CONCORD — The General stood in next to an old carved out tree trunk, used to float on the waters, directly in front of a six-by-eight-foot wigwam. A circle of stones sat in the center, with kindling already piled up for that evening’s light and cooking. The Chief of the Abenaki Nation, emissary of the People of the Dawnland, presented the general with a wampum belt to signify “peace and alliance,” and he swore he would treasure it always.
“The Abenaki has suffered war and genocide, but that is behind us,” a representative of the tribe said. “We come here today to renew an alliance against injustice. There is suppression of our people’s ethnic rights and aspirations by those in power who needlessly fear our constitutional rights as Indians. But today the future seems bright.”
Abenaki Chief April Rushlow then endorsed General Wesley Clark’s bid for the Democratic nomination. Moments later Clark turned with a winning smile and held the wampum belt up at just the right angle as 100 camera flashes blinded pilgrim and Indian alike. This wasn’t the Trail of Tears. It was merely another photo op: New Hampshire primary 2004. The background was a display at the Museum of New Hampshire History. The wigwam, the canoe, the arrowheads were all props.
The Abenaki aren’t recognized as a tribe either federally or at the state level. “We don’t look like the standard Indian,” their spokesman Frederick Wiseman said. “We don’t live in the standard Indian space.” Actually, they looked liked members of my extended family. I almost asked why they didn’t just join the Irish Nation, or the Italian Nation, or, for that matter, the American Nation. They’d fit right in.
But then they would miss out on the advantages of becoming a federally recognized tribe: tax breaks, casinos, and affirmative action scholarships. This is the bounty we celebrate, symbolically, during Thanksgiving every year. You know, the Mayflower crowd arrived here without any blackjack chips, and the Indians shared with them food and taught them how to harvest free drinks.
BUT I DIGRESS. Clark keeps telling voters he’s not a “professional politician,” but he sure covers his bases like one. “For too long politicians have made and broken promises to Native Americans,” Clark said, shaking his head with Clintonian concern. “Native Americans in general, and the Abenaki in particular, deserve a higher standard of leadership.” The General has a commitment to Native Americans that will last long after the election, he said. A Clark administration will protect “cultural sites” and promote “cultural tourism.” Native Americans, after all, are the “foundation of America’s diversity and America’s greatness.”
Then he got to the real meat of any political endorsement — the payoff. First Clark trumpeted his love and absolute unstymied devotion to affirmative action. “I believe that respecting diversity also means promoting and increasing it,” he explained. “The federal government must do more to help Native Americans help themselves.”
He also plugged his tax plan. After making sure millionaires once again “pay their fair share” of taxes (39 percent federal income tax at the highest bracket) the plan would let other citizens off the hook entirely. “A Native American family of four earning $50,000 a year will not pay one penny in income tax,” Clark explained. “As a result the large majority of American Indian families will no longer pay income tax.” And just as there will be no more wars or strife in the world once Clark takes office, he will likewise “promote good relations between the tribes.”
MOMENTS AFTER HIS SPEECH, the General grabbed his wampum belt and made a hasty exit, leaving the Abenaki alone with the reporters — chest-beating primitives if ever there were — and the questions began. “Being a tribe based primarily in Vermont, why are you not supporting Dean?” one reporter asked. Chief April tried to dodge the query by saying that “the Clark camp prefers we stay positive,” but the anger couldn’t stay below the surface long.
In fact, it bubbled up with surprisingly little prodding. “He [Governor Dean] didn’t do anything for our people there,” she hissed. “He’s running for president saying that he’s going to do wonders for all of these tribes that are federally recognized, and I don’t believe it.” Soon after, the Abenaki confessed that the tribe had sent anti-Dean materials to all the major candidates and that Clark was the only one “who took us seriously.”
The tribe is angry that Dean didn’t recognize them while he was governor, making their children ineligible for Native American scholarships and dashing any hopes of a casino. In addition, Wiseman said that Vermont law made it a felony for unrecognized tribes to sell “Indian goods,” and said he could have been fined $250,000 for selling the belt he had just given Clark. But Wiseman and the Chief absurdly insisted that Dean was not the issue.
“Obviously, the campaigns were interested in the nature of what we had to say about Governor Dean’s record,” Wiseman added. “But the issue is that General Clark is interested in all Native Americans, not just federally recognized Native Americans. There are a lot more than just the big tribes out there.” And they vote. In New Hampshire, the Abenaki are approximately 2,000 strong — enough votes to throw a tight race to their candidate.
But Clark clearly courted the Abenaki for more than their votes. One day after Al Sharpton jumped all over Dean for the lack of diversity in Vermont government, two Native Americans spent half an hour railing on Dean’s forked tongue when it came to Indian affairs. The media, national and international, ate it up, and promised bigger stories if more information could be provided. The best part? Clark walked away before the nasty stuff began. He stayed above the fray. He stuck the knife in Dean without even dirtying his hands.