THE BLOG
10/06/2008 09:59 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Time for Indians to Think Independent


By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© 2008 Native American Journalists Foundation, Inc.


October 6, 2008

By now many voters have made up their minds and have settled on one particular candidate for the Office of the President of the United States. It is surprising to many political pundits that there are large numbers of voters still "undecided."

According to nearly every Indian news source that I read or visit online, the overwhelming number of Indian voters are squarely in the camp of Senator Barack Obama. That is to be expected since Obama is a Democrat and the majority of Native Americans always vote as Democrats.

However, I still believe that Native Americans must unshackle themselves from any one political party and sign up as Independents for the next election. There are many reasons why I think this is necessary.

As an example let's look at the failure of Democrats to appoint Native Americans to serve as judges in U. S. District Courts. Appointments are usually made by the senior senator from a given state. There has never been an Indian appointed to the federal courts in South Dakota. Why is there something wrong with this picture? The senior senators from South Dakota for the past several years have been Democrats.

Tom Daschle, a Democrat, served as the senior senator from South Dakota for many years. He never appointed a Lakota, Dakota or Nakota to serve as a federal judge. Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) is now the senior senator from South Dakota and to date he has never appointed a Native American attorney to serve as a federal judge.

There appears to be only one true Native American serving as a U. S. Attorney in America today. She is Diane J. Humetewa, Hopi, who serves as the U. S. Attorney for the District of Arizona. Judge Humetewa was appointed by Senator John S. McCain (R-AZ). Prior to her appointment she served as Deputy Counsel for Sen. McCain on the U. S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

In states like South Dakota and Arizona, states with large Native American populations, it is imperative that Indian judges be appointed to serve in the federal courts. In the minds of many Indians residing in these states there is a belief that there are two forms of justice; one for Indians and one for whites. The large number of Indians incarcerated in the prisons of South Dakota and Arizona would seem to support this belief.

So many things, positive and negative, begin in the federal courts of America. Decisions are made that impact nearly every facet of Indian life and yet all of these decisions are handed down by non-Indians. Would it make a difference if there was an Indian judge seated on the bench? You bet your booties!

Can a senior senator from South Dakota look me in the face and tell me that there are no qualified Indian attorneys capable of sitting as a judge on a federal court? What about Mario Gonzalez, Steve Emory, Terry Pechota or Tom Van Norman? What are they, chopped liver?

Governor Mike Rounds (R-SD) is just as negligent as the Democrats for not appointing Indians to executive positions and judgeships in South Dakota. It is hard for many Natives of this state to understand why this has not happened. In states across America, African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans are appointed every year to positions as judges, to high positions in education and to serve on the many boards and committees that make the important decisions that keep the state moving forward. That is not happening in South Dakota or in many of the western states with large Indian populations.

Having Native Americans in positions where important decisions regarding Indian rights and justice are made cannot be overestimated. My many years as an editor and publisher of Indian advocacy newspapers has insulated me to the fact that there are a lot of ignorant white judges out there, not ignorant in the book learning way, but ignorant in the cultural, traditional and spiritual ways of the local Indian population. How can justice be served when the judge is clueless about the very lifestyles, beliefs and culture of the Native Americans tried in his or her court? Judging by the number of Indians serving time in state and federal prisons this ignorance is pervasive, dangerous and above all, discriminatory.

If we (Indians) are to vote people into office that we believe to be fair and capable, we cannot affiliate ourselves with one political party. There are good and bad choices in either party and so that makes it even more important for Indians to be able to jump across party lines and becoming an Independent is the easiest way to accomplish this.

Suppose Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat, loses the election to Republican Joel Dykstra? That would make Republican John Thune the senior senator with the capability of appointing judges to the federal courts. Where does that leave Indian Democrats? It would leave them sitting pretty if they were registered as Independents. Think about it.

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association and the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, the Lakota Times, and the Dakota/Lakota Journal. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com)