December 24, 2007

Obama’s distant American Indian ancestry may make him an attractive candidate to American Indians


Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama opposes the dumping of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, a sacred site, and co-sponsored the Indian Health Care Improvement Act of 2007.

Of the three front-running Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Barack Obama is the only one with a permanent place on his Web site for America’s indigenous peoples.

”First Americans for Obama is a community of people dedicated to bringing positive change to American politics and breaking the cycle of partisan ideology,” according to the First Americans for Obama page on his official Obama campaign website

Perhaps more so than any population, American Indians are painfully aware of the need for change. Tribes have experienced firsthand the lack of progress under prior administrations. Please use this Web site to learn about Obama’s policy initiatives supporting tribal peoples, to spread the word, and to involve your family, friends and community. Together, we can bring in a new generation of politics – one based on respect, honor and unity.” 

With just a few weeks before the Iowa Caucus, Obama has come from behind to surge ahead of Clinton, who until now has dominated the Democratic race. At press time, polls say he is running head-to-head with Clinton in New Hampshire. 

Clinton was the only candidate to make a live Web streaming appearance at the National Congress of American Indians annual meeting in November, where she was warmly received by a tribal leadership that largely perceives the Clintons as friendly toward Indian country. 

But in his short time on the national scene, Obama, 46, who was elected U.S. senator from Illinois in 2004, has consistently reached out to Indian communities and supported issues important to Indian country. 

In September, for example, he met with Eastern Band of Cherokee leaders and he won support from some members. 

”As a tribal member, I was greatly impressed with Senator Obama’s willingness to discuss the finer points of tribal sovereignty and his awareness of issues that impact the daily lives of American Indians. I left the event feeling a sense of hope for the future of Federal Indian Policy. More importantly, I felt that we finally had a friend in Washington that we could count on,” Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle wrote on the First Nations blog on Obama’s Web site. 

Obama supports a ban on dumping nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, a sacred site to the Western Shoshone and Paiute tribes, and land that was guaranteed to the tribe by treaty. In October, he wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer, asking them to officially abandon the proposed nuclear repository there. 

Obama co-sponsored the Indian Health Care Improvement Act of 2007, which was recently rescheduled for a vote in January after the Christmas and New Years recess.

When the bill passed out of the Senate Finance Committee in September, Obama issued a statement in which he said, in part: ”While the U.S. government has a responsibility to provide health care stemming from treaty obligations, it is also this country’s moral imperative to address the significant health care disparities between the Native American population and the American population as a whole. We must ensure our tribal health care programs are adequately prepared to provide preventative health care as well as treatment for substance and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and mental health issues. Native Americans also deserve the same high quality health care professionals that care for families throughout the country.”

Obama’s diverse heritage, including his distant American Indian ancestry on his mother’s side, may make him an attractive candidate to American Indians.

He was born in Hawaii of a Kenyan father and American mother. He grew up there and in Indonesia. He earned a law degree from Harvard in 1991, where he became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. After graduating, he worked in civil rights and taught law in Chicago, where he now lives with his wife and two daughters. 

In 1995, well before entering politics, Obama wrote Dreams from My Father, a memoir whose audio edition won a 2006 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album. 

In the book, Obama links his maternal family history to American Indian ancestors and distant relatives of Jefferson Davis, president of the southern Confederacy during the American Civil War. 

He also describes his struggle to come to terms with his identity, a story that is familiar to many American Indians of multi-racial heritage living in two worlds. 

”We were always playing on the white man’s court … by the white man’s rules,” he says. ”If the principal, or the coach, or a teacher … wanted to spit in your face, he could, because he had the power and you didn’t. The only thing you could choose was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage. And the final irony: should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors … they would have a name for that too. Paranoid. Militant.” 

Obama has experienced a meteoric rise since his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, drawing huge audiences, including large numbers of young people, and media attention to his events. His supporters say he represents the promise of change. 

His opponents say he lacks the experience to solve the daunting problems that have emerged during the past seven years of the Bush administration: the Iraq war; the alleged ongoing threat of terrorism; the country’s enormous debt, devalued dollar and shattered reputation around the globe; cuts in spending for social programs; an increase in poverty; a deepening gap between the very rich and everyone else; and an electorate that is increasingly skeptical of the whole political process in Washington. 

“Challenging as they are, it’s not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most,” Obama said in response in an article posted in’s Race Relations section. 

“It’s the smallness of our politics. America’s faced big problems before. But today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common sense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can’t tackle the big problems that demand solutions. And that’s what we have to change first. We have to change our politics, and come together around our common interests and concerns as Americans,” he said in an article titled, ”Does Barack Obama have what it takes to be the first black U.S. president?” 

If Obama is elected president, will he be able to deliver on his promise of change within Indian country and the rest of the country? 

Whether anyone can resist the vortex of power and influence that fuels Washington’s political machine remains to be seen. But for now, Obama pays homage to Indian country by acknowledging its existence.

AUTHOR: Gale Courey Toensing writes for Indian Country Today.

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