Hundreds of young Native Americans gathering for a five-day conference here are being urged to become politically active because the American Indian vote could make a difference in this year's presidential election.
Jackson Slim Brossy, legislative associate of the nonpartisan National Congress of American Indians, said the Indian vote _ which traditionally has been Democratic _ is up for grabs this year as Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain both try to woo it.
He said the Indian vote was a factor in Obama's defeat of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in June's Montana primary, as well as in past victories of U.S. Sens. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M.
"The Native American vote has been overlooked in the past, but there's a trend of it making a difference and I think 2008 will continue the trend," Brossy told The Associated Press.
"The vote will go to the candidate who reaches out more to Indian country and has the best policies for Indian country," he added.
Both McCain and Obama tried to do just that with messages for the 1,000-odd attendees at the annual United National Indian Tribal Youth conference in Reno. The gathering ends Tuesday.
Jose Martinez Jr., 17, a Pima from Arizona's Salt River Reservation, praised McCain after hearing the Arizona senator's videotaped message.
He said the Republican is better plugged into the concerns of Native Americans because he represents a state with more than 15 reservations and is former chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
"He has to live beside us and he understands how we live and think," Martinez said. "He's a simple man and simplicity has a way of winning the heart of people. He offers us stuff that he can actually deliver on."
But Mykhal Colelay Mendoza, 16, of Arizona's White Mountain Apache Reservation, said she supports Obama because she thinks his commitment to Indians and the environment is more sincere.
The concerns of the nation's 11.9 million American Indians gained renewed attention in May as Obama visited Montana's Crow Indian reservation and was adopted into the nation during a private ceremony.
In Reno, a surrogate delivered a message from the Democratic candidate.
"He inspires me a lot because he's not white," Mendoza said. "Maybe this country would change with a person of color in the White House. We've been doing the same routine and it's getting boring."
But Mendoza added: "Both of my parents think the country is not ready for a person of color yet."
J.R. Cook, a Cherokee who is director of nonpartisan UNITY based in Oklahoma City, Okla., said neither candidate is automatically assured of the Indian vote.
"Either way, it's a win-win for Native Americans because of the commitments of McCain and Obama to provide a greater voice for Native Americans in their administration," Cook said.
The conference, which drew Indians between the ages of 15 and 23 from about 24 states, also features panel discussions and speeches on obesity and other health concerns, the importance of education, and fatherhood and families.
On the Net:
United National Indian Tribal Youth: http://www.unityinc.org