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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £40,000

£18000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing Insurance Bro...

Recruitment Genius: Junior IT Support Technician

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Junior IT Support Technician ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior / Graduate Front End Developer

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides actionabl...

Guru Careers: Customer Support Advisor

Negotiable depending on experience, plus benefits: Guru Careers: We are seekin...

Day In a Page

Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

Latest on the Labour leadership contest
Froome seals second Tour de France victory

Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

The uses of sarcasm

'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

No vanity, but lots of flair

A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

In praise of foraging

How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food