NEW YORK – It was an event to celebrate Hispanics in the Republican Party, a swanky affair in a midtown Manhattan ballroom with throngs of people and a big-name headliner, former President George H.W. Bush.
To Sharon Clahchischilliage (search), a Navajo who grew up near Shiprock, N.M., it was a lesson in possibility.
"One day, we're going to be like this," she said, tugging on a reporter's arm and gesturing to the Tuesday crowd, "... with people standing up, wanting to get in."
The New Mexico delegate to the Republican National Convention (search) is here with a mission — bring her party and her people together.
Like other tribes, the Navajos are struggling to increase their sway on the national political scene. The subject of national attention this year, particularly in several hotly contested states, American Indians are seeking to reach beyond voter registration drives for a full seat at the political table.
Tribal members from Alaska to New Mexico, California to North Carolina, were in town this week, many at the National Congress of American Indians' (search) two-day caucus devoted to raising the tribal profile in major party politics.
"There's no substitute for the authenticity ... of a Native American voice," he said.
American Indians should not "become the exclusive property of one party," he warned. "That is the road to nothing. ... Both parties need to compete for you and your support."
In fact, the GOP may be missing an opportunity in the Democratic-leaning Navajo Nation (search), said Clahchischilliage, now the executive director of the tribal field office in Washington. She believes Democrats have simply outdone Republicans in marketing themselves to Navajos, but the GOP has a strong message that resonates with what she says is a conservative culture.
"What I need to get them to understand is they need to extend further," she said of her own party. "Everyone sees the potential of the Navajo vote, but the Democrats are the only ones doing anything about it."
As the largest federally recognized tribe in the United States, the Navajo Nation stretches across parts of New Mexico, Arizona — both battleground states — and Utah. It's membership includes 91,533 registered voters.
This year, Navajos have for the first time scheduled their own tribal elections to coincide with the November vote to encourage voter participation. In 2000, just 366 votes in New Mexico made the difference for Democrat Al Gore, nudging him past George W. Bush.
Although American Indian voter numbers are small — comprising just 1.4 percent of the nation's voting age population — they are important in tight races and could determine the winner in Alaska, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Colorado Senate races.
Thanks to gaming revenue, many tribes are turning to political contributions to increase their leverage. The Center for Responsive Politics (search) reports that the Indian gaming industry has contributed $4.86 million during the 2004 election cycle.
Back in Navajo country, Stewart Logan, San Juan County GOP chairman, said the party is making some inroads, last month opening its first-ever office in the reservation hub of Shiprock, where the party has registered about 100 new GOP voters.
Clahchischilliage has been meeting her way through the New Mexico and Arizona congressional delegations this week, pitching the Navajo potential for the GOP and lobbying for a visit by President Bush to Navajo country.
"I'm looking at it from the perspective that it's my responsibility to get my party educated," Clahchischilliage said. "... This is the beginning."