The Native Voice: Bits of Blog from the Obama Campaign Trail

obamatravelingpress  1891Saturday, May 17, 2008

This morning started early, with bright, warm sunshine in Portland, Oregon. Sunday morning is no time to relax if you are on the campaign trail with Barack Obama. The bus headed out of town, over the river and into the suburbs, accompanied all the way by the ever-present police escort. Being “on the campaign” means being swept by secret Service every morning, and being inside the motorcade on the road all day.

A short trip on the interstate and then winding through roads, thick trees on either side. The campaign trail is definitely off the main highways, into the smaller towns and county fairs of the countryside. Yesterday was an ice cream stop, in the small town near Rosedale, as a treat to locals and traveling staff. The press crammed into this small store, sandwiched behind the the counter to get the angle, to tell the story. Michelle and Barack Obama enter the store, and act casual, greeting the people gathered on the sidewalk as they come in, then shaking hands all around inside the store. A studied casualness, ordering ice cream, tasting flavors, playing with a friend’s baby, paying at the cash register even though the owner says its on the house. Barack says, “I insist,” and pulls out his wallet to pay for ice cream he’s ordered for his wife, friends and staff in the room.

The traveling press can not help but be aware of the star magnitude of Barack. A lot of discussion and analysis goes on about the details the people who wait in line in the wee hours of the morning to get a seat at the rally, the personality and presentation of Obama, the boring repetition of the events “Yeah it was a good speech, that one is always good,” and endless comparison between the candidates and campaigns. Many of the traveling press have been on both the Hillary and the Barack road shows, and some have even worked on the McCain campaign trail. These people live with the campaigns day in and day out. They get to know the candidates in a way that is unusual – they are in close proximity every day on the trail – on the plane, at the events…. but they are kept enough at a distance to keep their cool, their journalistic resolve of neutrality. And then, some of them don’t. Whispers are made, one to the other, “I know as a journalist I am supposed to be impartial, but… wow.” One writer, a bureau chief for a major metropolitan newspaper, insists that it is all the same to him. He doesn’t “believe the hype” and is certain that the public is being duped, stating, “Hope is the opiate of the masses.” On the other end of the spectrum, a reporter for a major cable news station states confidentially that “Barack is the REAL DEAL man,” and he tears up about the life-shifting experience this campaign has been for him.

We arrived at the Iris Festival of Kaizer in the afternoon. Billed as a “county fair,” this festival was carnival rides and food stands nestled on pavement between a Best Western hotel one one side and a bank on the corner. Unusually hot for Oregon in May, the temperature crept over 90 degrees as everyone waited for Obama to “finish a conference call.” Obama emerged from the big black bus and started to work the line, shaking hands and smiling. One woman on the line broke down sobbing as Barack greeted her. Shaking visibly, she placed her hand over her mouth. He offers to take a photo with her, and she and her friends surround the senator, all smiling, wiping their eyes. This is a familiar scene here on the campaign trail. Shrieking fans, women (and men) breaking down in tears. And it is not limited to the young and the hip. The crowds are mixed with people of all ages. Yesterday an elderly white woman in a wheel chair looked up at Obama with sparkling eyes and he spent several minutes with her. Exactly what they talked about we couldn’t hear, but it made for a good photo opportunity. Michelle was right behind him, and also leaned in to greet the woman as her family snapped photos and said, “That’s my grandma!”

The difficult thing was trying to get even one shot off. Outside, working a crowd, with moveable structures of all shapes and sizes, this stop presented a security nightmare. It therefore also provided a challenge to the press trying to get photographs. Surrounded by protection, pressing fans, secret service and personal body guards, it became very difficult to find a space in the narrow aisles to get any real work done. I ended up walking next to Michelle Obama at one point, and she extended her hand to introduce herself, we exchanged a few words and then were swept up in the flow of people moving quickly to the next greeting point.

Later in the day, we headed back to Portland and got time to relax and enjoy the evening.

Sunday, May 18, Portland and Pendleton, Oregon

It’s back on the bus, but the destination wasn’t far.. .just down the road to the waterfront, where a surprise record crowd of over 80,000 awaited us. People as far as the eye could see. The air prickled with energy as Obama took to the stage and the crowd roared to life. Deafening. I spotted a group of Native people in the crowd, and after Obama left the stage, the press photographers used the stage as a vantage point. I pointed at the group as they were holding hand drums aloft as a message in a sea of people. They waved and yelled and made “O for Obama” signs with their hands.

