At First-Ever Native American Presidential Forum, Candidates Answer to Centuries of Injustice

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) listens to a question at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum on August 20 in Sioux City, Iowa. (Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

At First-Ever Native American Presidential Forum, Candidates Answer to Centuries of Injustice

With Indian country’s electoral power growing, presidential hopefuls pledged to honor treaties and enact structural change.

"'We the people' has never meant 'all the people,'" said Independent presidential candidate Mark Charles of the Navajo Nation at the first-ever Native American presidential forum, held August 19 and 20 in Sioux City, Iowa.

Charles was enthusiastically received as the only member of a tribe currently running for president, and his remarks echoed a theme of the night: the mistreatment and neglect of Native Americans by the federal government.

"We need a president who can lead a thorough re-think of the federal-tribal relationship, so we can become fully self-sustaining nations."

Named for the revered Winnebago activist Frank LaMere, who died in June, the event presented a series of serious, hour-long discussions with Charles and ten 2020 Democratic presidential candidates: Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (D.-Vt.), Amy Klobuchar (D.-Minn.), Kamala Harris (D.-Calif.), Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Marianne Williamson, former Rep. Joe Sestak, former Rep. John Delaney and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

"History-making" was how event organizer and Rosebud Sioux tribal member OJ Semans described the rare spotlight on Native issues during a presidential primary.

Semans, who runs the voting-rights group Four Directions with his wife, Barb, believes the candidates took part because they understand that Native Americans are an increasingly powerful voting bloc. Voter turnout is growing in Indian country, and "in an election that's likely to be close, there are several states where Native American voters can provide a winning margin," Semans says. He cites Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina and Arizona, which have substantial Native populations that Four Directions is seeking to register and get to the polls (as it did on North Dakota reservations in 2018 when the state imposed ID voting requirements that were particularly difficult for Native people to meet.)

Each candidate was individually questioned by some six to eight panelists. They sat on a stage lined with tribal and U.S. flags, before an auditorium filled with members of tribes from around the country.

After panelists offered greetings in their traditional languages, they shifted to English to ask about topics of interest to Native people, many related to historic injustices: the struggle to renew traditional languages decimated by the boarding schools, protection of Native children's right to stay in their families and communities, upholding voting rights, protecting sacred sites threatened with desecration, federal-tribal consultation and U.S. Census undercounts of Native people. Other high-priority topics were economic development, housing, education, healthcare and climate justice.

The new president must support tribal governments' sovereignty, said De Blasio. As mayor of New York City, he well understood, he said, that "the governments that are closest to people serve them best."

Marcella LeBeau, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and recipient of the French Legion of Honor and other awards for front-line service as an Army nurse during World War II, asked many if they supported the Remove the Stain Act. This proposed Congressional legislation would rescind medals given to soldiers for the Wounded Knee massacre. Each candidate wholeheartedly agreed.

Charles, for his part, highlighted how, despite the expansion of some rights--like suffrage for women, Native Americans and African Americans--prejudices that date back to the country's founding remain woven into our political and legal system. He said that the next president must understand how U.S. law remains skewed by the U.S. Constitution's protections of the rights of white, Christian, land-owning men.

For example, the high rate of murder and other violence against Native women is compounded by the Supreme Court's denial of Indian nations' right to prosecute non-Indians for on-reservation crimes. Charles also noted the ongoing power in U.S. law of the Doctrine of Discovery, a centuries-old papal policy encouraging the subjugation and seizure of non-Christian lands and people. Many may be startled to learn that as recently as 2005, the Supreme Court cited this doctrine in deciding against a tribe in a lawsuit it heard.

Manny and Renee Iron Hawk, who attended the forum from the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, appreciated candidates' thoughtful responses but wanted more detail in some areas. They wanted to know candidates' specific plans for protecting water sources and for cleaning up already-contaminated tribal ones. "It's great to talk about water rights," Renee says. "But let's hear something tangible."

She also wonders about candidates' declarations that they would "honor the treaties." It's not a simple concept, in her analysis. Some treaties must be honored--full stop--and others may need reconsideration.

"Some treaties had purposely misconstrued and mistranslated provisions and were not upheld anyway," Renee says. "We need a president who can lead a thorough re-think of the federal-tribal relationship, so we can become fully self-sustaining nations."

The New York Times and NPR led their pieces on the forum with Senator Warren's apology for trying to prove Cherokee ancestry via a DNA test. Her mistaken assumption that test results might convey identity or even tribal affiliation--and end the current president's Native-oriented slurs against her--became controversial in Indian country.

But the panelists and attendees seemed not to focus on the misstep by Warren, who was greeted with a standing ovation. In introducing her, first-term U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland (D.-N.M.), from Laguna Pueblo and one of the first Native women elected to Congress, described her as a valued collaborator on numerous bills and initiatives, and "my sister in the struggle."

Haaland added that centuries of displacement mean many Natives spend generations finding their families and tribes. "What I'm saying is, she has found us," said Haaland, who described media focus on the issue as supporting the current president's racism. Other Natives present described Warren as consistently involved in Congressional Native matters and referred to her with traditional honorifics like "grandmother."

Warren described a series of plans unveiled Friday--yes, she has plans--for solving the many systemic challenges in justice, economic development and other areas that continue to plague Indian country. "Big structural change, that's what Congresswoman Haaland and I are fighting for," she said, "so that everyone has a chance to build a strong future."

"We don't need to hear about the DNA test; we need discussion of the Presidents' slurs," Renee said. "Are we invisible people? Our feelings matter. We are still here. In fact, we wouldn't be if we weren't such determined people. We will decide this election. Try telling us we can't, and you'll see, we will."

As Native people both vote and, like Haaland, get elected to office themselves, "We are going from protest to power," says Judith Le Blanc, director of the Native Organizers Alliance, a co-host of the forum.

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