Panelists Strive to Empower Native Americans

Aug 15th, 2002 | By | Category: 14-1: Honoring Our Students, Tribal College News
By Tom Katus

Several activists associated with tribal colleges and universities provided a series of workshops on “Empowering Native Americans by Training Grassroots Organizers” at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) Annual Conference, March 25-26, 2002, in Rapid City, SD. The workshops dealt with various issues related to political organizing, including voter registration and coalition building.

Bruce Miller of the Midwest States Center in Prairie Farms, WI, stressed how non-Indian progressive coalitions could expand the influence of Native Americans. After helping to organize non-partisan, multi-issue, progressive coalitions in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, Miller said he is very willing to assist with similar coalitions in other states. He said, “We’ve had a lot of experience losing. We need to learn how to win.”

On the same panel, Paul Robertson, chairman of the Department of Human Resources at OLC, provided examples of tribal college students’ involvement with progressive coalitions. Some years ago the CIA (Cowboy Indian Alliance), a loose knit group of tribal college students, traditional leaders, non-Indian ranchers, and environmentalists, was very successful in forcing the Honeywell Corporation to give up on a bombing range they had proposed for the southern Black Hills.

Speakers at several workshops referred to the “Montana model” for increasing political involvement. For the past decade the seven tribal colleges in Montana and the organization Native Action have coordinated their efforts on non-partisan voter registration and education. While Native Action and the colleges are careful to keep their efforts totally non-partisan, as is required by law, their efforts have had dramatic impact. In 1992, more than 7,000 new Native American voters were registered in Montana and turned out at a record 79%. This resulted in President Bill Clinton carrying the state 38% to George Bush’s 35%, with a sizeable 26% to Ross Perot. Five percent of Clinton’s vote came from the reservations. The Indian vote clearly was key to the re-election of U.S. Rep. Pat Williams (D), who won a squeaker election in that year with 50% of the vote.

In 2000, a record number of Native Americans were elected to the Montana State Legislature, including two women formerly affiliated with tribal colleges, Carol Juneau and Norma Bixby.

As a result of the workshops, 20 tribal college students and faculty volunteered to be grass roots organizers in their respective states. These names have all been forwarded to the party of the participant’s choice for follow-up involvement in 2002 general election. Paul Robertson outlined the Grass Roots Organizing 101 course he plans to offer at Oglala Lakota College this fall. Anyone interested in replicating a similar course at a tribal college can contact him at <>.

Tom Katus, director of the Rural Ethnic Institute, has served as a consultant to a number of the tribal colleges and AIHEC. For more information, email him at <>.

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