This crowd surpassed all records set in the 2008 presidential campaign cycle, and was more than double the size of the largest Obama rally to date. Faces of all ages, and a spectrum of races and ethnicities were represented in the record-breaking crowd.

Once we got back on the busses, we headed to the airport to board the Obama plane once again, moving from urban Portland to the more isolated area of Pendleton. A quick “wheels up” and soon we were descending through the clouds to see beautiful green and multicolored rolling hills as we came in for a landing and another campaign stop.

This was a high school gymnasium “Town Hall” meeting, and Obama gave a shout out to the Umatilla Tribe of Umpqua Indians as part of his welcoming introduction. His speech mentioned Native Americans as part of “all Americans,” and he continued his message of unity and hope for the country at large.

Interesting thing is, I interviewed a few Native people in the crowd, and they did not stress any Indian affairs issues as their primary concerns. They are concerned with the same issues as the average American. The answer to my question of “What is the most important issue for you?” was “The war in Iraq.” The second answer was, “The economy.” These people are feeling a part of the larger society and a young Umatilla man even said, “This is not about Native America, it is about America, as one.” And then he started listing other ethnic groups as “Being in it together, as one.” Whether this message is coming from the internet, the Obama campaign…or is just a new relationship that the Native youth have with the larger world because of the increased media and technological access to a global community is yet to be seen. But it was interesting, to be sure. When I asked their grandmother her most important issue, she answered that she was “Concerned with the youth, that they get focused on something, on anything.”

Maybe it is this spoken message by Obama that is changing the relational understanding that the Native youth are having with the rest of the world. This is a new phenomenon. Past elections have seen native people either not participating, or saying “What is this person going to do for me, for my issues, for my community?” Maybe it is a regional difference, but this definitely reflects a shift in the issues Indian people care about.

Obama stated in his speech here, “There’s been a tragic relationship between the US government and tribes around this country. It is important that we have a government that respects the government-to-government relationships with tribes…. So many Native American children are not getting what they need in order to succeed. We need to be a better partner…. The BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) is an example of one the bureaucracies that needs to get out of Washington… ”

Monday, May 19, Billings and Crow Agency, Montana

The day on the campaign trail started off with a trip to a high school in Billings, Montana where Sen. Barack Obama gave a speech focusing on national and foreign policy. Afterwards, he held a town hall-style meeting and took questions from the crowd. Obama called on a young Native man, who asked what he would do to help “Indian Country and the tribes” with a host of different issues.

Obama spoke for over three minutes on a variety of issues, including honoring treaties, respecting tribal sovereignty and the government-to-government relationship, and fixing the Indian health system. He also expressed his support for a bill to create a National Native American Heritage Day, slated to be the day after Thanksgiving. The goals of the initiative include working with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian to develop and distribute Native curriculum to public schools nationwide.

Next on the schedule was a trip to Crow Agency, on the Crow Reservation, where representatives from seven Montana tribes and other visiting tribal leaders gathered for an outdoor rally at the Apsaalooke Veterans Park near the Little Bighorn Battlefield. The Crow Game, Fish and Parks Department estimated the total attendance to be over 4,000 people, including tribal members and others from surrounding communities.

Obama was introduced by Robert Old Horn and the Black Eagle family, who had held an adoption ceremony for the candidate, giving him the family name “Obama Black Eagle,” and a Crow name that translates to “One who helps all the people across the land.”

Crow Tribe Chairman Carl Venne introduced Obama, presenting him with gifts for his “wives and daughters.” “I only actually have one wife,” Obama joked. “I can come home with more family, but not with more wives.” The crowd laughed and a few people shouted out, “We love you, Obama!”

After thanking the tribe for the gifts, Obama reflected on the historic wrongs inflicted on Indian Country by the United States. He stated that he would insist that the federal government would honor treaty obligations, uphold the sovereign relationship, fix the inefficient Bureau of Indian Affairs, fully fund the Indian Health Service and investigate and fix the broken trust fund. Obama said he would not treat tribes as a singular entity, noting that “One size, one fix does not fit all” when it comes to tribal issues.

He ended his speech with a promise to return to Crow country and a recognition of the responsibility that came along with his adoption into the tribe. “I am a member of the family now,” he said.

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