Democracy swings

Nevada’s sovereign nations Jan. 19 held their first-ever presidential caucuses on reservations from Reno and Pyramid Lake to Schurz and Yomba. Gathering and encircling to encourage dialogue, make critical decisions and iron-out differences is nothing new in the Washo, Paiute and Shoshone cultures. Caucus day was not only historic, but the word caucus originates in Algonquin Indian culture. Northern Nevada’s Native American population asserted its presence with a total of 12 reservation-based caucuses, selecting 52 delegates.

At Natchez Elementary School in Wadsworth—Precinct 7412—democracy was in full swing.

Tracey Wells was swiftly chosen chair of the proceedings. On the heels of high-profile appearances by presidential candidates in Nevada, Wells was quick to say who will get her vote in November.

“I’m backing Barack Obama,” she said. “I think the hot-button issues are pretty universal in the United States—getting out of the war, we’re in a recession. It affects all of us. I can’t speak for everybody, but that’s my issue. We need to get out of the war, get involved in places that we’re needed, like Darfur.”

Across the room, Alida Bigpond, who supported John Kerry in the last election, said she’s willing to be a delegate to the county Democratic convention.

“I think it’s important that [my children] know the government, the issues,” she said. “That’s why we’re here now. I’ve never been to a caucus, so I thought this is pretty good to do with [my daughter].”

Looking at another table with three women wearing bright yellow T-shirts for Clinton, Bigpond, 49, noted that many of the Native women elders are “all for Hillary. My mom was on the phone early this morning, trying to change my mind. I think Obama, being a minority, understands what the minority’s going through. He talks a lot about health issues and broken treaties. He wants to make sure that the government lives up to what they promised us, years ago, such as our housing. Yeah, we have nice housing here, but a lot of different reservations don’t. I’ll stick with [Obama]. It’s time for a change.”

As he quietly observed Obama supporters trying to persuade Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards supporters to join them, Pyramid Lake Paiute tribal member Lyle Kochamp, 26, said that part of the caucus made him feel a little compartmentalized.

“I don’t know yet,” said Kochamp. “I’ll just hold out and see where it goes, so you know where your vote really does count. I never did like to follow. I always liked to sit back and do my own thing. You never know.”

Kochamp said he’ll support the candidate who will retain and restore vital hunting and fishing rights on tribal lands.

“Whoever’s got anything good going for Native Americans, who will stand up and fight, and take a stand for what really should be stood up for, I’ll vote for them. We need a change. It’s a chance to make history, at least.”

Osage Indian Louis Gray of Oklahoma works for the Indigenous Democratic Network (INDN), a group that helps Native nations maintain a voice in mainstream American politics. After the Nevada caucus ended, he said that in the 2004 elections, Native voters from Pyramid Lake had to go to Reno to participate, said Gray, recalling his frustration in creating caucus sites within their own precincts.

“Guess what? No one showed up. The only people that did show up were non-Indian residents from this area, so they represented this area, which is not true representation. It’s not that I was against white people being delegates up in Sutcliffe, I just thought since it’s an Indian community, they should have Indian representation. That was a huge disappointment for me.”

Dialogue, action and participation are important in rallying voters, Gray said, mindful of the vote’s power as a path to retaining sovereign status for American Indians. He called the ‘08 caucuses an “overwhelming success” for tribes.

“It’s an important, historic time, because it’s so early on in the process. They’re going to have a real say in who’s going to be president.”