DENVER - Record numbers of American Indians won elections to be delegates at the Democratic National Convention, which began Monday.
Many of the delegates, plus other tribal leaders, gathered Monday for the first of two First Americans Caucus meetings this week. Colorado attendees included Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Ernest House Sr. and Vice-chairman Gary Hayes. Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley also was in the crowd.
Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, rallied the crowd of more than 100 and said their communities will be crucial in electing Barack Obama.
"It is time to assume your rightful place in the political system of this country," Dean said.
Four or five Democratic senators owe their elections to Indian Country votes, Dean said.
Dean attacked Republican candidate John McCain, who led the Senate's Indian Affairs Committee, for his treatment of Eloise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in a multibillion-dollar Indian lawsuit against the federal government.
"He treated her like dirt. It was a disgrace. There's going to be a big difference between a John McCain presidency and a Barack Obama presidency for Indian Country," Dean said.
American Indians make up 2.5 percent of the convention's 4,440 delegates, said Alice Travis-Germond, secretary of the Democratic National Committee. That's a record and a 45 percent increase in the number of Indian delegates compared to the 2004 convention, she said.
Obama's Indian Country platform calls for re-examining the "jurisdictional maze" that keeps tribes from prosecuting major crimes on their reservations. He also pledges to call an annual summit for tribal leaders.
Obama's campaign hired Wizi Garriott to lead its organizing effort in Indian Country. Garriott said that recent polls show Obama and McCain neck-and-neck in several states, including Colorado.
"If we're going to win in some of these battleground states, the margin of victory may come down to Indian votes," he said.
The campaign does not yet have an organizer in Colorado dedicated to the Indian vote.
"But we'll be ramping our efforts up. It's an important battleground state," Garriott said.
The effort will target both Denver's urban Indians and the two Ute reservations, he said.
But it's a challenge to get Indians to register and vote, he said. Registration rates in Indian Country lag 20 percent to 30 percent compared to the country as a whole, Garriott said.