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Where Native Americans May Decide U.S. Midterm Elections

While elsewhere the 'Obama factor' may hurt Democrats, in South Dakota the Sioux tribe may tip the scales in the president's favor as control of the U.S. Senate hangs in the balance.

On the campaign trail
On the campaign trail
Paolo Mastrolilli

WOUNDED KNEE — Instead of calling in the cavalry, South Dakota Democrats will be depending on the Sioux to avoid an electoral massacre in the midterms. Of all places, the battleground is here on the Indian reserve around Wounded Knee, where many tribes were victims of slaughter in the futile war against the U.S. Army.

Yet now, the Sioux and their forgotten frontier are the last hope for President Barack Obama's shaky majority in the Senate.

The Nov. 4 midterm elections will determine who controls the House of Representatives, and it's possible the GOP could win majorities in both houses of Congress. It now controls only the House. To win the Senate, the Republicans would have to take six seats from the Democrats and not lose any they have already.

And in South Dakota, a key Senate seat is up for grabs, after Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson decided to retire following a stroke. Running to replace Johnson are three candidates: Republican Mike Rounds, who is leading the polls, former Republican Larry Pressler, who is trying to take away Republican votes as an independent, and Democrat Rick Weiland.

The Native Americans account for just 1% of the total U.S. population and, in general, political parties ignore them. But in South Dakota, they make up 9% of the population and could wind up being the deciding factor — as they had been a loyal voting bloc for Johnson and Democrats generally.

Obama himself forged a relationship with the tribes, proposing to end their disputes with a total compensation of about $3 billion, and he's now hoping the votes will swing his party's way.

It's a historical irony that this is all taking place in the badlands, a place where legendary Sioux chiefs such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Red Cloud reigned. In 1862, war broke out after the government delayed payments due under a signed agreement. When the Indians were left without money to buy food, trader Andrew Myrick teased them saying, "If you are hungry, eat the grass."

The American Indian wars began in 1876, during which time the bloody defeat of General Custer at Little Bighorn took place. But by 1890, the Sioux were in retreat, and the Dec. 29 massacre in Wounded Knee that killed as many as 300 tribe members, including many women and children, is still a source of bitterness.

Historic lands

Today there's just a metal sign in the grassy basin of Wounded Knee to remember the massacre, with a few Indians nearby selling dreamcatchers for a couple of dollars. The field where the massacre took place is part of the Pine Ridge Reservation, where more than 50% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Bryan Brewer, president of the Oglala Sioux tribe, welcomed me into his office, sharing both a smile and a complaint. "It's been more than a century, but the United States still continues to discriminate against us," he says. "They don't honor the treaties signed with us, so we have decided to turn to arbitration now."

But Brewer doesn't mind Obama. "If it were up to him, he would respect the agreements. But the power of this matter is in the hands of Congress, which has not respected us," he says. "For example, the money owed to the Indians under the treaties are considered discretionary spending in the budget, and every year we have to re-examine them."

The local tribe leader criticizes Republicans for not only blocking funding, but also trying to suppress the vote of the Native American tribes. "In many Indian communities, polling stations are located 20 or 30 miles away, so many people don't end up going. We would like to be able to vote by mail, or have satellite seats, but they are opposed to that," Brewer says. "Doesn't the law say that all citizens are created equal? What happened to the principle of one person, one vote? This calls the legitimacy of democracy into question."

Stop the pipeline

But there is another reason now that the Sioux are angry, and it has to do with their traditions of protecting the environment, and in particular the land they see as something inherited from their ancestors. It is the proposed construction of the Keystone pipeline, which would transport oil from western Canada down to Texas.

Brewer explains that the Sioux's opposition is not just to protect the spirits of their ancestors. "We receive water from Missouri through an aqueduct that the pipeline would cross at three different points," Brewer says. "These pipes will have leaks that would contaminate our water supply, and we need to protect it."

Obama has not yet decided whether to authorize construction of the final section of Keystone that the Native American tribes are opposed to. "He doesn't want to say no because it would block certain interests, but he doesn't want to say yes either because it would destroy his legacy as an environmental president," says Brewer. "So the choice will pass down to the next administration."

Democratic candidate Rick Weiland has already declared his opposition to the pipeline, and this has earned him support from the Sioux. "We have been campaigning door-to-door for him," Brewer says. "In Pine Ridge, there are 11,000 voters, so we really could make a difference. Seven years ago Johnson won by just 500 votes."

If it doesn't go the way they want and the Republicans do end up taking the majority in the Senate, as well as the House of Representatives, the Sioux have already prepared a strategy in response. "Resistance. Peaceful but absolute. I'll put my moccasins on the ground to stop the pipeline, and the rest of the tribe will follow me."

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Photo of women walking in Ecuador

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