Carson Walker of the Associated Press has a major story on the Indian vote in South Dakota and John Thune's aggressive campaigning on the reservations (Thune was also at a major pow-wow last weekend) entitled "GOP eyes American Indian vote in traditional Democratic stronghold." Literally read the whole thing:
PINE RIDGE, S.D. - Bruce Whalen is a college student who speaks his beliefs with conviction, but his message aims to turn the political status quo on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on its head.
The Pine Ridge man's mission is to persuade people to do something they don't do here: vote Republican.
In nearby Kyle, Karlene Hunter has the confidence of someone who's had to fight for what she has. Hunter, last year's National Indian Businesswoman of the Year, dresses casually but carries herself with a Wall Street professionalism as she runs the Lakota Fund, which makes business loans to Indians.
She's part of the traditional Democratic base on this reservation, typically among the poorest areas of the nation.
And those Democrats came through in 2002.
In that year's U.S. Senate race, Shannon County voters overwhelmingly favored the Democrat, Sen. Tim Johnson, 2,856 to 248 over former U.S. Rep. John Thune. Statewide, Johnson won by a scant 524 votes.
But Shannon County's votes weren't in until about 12 hours after the polls closed, and they tipped the balance to Johnson.
Indian voter turnout in 2002 was 20 percent above average, the Secretary of State's Office said. Reservation county registrations rose by 4,000 voters after an intensive voter registration drive coordinated by tribal groups and the Democratic party.
Shannon County wasn't the only reason Thune lost, but it was symbolic of the future.
Thune said he didn't ignore Indian country in 2002 but didn't spend enough time there, either. This year will be different, said Thune, who is challenging Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle.
Thune said many Indian leaders are open to helping him. "They're looking me in the eye and saying, 'You were the wrong man at the wrong time but it's different this time.'
"The argument I make to them is, you've had 26 years of Tom Daschle and what has improved? Are your lives really any better? You still have high unemployment, high poverty, addiction and mortality rates that exceed national levels."
Daschle, a three-term senator, agreed Indians will play a big role in this year's Senate race. But he said the question is, who will best represent them for the long term and help with health care, trust reform, law enforcement, infrastructure and housing.
Just showing up on the reservations isn't enough, Daschle said.
"I don't think Native Americans are going to be satisfied with lip service. I think they're going to want to see some results."
Hunter, a Daschle supporter, said more people are taking Indians seriously.
"Other politicians have totally ignored us. Now that they can see we can get out there and rally the troops, I hope more politicians see us as a county," Hunter said, referring to Shannon County's voting power.
Whalen, 41, grew up in Pine Ridge, moved to Utah as a teen, and returned to South Dakota to raise his family and try to build a career. He's one semester away from a business degree.
In Utah, Whalen said he realized the Republican Party more closely mirrored his traditional Lakota values than the Democratic Party: respect for life, limited government, sovereignty and local control.
Whalen believes government-funded programs and tribal politics that dole out the money are the root of the reservation's poverty, alcoholism, abuse and other problems.
"I see how the social programs are devastating the people around here," he said during a recent break from classes at Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota College. "The Democrats are hurting us.
"I think John (Thune) is looking for a genuine relationship with us without trying to steal," said Whalen, Shannon County's GOP chairman.
Hunter's office is in the Lakota Trade Center, the only two-story business building in Kyle. She sees a fledgling private enterprise system that can flourish, keep young people from leaving and ease the social challenges. To her, developing businesses on the reservation must be done hand in hand with the social programs that Indians are entitled to under agreements with the U.S. government.
"You need to keep the social structure but encourage business as you go," she said.
"You can't just throw everything out and say, 'Have at it,'" said Hunter, who also owns and operates Lakota Express, a direct marketing, customer service and Web design company.
Though Indians in South Dakota traditionally vote Democratic, Thune's campaign has picked up some well-known support.
Indian activist-turned-politician Russell Means is campaigning for Thune and telling Indians the virtues of becoming truly sovereign and free from government rule.
The Democratic Party helped establish a system that makes Indians beholden to the federal government, and Daschle helped create such an environment, Means said.
"I mean it's pure communism and it's an abject failure. Just like it was in the Soviet Union. It's failure. You've created a dictatorship by the Bureau of Indian Affairs," he said.
Daschle said people on reservations would like to be on their own, but that's not possible without help. Treaty obligations require the government to provide health care, education and housing, he said.
"We have Third World conditions," Daschle said. "Those treaty obligations ought to be respected and fulfilled."
Whalen, meanwhile, said he is pleasantly surprised at how Republicans have accepted him. During January's GOP State Central Committee meeting in Sioux Falls at which the party chose a U.S. House candidate, he got a standing ovation.
"That says to me inclusion," Whalen said.