Friday, July 11, 2008

Strength of the Native American Voting Bloc

Below is an article by Rebecca Ford, from the New Mexico Independent, that focuses on the mobilization of Native American voters in Albuquerque. This is a great article that commends the work of our friends from SAGE Council.

SAGE Council is doing amazing work in the Native American community, and we thank them for empowering Native American voice.

Vying for Native American Votes

By Rebecca Ford 07/10/2008 158 Views -->
ALBUQUERQUE -- Native American voters, often treated as an afterthought in presidential elections, are receiving an unprecedented amount of attention from both presidential candidates this year in the battleground state of New Mexico.

It's a development nearly two decades in the making in which a handful of Albuquerque–based activists have been working to create a well-organized and powerful Native American voice.

Today, with 63,000 registered voters, according to the Secretary of State’s Office, Native Americans may well be the swing constituency in one of the most politically volatile states in the country.

The Sacred Alliance for Grassroots Equality (SAGE) Council, founded in 1996 by brother and sister Sonny and Laurie Weahkee, was formed to protest the construction of a road through the Petroglyph National Monument on Albuquerque's fast-growing westside. The city planned to build the road through the site, considered sacred to all of the state's pueblos, in order to ease traffic congestion for many commuters.

“A lot of people don’t realize that there’s not really a separation between the earth and the way we practice our cultures and our traditions,” said Sonny Weahkee. The petroglyphs, some of which are over 3,000 years old according to park officials, are still used for religious ceremonies by some tribes today.

The Weahkees and their fellow activists did everything they could to stop the road from being built: collected signed petitions, spoke out at council meetings, and tried to block funding for the construction. Sonny and Laurie were even arrested, along with five other SAGE Council members, when they tried to physically stand in the way of the construction of the road.

“At that time, we started to realize that the City of Albuquerque wasn’t going to move, no matter how many people we packed into the city council office,” said Sonny Weahkee, a Cochiti and Zuni Pueblo member. “They were never ever going to vote on our side.”

The road was built in 2005. While the SAGE Council lost that battle, they learned an important lesson: in order for their voice to be heard, they had to mobilize the Native American vote.

“If we stand together and vote together on whatever issue, we can start to gain some momentum and start turning people's heads,” said Sonny Weahkee.

The SAGE Council created the Native American Voters Alliance, a network of Native Americans living in Albuquerque and rural areas of New Mexico. They registered voters at office buildings, and at the Albuquerque Indian Center. There would be long lines of Native Americans, many of whom had never before been asked to register. The Native American Voters Alliance went from a handful of members to over 6,700 participants.

“The SAGE Council has probably done more for registering Native American voters, identifying registered Native American voters, keeping tabs on them, educating them on important issues, and making sure they get out to vote than any other group,” said Laura Harris, executive director of Americans for Indian Opportunity, an Albuquerque-based group which encourages Native American leadership.

The SAGE Council tries to contact their thousands of members seven times before an election to educate them on what they deem issues important to Native Americans, and then encourage them to vote.

This year, Laurie Weahkee became one of only four Native American superdelegates to the Democratic National Convention in Denver. She endorsed presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama in May.

“He seems to be a lot more interested on root causes of things rather than a band-aid approach,” said Laurie Weahkee.

She adds that the Native American vote is strong enough to make a real difference this year in a state that could be won or lost by hundreds of votes.

“The Native American vote is really critical,” said Laurie Weahkee. “I think it’s even more important as Native people that we really are studying the different current issues and who is speaking to those particular platforms or solutions and then from there choosing our candidates.”
Weahkee also encourages Native people to become involved in politics at any level. While New Mexico has yet to have a Native American member of Congress, there have been several Native politicians in local and state government positions.

“I see a lot more Native people participating and willing to get more involved at the local level, which I think then translates to participating in the electoral process on a larger statewide and federal level,” she said.

An army of activists

Many of the participants from the SAGE Council went on to establish and work for other Native American activists groups in New Mexico. Their efforts to mobilize the Native American vote come with their own distinct set of challenges.

Amber Carillo, who joined the SAGE Council at its birth, went on to work for the All Indian Pueblo Council, which represents 19 pueblos in New Mexico. She continues to actively pursue registering new Native American voters and encouraging those who are registered to go out to vote.

