US stirred by a native renaissance: EchoHawk aims to be first Indian governor

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The Independent Online
IN THE Minerva Cafe in Saint Maries, a gritty logging town in northern Idaho, they do not care too much for Larry EchoHawk. For one thing he is a Democrat, never a strong selling point in this rugged and thoroughly conservative state. Worse, he is an Indian. The few breakfast customers grumble for a while, but then all agree: they'll vote for him anyway.

'He's an Indian and he is not going to fight the Indians like he should, with them suing the government and everyone,' mutters Robert Magers, 63, sitting at the green lino-topped counter, his hands around a mug of weak coffee. 'But I'm going to have to vote for him, because he's going to be for Idaho more than the others.'

Endorsements for Mr EchoHawk, who is running to become Idaho's next governor, come stronger from outside the state. Because he is also a Mormon, cash and support are flooding in from neighbouring Utah, the stronghold of American Mormonism. And there is support from Hollywood too, notably from actors Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. If EchoHawk, a Pawnee, wins here in next month's mid-term elections, he will become America's first Indian governor.

His victory - and opinion polls are giving him a double- digit lead over his Republican rival, Phil Batt - would be a signal event for all Indians. Characterised even in 1970 by President Nixon as America's 'most deprived and isolated minority', they are at last beginning to see some improvement in their economic and political fortunes. As if to confirm the new mood, a white buffalo calf, born on a farm in Wisconsin, has been seen by tribes across the country as a long-prophesied harbinger of prosperity and harmony between Indians and whites.

The new-found wealth has just one source: gambling. At last count more than 100 of the 545 federally recognised Indian tribes had opened casino operations on their reservations, taking advantage of their status as sovereign nations within the US, subject to most federal but not local and state laws. Combined profits from the casinos are expected to reach dollars 4bn ( pounds 2.5bn) this year. The Connecticut Pequot tribe alone is likely to make dollars 600m this year from its casino. Not bad for a tribe of only 310 members.

But something more is happening to give Indians what may be their best chance of social and spiritual revival since the 'Great Father' in the White House started forcing their ancestors from their tribal homelands to barren reservations 170 years ago. Sparked by the civil rights protests, spearheaded by the American Indian Movement in the early 1970s, the process may now be driven more by a subliminal white guilt as well as by a new affinity with Indian values stimulated by such movies as The Last of the Mohicans and Dances with Wolves.

The Indian presence in federal politics has been growing for some time. There are now 25 Indians and Alaska Natives serving in state legislatures. In 1992, Ben Nighthorse Campbell was elected to the US Senate. Earlier this year, President Clinton, in an unprecedented gesture of reconciliation, invited all the tribal leaders to the White House where they received the honours bestowed on visiting heads of state. Last week, he signed a Bill giving recognition to three new tribes. In return, the new tribal leaders gave him a 'dreamcatcher', a native hanging to ward off bad dreams.

Mr EchoHawk, a soft-spoken 46-year-old, perfectly symbolises the fragile renaissance. His great-grandfather was among the Pawnees who were forcibly marched in the 1870s from Nebraska, where they had 23 million acres of land, to a reservation in Oklahoma. One of six children, EchoHawk was born in Wyoming and then moved to New Mexico on the edge of the Navajo Reservation. His father, a full-blooded Pawnee (his mother was of German descent) was converted to Mormonism in 1962.

In an hour-long television debate with the other candidates for governor on the University of Idaho campus on Wednesday night, his Indian heritage was never once evoked. For Idahoans, the fact that he is Indian and may be about to make history is beside the point. They want to know about schools, about taxes and about federal interference in their rivers to try to save the migrating salmon from extinction. In private though, EchoHawk, currently state Attorney-General, takes his bloodline seriously.

'It is very important to me to try to be a positive role model,' he says, 'because when I was growing up there weren't many around.' When he graduated from the University of Utah he was one of only nine Indians with law degrees in the country: now there are 900. He believes that by entering mainstream politics, Indians can better improve conditions for all their people. 'There is no question in my mind there will be other native Americans serving soon, in very high positions in state and federal government.'

Not all Indians are so certain. Suzan Harjo of the Morning Star Institute in Washington DC fears that by allowing a few into their political system, white Americans will feel they have done enough to appease all Native Americans. 'The white person is always looking for the chief to put the thumb-print on the land cession, and I worry that this is the modern version of that,' she warned last week.

Nor are the Indians in Idaho much impressed - but that may be due to EchoHawk's opposition to gambling, because of his religious beliefs. 'He has the physical characteristics of an Indian. But his mind and his heart, I think, work like a white man's more than an Indian's,' said John SiJohn, who sits on the council of the Coeur d'Alene tribe, on its reservation just west of Saint Maries.

But the Indians, who make up about 1 per cent of the population in Idaho - and of the US - will mostly vote for EchoHawk. And his conservative brand of Democratic politics - anti-abortion and anti- gun control - coupled with an impressive presence, should win him a sufficient, if slightly grudging majority across the rest of the state.

'Yeah, I'm going to vote for him - not that it is anyone's business,' Ruth Udager barks from behind the counter in Minerva's. 'He can't help that he's an Indian.'

(Photograph omitted)