Democrats attacked President George W. Bush on Friday for stumbling to explain the meaning of tribal sovereignty before a crowd of Native American and other minority journalists.
Bush was asked by Mark Trahant, the editorial page editor of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Nation of Idaho, to explain his vision of sovereignty for the 21st century. His response was met with scattered laughter at the UNITY 2004 convention, held last week in Washington, D.C.
"Tribal sovereignty means that. It's sovereign," Bush said. "You're a .. you're a ... you've been given sovereignty and you're viewed as a sovereign entity."
Bush went on to explain the nature of the trust relationship but didn't use the word "trust" or the phrase "government-to-government." He also said he wants to encourage economic development in Indian Country.
"Now the federal government has got a responsibly on matters like education and security to help, and health care," Bush said. "It's a solemn duty. From this perspective, we
must continue to uphold that duty."
Democrats wasted little time criticizing the remarks. Just the day before, their presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, drew widespread applause at UNITY for his firm words in support of tribal sovereignty.
"Tribal sovereignty isn't something that is given to tribes, it simply exists, and requires our recognition," said Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota), whose re-election in November 2002
was credited to Indian voters.
But Bruce Whalen, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota and a Republican activist in the state, said Democrats were over-reacting. From his home on the Pine Ridge Reservation, he said Indians in his state are clamoring to hear the Republican Party's message.
"If we're talking about words or actions, I think I would choose President Bush especially since he's spending $1.1 billion to improve our school systems," he said.
"If anybody wants to blame George Bush, especially the Democrat Party, for not saying a word or two about sovereignty, I'm glad," he added. "They don't know what it is either."
Democrats have been making the Bush administration's record on Indian issues a key part of their campaign. They say Bush has slashed funding for education, health care, housing and other Indian programs.
With American Indians and Alaska Natives a significant portion of the population in several key states, both parties are eager to tap the Indian vote. Over the weekend, Kerry met with tribal leaders in New Mexico and Arizona, two states where the Indian turnout can sway a close election.
During his 2000 campaign, Bush also met with tribal leaders in New Mexico. After his appearance, he made his pledge to spend $1 billion on Bureau of Indian Affairs school construction.
But at the time, Bush drew barbs for his response to a reporter's question about his battle to shut down a casino run by a tribe his home state of Texas. "My view is that state law reigns supreme when it comes to the Indians, whether it be gambling or any other issue," he was quoted as saying.
Trahant, in an editorial published yesterday, said Bush's response to his question was "different" than the one he gave in 2000. But he questioned Bush's claim that tribes were "given"
"That would have been hard to accomplish since tribes were sovereign long before there was a gift-bearing United States," Trahant wrote.
At their convention last month in Boston, Massachusetts, the Democrats drew a record 87 Indian
delegates. The party has a non-official, but prominent, Native American
The Republicans will meet later this month in New York
City for their convention. The party hasn't said how many Indians
will attend but Whalen and John Gonzales, former governor of San
Ildefonso Pueblo and a former president of the National Congress of
American Indians, will be among the delegates.
Bush at UNITY:MP3: President Bush-Mark
Video: Bush at UNITY
UNITY 2004 - http://www.unityjournalists.org/DC2004
American Journalists Association - http://www.naja.com
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