American Indian leaders say they´ve already won even though the presidential election is months away.
Both Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama have made more promises to Indian tribes than any other candidate in history, tribal leaders say.
In terms of support and communication, it can only go in one direction, and that´s up," said Steve Robinson, a policy analyst for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
Federal Indian policy during the administration of President Bush has "hit rock bottom," he said.
Over the past seven years, the Bush administration has slashed federal dollars for American Indian programs such as housing projects and salmon hatcheries.
And funding for Indian health care began stagnating under the Clinton administration. For example, the Tulalip Tribes negotiated a $3.8 million federal grant for health services in 1993, but that fund hasn´t increased since then.
Tribal leaders expect some of that money to be increased or restored during the next administration.
"Both candidates are listening to native America," said Mel Sheldon, Tulalip tribal chairman. "It´s a really exciting time."
Tribal leaders say McCain has a track record of supporting tribal governments and acknowledging them as sovereign nations. He´s been chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee since 2005, and there are nearly two dozen Indian tribes in his home state, including the Navajo Nation, which owns the largest reservation in the country.
Obama has very little experience working with tribal leaders on policy issues, but his visits to reservations during his primary campaign so impressed the Crow Tribe that leaders there gave him an Indian name that means "one who helps people throughout the land."
A president who shows any interest in Indian Country would be a refreshing change, Sheldon said.
"Every time (Bush) turns around, he finds different ways to ignore Native American tribes," he said.
In the past, presidents have assuaged tribes with showy ceremonies and "listening" campaigns, said David Wilkins, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.
President Clinton invited leaders of the country´s tribes to a ceremony on the White House lawn in 1994.
"Welcome to the White House," Clinton said then. "Welcome home."
It was a dream realized for tribal leaders, who long to meet with U.S. leaders on a government-to-government basis.
"Clinton didn´t do anything path-breaking or transformative, but since he made those symbolic efforts, native people considered him a friend," Wilkins said.
Both Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who suspended her bid to become the Democratic presidential nominee early this month, focused on tribes this year, especially in late-primary states with large tribal communities.
McCain understands the breadth of tribal treaties, which guarantee tribes sovereign power over their reservations.
But the Arizona senator may have to bend to state governments and corporate interests when they turn on the pressure, Wilkins said.
What´s changed in the past eight years is that many tribal leaders now represent gambling and resort meccas that have turned them into powerful political players.
In 2006, lobbyist Jack Abramoff admitted that he bilked American Indian tribes, including the Mississippi Band of Choctaw, out of millions of dollars.
The scandal was a wake-up call to politicians that many reservations are no longer squalid outposts but potential donation gold mines.
Gambling at tribal-owned casinos has outpaced Las Vegas gaming. In 2006, tribes pulled in $25 billion -- an 11 percent growth over 2005. Gambling revenue nearly doubled between 2001 and 2005.
"The new stereotype of Indians is rich, bronze-skinned Donald Trumps," Wilkins said.
If tribes don´t get involved in federal politics, they´ll lose the power to influence legislation that governs gaming and determines funding tribal programs. If tribes get too involved, it´s inevitable that they´ll be somehow embroiled in scandals that follow big money, Wilkins said.
"My concern is that at some point all this is going to backfire and have negative repercussions in our treaty rights," he said. "People will ask, ´If you´re separate and independent, why are you participating in our politics?´"
Ron Allen is chairman of the Jamestown S´Klallam tribe in Sequim and president of the Washington Indian Gaming Association. He´s also part of McCain´s tribal advisory committee.
McCain has shown his commitment to tribes during his time as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, he said.
"In terms of self-governance, jurisdictional authority and pursuing self-reliance, McCain will be solid," Allen said.
Bush has shelved tribal proposals to build casinos, Allen said. That´s one area where McCain may follow Bush´s lead.
Candidates are expected to make broad promises, said Robinson of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. Obama and McCain have simply made more promises to Indian Country than others.
"The real consequence will be action," he said. "There are a lot of promises being made, and we have to go on faith."
By Krista J. Kapralos, HeraldNet