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Tribal groups look to youth for increased participation

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ While their parent's generation may not have made it to the polls in droves, activists hope the younger generation of American Indians in Oklahoma will pick up the slack and turnout to vote this November.

Cinda Hughes, a member of the Kiowa tribe and other American Indian leaders are taking a cue from MTV and plan to use a concert atmosphere to get people between the ages of 18 and 30 interested in voting.

Organizers hope their formula, which includes popular music groups and voter education, works Saturday when they host ``Rock the Native Vote.''

The rally will feature popular contemporary American Indian performers and about 3,000 to 5,000 people are expected to attend, Hughes said.

``They are an emerging voting block, an untapped resource,'' Hughes said of young American Indian voters. ``I view them as the sleeping giant in American politics.''

Their muscle at the polls might be felt in the upcoming election in the 2nd Congressional District. U.S. Rep. Brad Carson, D-Claremore, is seeking the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Don Nickles. Three Democrats, including embattled Insurance Commissioner Carroll Fisher are vying for the seat.

Three Republicans also are seeking the seat. Some of the Republican challengers include Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony and former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys.

Carson, an enrolled member of the Cherokee tribe, has headquarters in the congressional district which includes 79,843 Native American voters or about 15.6 percent of the total voting population, according to figures from the National Congress of American Indians.

American Indians, who got the right to vote just 80 years ago when the Indian Citizenship Act passed, haven't been regular voters in the past.

There is an inherent distrust of the federal government, ``because things that come out of Washington, D.C., generally aren't good for Indians,'' said Mike Miller, spokesman for the Cherokee nation.

``A lot of Indian people think that this is the white man's government and no one listens their views or cares about their issues,'' Hughes said.

Oklahoma is home to 39 federally recognized tribes. Self-identified tribal members make up about 9.9 percent of the voting age population, according to the U.S. Census.

``We are the largest minority in Oklahoma and we as a group feel that it is time to energize this constituency,'' Hughes said.

Former Sen. Kelly Haney's bid for governor got many American Indians involved in the political process and his campaign has been credited with registering thousands of tribe members to vote in Oklahoma.

While Haney, a Seminole-Creek Indian, lost in the primary, he shifted his support to former Sen. Brad Henry. Henry, a Democrat, credits American Indian voters for giving him the extra push needed to beat favored Republican candidate and former NFL football star Steve Largent in the 2002 governor's race.

``That was probably the best turnout we've had in Oklahoma's history,'' the Rev. Chebon Kernall, a minister at Pawnee Indian United Methodist Church. The Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference of United Methodist Churches is helping to organize Saturday's voter rally.

Tapping into young voters has been a successful formula for getting American Indians to vote in other places, said Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.

``I think that shows the most promise for Indian Country,'' Johnson said. ``The younger generation is really good place to start. You aren't dealing with the distrust their parents might have and they are able to motivate older members to go vote.''

The Cherokee nation, Oklahoma's largest tribe, publishes a voters guide.

``The number one thing that politicians value most is votes,'' Miller said. ``We don't promise to deliver voters, we promise to educate voters.''
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