"He's proud to have their support," Kennedy chief of staff Sean Richardson said Wednesday. "He's got direct personal relationships with tribes. ... He looks at it as a human and civil rights issue, the fact that they're still not treated with the dignity and respect they deserve."
Kennedy, D-R.I., was the top congressional Democratic recipient of Abramoff-linked funds, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign watchdog group that analyzed contributions from 1999 to 2005. He was eighth overall among members of Congress.
Abramoff, who has admitted he defrauded some Indian tribes, is at the heart of a burgeoning Capitol Hill corruption scandal.
Kennedy was never lobbied by Abramoff or any of his associates and he did not receive any checks from Abramoff, Richardson said.
While President Bush and other top Republicans scrambled to give away contributions from tribes linked to Abramoff, Kennedy aides said the congressman's family, beginning with his late uncle Robert F. Kennedy in the 1960s, has championed American Indian causes.
The congressman co-founded the Native American Caucus in the House in 1997. He also raised money from several tribes for his party as the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during 1999 and 2000.
The congressman has received contributions from 110 tribes and visited about a dozen reservations, Richardson said. Kennedy has accepted donations from Indian gambling interests since he first came to Congress a decade ago.