PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton are working hard to win American Indian votes as the two Democratic presidential hopefuls compete in South Dakota's presidential primary.
Front-runner Obama met privately with about 50 Lakota leaders from across South Dakota before his public appearance in Sioux Falls on Friday. In the public speech to a diverse crowd, he talked about the need to help communities that have often been betrayed and have had a hard time digging out of poverty.
"This election is about Indian Country," Obama said, drawing cheers.
Clinton on Tuesday issued detailed proposals for helping to improve health care, create jobs, improve housing and fight crime on reservations.
"I stand with you in your fight for affordable housing, a better economy and access to quality health care and good schools," she told Indians in a written statement.
Obama also has pledged to expand health services, improve education, combat methamphetamine dealers, promote economic development and improve housing on reservations.
Clinton promised to open the doors of the White House to Indians if she is elected president. Obama has said he would appoint a senior policy adviser to deal specifically with Indian issues.
The Indian vote could play a big role in determining which candidate wins South Dakota's June 3 primary. Indian communities traditionally have voted heavily for Democratic candidates in general elections.
In the 2004 Senate race, Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson won re-election by 524 votes over Republican challenger John Thune when Shannon County, which includes much of the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian Reservation, voted heavily for Johnson.
Two years later, Thune beat Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle when Thune won a larger share of Shannon County's votes.
Frank King, publisher and editor of The Native Voice, based in Colorado, said he helped set up Obama's meeting on Friday with tribal leaders from all the Lakota tribes in South Dakota. The meeting gave Obama a deeper understanding of issues facing Indians, said King, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.
Obama said he would work to improve the Indian Health Service, restructure the Bureau of Indian Affairs, improve housing and education and protect water, King said.
"I think the Native vote in South Dakota is probably going to Obama," King said.
In later appearances in Montana and Oregon, Obama's comments indicated he understood what the Lakota leaders told him in Sioux Falls, King said.
Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, also campaigned last week in Pine Ridge, where he had visited in 1999 while he was in the White House. He said his wife knows more about Indian Country than any other candidate.
The proposals issued by Hillary Clinton on Tuesday include increases in the Indian Health Services budget, a fight against diabetes on reservations, the use of economic programs to fight poverty, development of solar and wind power on reservations, improvements in housing and education, and increased support for law enforcement to deal with violence and methamphetamine dealing.
Lula Red Cloud of the Pine Ridge Reservation said Clinton would continue the productive partnership her husband had with Indians when he was president.
"Native Americans in South Dakota needs a president who will provide economic opportunities and curb the health, addiction and crime problems that are sweeping across our communities, and Hillary has the proposals and the experience to do just that," Red Cloud said in a written statement.
King said he has noticed that when South Dakota politicians talk about Indian issues, crowds usually are quiet. When Obama talked about Indian issues, the crowd in Sioux Falls cheered, a response likely due to the fact that Obama is a member of a racial minority, he said.
"He's the first leader I've ever heard speak who was able to speak in a manner that crossed the racial boundaries," King said.
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