Group targets Indian voters


Herald Writer

TULALIP — Maureen Hoban said she’s lived on the Tulalip Indian Reservation for many years, but she saw something during this last election she hasn’t seen before.

"There were young tribal members waving voting signs on the sidewalks," said Hoban, who is not a Tulalip.

"They not only were voting themselves, they were getting others out to vote," Hoban said. "That’s a first."

Hoban, like others, attributes the increasing political interest among Tulalips partly to the campaign of John McCoy, a tribal member who ran for state Legislature, but was not elected.

But also, she, like others, sees it as a sign of success of the efforts of a nonprofit group of tribal members that recently formed to educate the public about American Indian issues. And to encourage tribal members to get involved in the political process.

The group is called the First American Education Project. And according to a preliminary analysis of voter registration and turnout among the state’s American Indians, those efforts have paid off.

In precincts that are predominantly Indian, more than 4,650 new people registered to vote for the last election and 69.9 percent of registered voters in those precincts made it to the polls, based on data from the county auditor’s offices, said Russ Lehman, managing director of the education project.

The educational agency is a nonprofit, nonpartisan corporation first formed by tribal members in Washington state in 1999. Members of the Olympia-based group now come from 45 tribes from throughout the country, Lehman said.

"We formed to educate the public on issues of interest to Indian people," Lehman said. "And a part of that was to use (Sen.) Slade Gorton to do that for us."

McCoy, the Tulalips’ executive director of governmental affairs, said Gorton was singled out because of longstanding differences with tribes over their sovereign status and on environmental issues that affect tribes.

Gorton did not return calls for comment.

Although the group has branched out from its focus on Gorton, it hopes to educate the public on similar Indian issues.

"Indian voters care about pretty much the same things as other voters: the environment, education, health care," Lehman said.

"But they also have unique issues, like the right to self-governance that they were given by treaty hundreds of years ago," he said.

The group has worked to further its goals in many ways: through public forums, a recent "sovereign rally" at the University of Washington, and even running television ads during the recent election espousing its opposition to Gorton’s views.

The group plans to hold an educational seminar for state legislators in the first week of January, McCoy said, "a kind of Indian Law 101."

But of all the group’s activities, Lehman said the most exciting part of the project has been seeing Indians become more involved in the political process.

"We see individuals voting and working on campaigns and running for office," he said, adding that six American Indians were newly elected to office in Montana in the last election, as were several others in Oklahoma.

American Indians "are acting as full participants in the process. It’s exciting," he said.

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