Indian unrest threatens Bush in the old West: John Lichfield, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, meets a group of Native American voters for whom today's Columbus Day celebrations have a bitter taste

AS IF President Bush had not got enough problems, he faces Indian trouble all down the old western frontier.

A string of western states, from Montana to New Mexico, mechanically Republican for years, is leaning Democratic this time. The measure of victory or defeat in three weeks' time could be an unusually high turn-out among Indians, who traditionally vote Democratic but mostly do not vote at all.

Indians are angry at what they see as 12 years of malign Republican neglect. They have been skilfully courted by the Clinton campaign. In the patchwork of remaining tribal lands, collectively known as Indian Country, tribal leaders predict the largest ever presidential vote on 3 November.

Kevin Gover, 37, a Comanche-Pawnee lawyer is the national co-ordinator of Native Americans for the Clinton-Gore ticket. Speaking at his law office, a beautiful adobe building in Albuquerque, he said: 'We've had a bellyfull of Republican ignorance and obstructiveness. All my working life I've been practising law for Indian causes and Indian clients and been blindly opposed by Republican administrations. We've got to have a change.'

There may be another reason for the increased political awareness among Indians this year. The election coincides with the 500th anniversary of the arrival of what Milo Yellowhair, a Lakota (Sioux) leader, calls 'the boat people'.

Today the US celebrates Columbus Day, a federal holiday usually politely ignored on Indian reservations. Militant Indian groups objected over the past few days to attempts in several western US cities to celebrate five centuries of white conquest. A Columbus Weekend parade in Denver was abruptly cancelled on Saturday.

Is the Columbus anniversary truly a factor in the new electoral awareness of Indians in the American West? Walter Dasheno, 45, the Governor of the Santa Clara Pueblo Indian nation, just north of Santa Fe, believes that it is. 'There are a few reasons but the 500 thing is a piece of it. It makes us stop and think how we can make the next 500 years - the next 500 days - better than the last 500.'

Governor Dasheno reports a 'crazy scramble' by people in his own community to get badges, signs and bumper stickers marked 'Indians for Clinton- Gore'.

'There are also,' he said, 'a few Bush supporters, which is right and proper. There were quite a bunch for Perot until he pulled out. Then they switched to Clinton and they seem to be staying right there.'

Historically, Indian voter turn-out has been low for several reasons: deliberate exclusion by white politicians and officials; apathy and poor education on the reservations; a feeling among Indian traditionalists that voting in white elections eroded their own rights as nominally independent nations.

Now - Columbus apart - a number of factors have combined to awaken Indians' interest in their right to vote.

In the Reagan-Bush years, federal spending on Indian health, education and housing was slashed. (The last Jimmy Carter budget proposed 8,000 Indian housing starts; the latest Bush budget proposed none.) There has been a series of Supreme Court and executive branch decisions which have dismissed the importance of Indian religion and impeded access to sacred sites on federal land.

Perhaps most important, new, young, educated Indian leaders have emerged, who cherish Indian culture and traditions, but see no conflict in using white political structures to defend Indian interests.

Rather the opposite. Regis Pecos, 39, executive director of the New Mexico Office of Indian Affairs, said: 'We have to accept that the issues that matter most to us - education, jobs, environment, water rights, access to religious sites - can best be achieved by using, not ignoring, our potential strength within the federal and state system. That doesn't mean abandoning our rights as sovereign nations, it means using our political muscle to protect those rights.'

Mr Pecos was the prime mover in a campaign - since copied by other states - to boost registration of voters in the 22 Indian tribes in New Mexico this year. Previously, registration stood at about 20 per cent and turn-out even lower. This year Mr Gover says that he hopes for a 60 per cent registration and 50 per cent turn-out of Indians in New Mexico, and something approaching those figures elsewhere.

If so, the Indian vote - difficult to pick up in telephone polls because many Indians have no phones - could be worth 3 to 4 per cent of the total in New Mexico and South Dakota, and a little less in North Dakota, Montana and Oklahoma.

With Governor Clinton running ahead or dead even in the white and Hispanic vote in these states, Mr Gover believes that Indians could help tip a small but useful bloc of 21 reliably Republican, electoral college votes into the laps of the Democrats.