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Native Obama Supporters Lead Palin Backlash

By Rob Capriccioso

WASHINGTON – Democratic Natives, some of whom have ties to Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign for president, are attacking Gov. Sarah Palin’s record on Indian issues. The charges come at a time of increasing concerns from Obama supporters and advisers that Sen. John McCain’s popular running mate could affect their candidate’s chances with Indian voters.

In an unsigned document widely circulating in Indian country, four main critiques have been levied against the first female Republican vice presidential candidate, including allegations that she has harmed Alaska Native subsistence fishing and hunting; been lukewarm in her support of tribal sovereignty; and that she hasn’t supported Alaska Native languages.

The document, titled “Sarah Palin’s Record on Alaska Native and Tribal Issues,” was partially written by Heather Kendall-Miller, an informal adviser to the Obama campaign in Alaska. She has personally known the senator from Illinois since their days attending Harvard Law School together. Her husband, lawyer Lloyd Miller, co-authored the report, which is based largely on many of the legal cases Kendall-Miller has argued against Palin and the Alaska state government.

“It’s really important to pop [Palin’s] balloon,” Kendall-Miller, a tribal member of the Native Village of Dillingham, told Indian Country Today.

She said she is “very concerned” that Natives who might have voted for Obama could now be swayed by Palin’s entrance into the race.

“That’s exactly why it was so important for us to get the document out. There was such an initial positive response [to Palin], even from Native people in Alaska.”

On the issue of subsistence fishing, the Millers note in the document that Palin has continued pursuing litigation that seeks to overturn “every subsistence fishing determination the federal government has ever made in Alaska.”

“The goal of Palin’s lawsuit is to invalidate all the subsistence fishing regulations the federal government has issued to date to protect Native fishing, and to force the courts instead to take over the roll of setting subsistence regulations,” according to the document. “Palin’s lawsuit seeks to diminish subsistence fishing rights in order to expand sport and commercial fishing.”

On subsistence hunting, the authors state Palin has “sought to invalidate critical determinations the Federal Subsistence Board has made regarding customary and traditional uses of game, specifically to take hunting opportunities away from Native subsistence villagers and thereby enhance sport hunting.”

Regarding tribal sovereignty, the document says Palin has argued that Alaska tribes have little authority to act as sovereign nations, especially in court cases involving the welfare of Native children.

Finally, the document indicates that Palin failed to respect Alaska Native languages and voters by refusing to provide language assistance to Yup’ik speaking Alaska Native voters – until ordered to do so by a federal court earlier this year.

Evon Peter, a former chief of the Neetsaii Gwich’in Tribe from Arctic Village, Alaska, has also made waves as a result of an essay he released on Sept. 8 slamming Palin’s record.

“As Alaska governor, Palin has continued the path of her predecessor [Republican Gov.] Frank Murkowski in challenging attempts by Alaska Native people to regain their human right to their traditional way of life through subsistence,” he wrote.

Peter has quickly become a prominent voice for Alaska Natives who have expressed concerns on Palin’s support for energy development, including drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He noted in his essay that there is a connection between oil development and global warming, “which is wreaking havoc on Alaska Native villages, forcing some to begin the process of relocation at a cost sure to reach into the hundreds of millions.”

Peter, who said he plans to vote for Obama, told ICT that he’s worried American Indians may not delve deeply enough into Palin’s record when it comes to making an informed decision on who to vote for this fall.

Before Palin became McCain’s running mate, many political observers had expected that Obama would do well with Indian voters, especially considering his strong outreach to tribes during the election thus far.

Some Republican Natives have been quick to point to the fact that the governor’s husband, Todd Palin, as well as their five children, are of Yup’ik descent; and they are hopeful that these family ties could encourage positive policy developments if the McCain-Palin ticket is elected.

Palin herself campaigned for governor partially on the Native heritage of her family, saying in a letter from 2006 that she “so very much appreciate[s] Alaska’s First People, their proud heritage and diverse cultures so abundant in the communities throughout our state.”

The governor also wrote in the letter that she supported tribal economic development and fishing subsistence issues and believes in teaching traditional culture and languages in schools.

But Peter believes that Palin’s record – and not her past pledges – should be the main focus.

“It’s unfortunate that across America, our communities don’t tend to dig deeper into the actual decisions that different leaders have made in their previous offices. … My hope is that Native American people will be inspired to look into all candidates’ track records on the tribal, state and national level.”

Kendall-Miller said she believes Todd Palin “does not consider himself an Alaska Native,” saying he “is much more akin to seeing himself as a sports hunter.”

“I think [Gov. Palin] is using her husband’s Alaska Native heritage the way she is using her developmentally disabled baby to try to draw people in.”

The exact blood quantum of Todd Palin has not been verified by the McCain campaign, but some reports have indicated he could be as much as one-quarter Yup’ik.

Another issue raising ire for some Natives is that fact that Todd Palin worked for the British Petroleum oil company.

Despite the many critiques centered on Todd Palin, his mother, Blanche Palin, is respected by many Alaska Natives, and once served as secretary of the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Palin’s gubernatorial and vice presidential spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment on issues being raised by Natives about her record and family.

Don Bremner, a Tlingit tribal member, is one of the many Alaska Natives who are concerned that Palin’s familial connections could lead some Indian voters who would have normally voted for Obama to vote for the McCain ticket.

“It’s fine to call yourself Alaska Native and say you support Alaska Native issues,” said Bremner, an Obama supporter. “But there are things that go along with being Alaska Native – meaning you support the culture, you support the language, you support our hunting and fishing ways of life.

“Her administration hasn’t done any of that.”

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