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.

Stephanie Woodard August 21, 2019

Independent presidential candidate Mark Charles speaks at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum on August 20, 2019 in Sioux City, Iowa. Charles, a tribal citizen of the Navajo Nation, spoke about the Doctrine of Discovery and other topics facing the Native American community. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

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

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

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.

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 gov­ern­ment that’s clos­est to the peo­ple serves the peo­ple 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 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 president’s 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 LeBlanc, direc­tor of the Native Orga­niz­ers Alliance, a co-host of the forum.

Stephanie Woodard is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten inves­tiga­tive arti­cles for In These Times. Her new book is Amer­i­can Apartheid: The Native Amer­i­can Strug­gle for Self-Deter­mi­na­tion and Inclu­sion.
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