“It’s important to me to really emphasize that having Native folks participate in the decisions that impact them on a daily basis is really the core of what they need to embrace,” said Carillo, who is a board member of the SAGE Council. “There is a great deal of power that we can garner and the was can use.”

There are unique obstacles to registering Native Americans, Carillo added, as many tribal members feel that participating in the federal system can jeopardize their own way of life.

“What I always want to emphasize is that we don’t have to compromise the integrity of our traditions in order to participate,” said Carillo. “I think that if we understand and embrace certain aspects of the American political system that we could actually strengthen where we’re at in terms of preserving who we are.”

Keegan King, who also worked with the SAGE Council and is now director of New Mexico Youth Organized, a group that aims to engage young people in the political process, agreed that Native Americans can be disengaged from politics.

“To Native folks, if we’re working in a rural area or on a reservation there are a lot of times when you find people that say, ‘Why should I get involved? We have our own tribal elections,’” said King. “We’re not living in a bubble. We can retain our traditions but we also need to learn and adapt to our neighbors.”

King, a member of Acoma Pueblo, said he has seen a real increase in voter participation in the Native American community, but also feels there is still a long way to go.

“It’s about our Native people ready to take that step and really start investing in the system that hasn’t always worked for us," King said. "But [it] can if we get involved,”

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Governor Asking for Your Ideas

from the Albuquerque Journal

Got Any Ideas for Expo? Speak Up!
AlbuquerqueJournal-->By Jeff JonesJournal Staff Writer

Gov. Bill Richardson, who envisions a dramatic revamp of the state fairgrounds in Albuquerque, wants to know what developers, businesses, architects and anyone else who's interested have in mind.

The options, including moving the fairgrounds elsewhere, seem to be wide open.

The state on Monday issued a written “request for information” on ideas for the future of the 237-acre Expo New Mexico grounds on Central Avenue. And the state is continuing to explore a public-private partnership to make big changes on the valuable chunk of central Albuquerque real estate.

Richardson earlier this year made headlines when he announced the partnership possibility and tossed out the idea of replacing the aging Tingley Coliseum and the Downs at Albuquerque horse track with a new “world-class” exhibit center.

Some of the other possibilities in the new request for information are also likely to spark conversation.

“Expo New Mexico grounds are large enough and located in an area that lends itself to any number of possible uses, including but by no means limited to a year-round theme park, commercial, residential and/or retail development, an equestrian center, land leases, a state office campus for the Albuquerque area, expansion of the flea market, etc.,” the request says.

The request also says the state is seeking ideas for keeping the fair “as an integral part of the new development” as well as a “development with the state fair moved to an alternate location.”

The potential exhibit center, convention facilities, green space and “destination retail” are also mentioned in the request.

The request for ideas is not a formal request seeking bids on an Expo revamp, and the state is not paying anything for the ideas it generates — though Richardson spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said the ideas could eventually be incorporated into a bid request.

A meeting for anyone wishing to give their two cents' worth is set to take place 10 a.m. July 18 on the Expo grounds, and responses must be submitted to the state by Aug. 15.

“If there's something we need from the Legislature, we'd like to get it to them by the next session,” Gallegos said of the potential state involvement in an Expo makeover.

Richardson in May announced that he had directed state Finance Secretary Katherine Miller and Expo General Manager Judith Espinosa to hammer out a proposal for a public-private partnership to revamp the aging fairgrounds, which for years has been a major money pit for repair and maintenance work.

The order came after the state Racing Commission approved a request by the Downs to move its track and casino operations to a new site in Moriarty. At the time, Gallegos said moving the track would strip about $2 million a year from Expo's $15.7 million budget.

Gallegos has said Richardson preferred keeping the fair on the Expo grounds, though the new request for information leaves a move elsewhere as one option.

Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chávez would like to see the fair moved to the developing Mesa del Sol area south of Albuquerque.

It wasn't immediately clear whether a new exhibit center would conflict in any way with Chávez's plans to bring a new arena and hotel project to Downtown Albuquerque, though the new request for information appears to refer to the other project at one point:

It mentions “keeping in mind other similarly planned projects in the Albuquerque metro area.”

A message left for Chávez on Monday afternoon wasn't immediately returned, though one city official has said Richardson appears to be supportive of the Downtown plans.