ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – Indian sovereignty. Trust reform. Political influence in the 2004 elections.

Some 3,000 Indian leaders arrived Sunday for the start to the weeklong National Congress of American Indians’ 60th annual convention with those issues at the top of the agenda. Organizers hope the meeting, “Sovereign Nations, One Enduring Voice,” will promote unity and awareness.

“Each tribe is an autonomous government and clearly has this autonomous government-to-government relation, but whenever you can get a larger voice, it’s easier to be heard,” said Jacqueline Johnson, the NCAI’s executive director.

With the 2004 elections approaching, the organization is taking advantage of its larger voice to invite candidates to present their platforms on Indian issues.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark were expected to appear at the convention, and other candidates planned to address the group via satellite.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, both George Bush and Democrat Al Gore wooed Indian voters in New Mexico. That same year, Indian voters rallied to held defeat Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who had clashed with tribes over tribal self-governance and mining issues. And in 2002, Indian voters made the difference in a Senate race in South Dakota and the governor’s contest in Oklahoma.

“Native Americans have recently shown a little bit of political muscle,” Johnson said. “We’ve gotten engaged in the political debate.”

But it hasn’t been easy getting Indians to the polls, mostly because of geographic isolation, cultural barriers and a long-running suspicion of the U.S. government.

“Historically, many tribal members think it’s not going to affect them and their voice is not going to be heard anyway, so who cares,” said Russ Lehman, managing director of the First American Education Project in Olympia, Wash.

With the political victories in 2002, Lehman said, that attitude is beginning to change, and the Indian vote in next year’s election could play a pivotal role in some states, including New Mexico, Arizona, South Dakota, Washington and Oregon.

“Congress is where the action is, especially given what has happened with tribal sovereignty over the last few years,” Lehman said. Realistically, he said, tribes can have an effect on policy by targeting those who directly drive the federal lawmaking process.

During the conference, members planned to develop platform statements for the 2004 election. They also are to elect new officers and discuss health care, economic development, homeland security and trust reorganization.

Johnson said trust fund reform is at the top of the list.

A federal judge has ordered the Interior Department to account for royalties that were supposed to be collected from oil, gas, timber and grazing on Indian lands for more than a century. Lawyers for the Indians insist that, with interest, the account should be as much as $176 billion. They claim the government squandered billions of dollars that is owed to the Indian landowners.

“We want to move forward and get beyond this,” Johnson said. “People want trust reform. People want reform that’s meaningful.”

On the Net:

National Congress of American Indians:

First Americans Education Project:

AP-ES-11-16-03 1445EST

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