GALLUP, N.M. -- At the center of a round circle of desert sand, John F. Kerry and his wife, Teresa, stepped upon a small pile of tobacco herbs from a Navajo tribe elder yesterday and then were brushed down with an ''eagle fan" in a traditional blessing at the 83d annual Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial Pow Wow.
Kerry joined several thousand Indians at the event in northeastern New Mexico, a 2004 battleground state. He promised that as president, he would assign a White House office to a Native American who would oversee federal relations with all of the tribes.
In brief remarks that he termed non-political, Kerry decried the lack of health insurance for an estimated one-third of Native Americans and that their life expectancy is 17 years shorter, on average, relative to other Americans. He pledged to increase federal funding for the US Indian Health System and cover all children ''immediately" in the health insurance plan that he would make his first bill to Congress.
Referring to meetings between himself and unnamed tribal leaders, Kerry also took an indirect jab at the Bush administration. ''There's a feeling that people haven't been respected, that people haven't been listened to," he said, promising to appoint a Native American staffer in the White House. ''We are going to restore that relationship."
In 2000, Al Gore won New Mexico by 366 votes, and the Kerry campaign is working hard to increase that margin of victory. Native Americans, a traditionally Democratic-voting bloc, account for about 10 percent of the vote. Kerry is working to increase Native American turnout in the 2004 election.
As Kerry continued his cross-country train trip, across the two electoral battleground states of New Mexico and Arizona, his primary event of the day was watching Indian tribal members dancing in brightly colored, feathered regalia at the pow wow. After the ''Dance of the Fallen Warriors," where tribal members picked up a sacred eagle feather that had slipped off the regalia of one member, Kerry and his wife were invited into the circle to be recognized and speak.
Kerry was given a gray, red, and black Navajo rug and a ceremonial bow tie, while Teresa Heinz Kerry received a pin that represented a rainbow god's wish for all living things to exist in harmony.
Elsewhere on his trip through the Southwest, Kerry told local reporters that Americans should guard themselves against terrorism by creating neighborhood watch groups to remain on the lookout for suspicious activities.
''If we do that to protect ourselves against vandals or a burglary, why would we not do it to protect ourselves against a terrorist?" Kerry said during a Saturday interview with reporters aboard his campaign train.
Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com.