to trial this month after filing a lawsuit against state officials for allegedly redrawing congressional districts to weaken the Indian vote. And the state's 2002 Senate race was marred by accusations of voter fraud and racism.
Republican Sens. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and John McCain of Arizona are among the members of Congress, legislators and state officials who have sought American Indian support. McCain, who has defended the unique legal status of tribes as sovereign nations, received their backing and contributions when he ran for president four years ago.
"It doesn't matter what side of the aisle they're on," said W. Ron Allen, former president of the National Congress of American Indians. "If they support our issues, we'll support them."