Opinion: Native Americans could be decisive factor in presidential election

Aug 26, 2019, 4:25 AM | Updated: 8:20 am
(AP Photo/John Locher)...
(AP Photo/John Locher)
(AP Photo/John Locher)

If you want to know all about the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa, don’t read The New York Times or Washington Post.

Don’t get me wrong, the Times and Post publish great journalism. But that doesn’t mean they’re beyond getting scooped.

The Times did write a solid analysis of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s remote Indian heritage. The Post wrote something similar about Warren’s appearance at the forum and her effort to get past the controversy over her claim to Native American heritage.

But the best coverage of the forum hands down was by Indian Country Today, which covered the two-day event, start to finish, and even live-streamed big chunks of the event.

I couldn’t attend, but I followed Indian Country’s reporting and tuned when I could to the live-streams. Here’s a recap of the event and my take on its significance:

The forum’s success – 11 candidates addressed the forum, eight in person and three via live video feeds – is the latest sign that issues impacting communities of color, for better or for worse, promise to be front-and-center in this election cycle.

We all know who we have to thank for that, at least in part. When he isn’t tilting at windmills for the coal industry and claiming, falsely, that they give us cancer, President Trump has, as author Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, “radicalized” a whole heck of a lot of us who aren’t sold on the idea that we should make America white again – as if it ever was.

The Sioux City forum was sponsored by Four Directions, a Native American voting rights group, and Native Organizers Alliance, which, as the name suggests, works to build the political organizing capacity of tribes and allied community organizations. The event was named in honor of Frank LeMere, a Native American civil rights leader who died of cancer in June.

The candidates who pitched their agendas at the forum included 10 Democrats, one Independent and, to almost no one’s surprise, zero Republicans.

Author Marianne Williamson was the first to address the crowd. She pledged to begin her presidency with a formal apology.

“From the depth of my heart,” she said, “I will apologize and ask for your forgiveness” for the atrocities committed by the United States.

Williamson also vowed to remove the White House portrait of Andrew Jackson, revoke the medals given to the U.S. soldiers responsible for the massacre at Wounded Knee, and return the Black Hills in South Dakota, which includes Mount Rushmore, to the Sioux.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock took part in the forum via live-stream. He touted his experience working with tribal communities, pledged to protect the Indian Child Welfare Act, and promised to reduce suicide rates among Native Americans and the incidence of missing and murdered Native American women.

“Whether you’re in Iowa or Oklahoma or Alaska or Montana, you should know that the next president of the United States is going to listen, is going to consult, and is going to work in partnership to make all of our lives better,” Bullock said, according to Indian Country Today.

Julian Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio, received a warm welcome at the event.

In his opening remarks, Castro addressed key Native American concerns, including education, healthcare, tribal sovereignty, housing, and the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. He delivered a recap of his People First Indigenous Communities Platform,which he released in July.

Mark Charles, born and raised in Gallup New Mexico, is the first Navajo to run for president of the United States. He is running as an independent.

Indian Country Today reported Charles spent the first 30 minutes of his 45-minute allotted time on his opening statement, and so only had time to respond to one audience question. The digital news site said his presentation was light on policy specifics, but the audience was moved by his passion and happy to see one of their own seek the presidency.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota told the forum that, as president, she would respect the sovereignty of Indian nations and pursue “government-to-government negotiations and consultation.”

She also talked about repairing roads, bridges and other infrastructure on tribal lands through her $1 trillion infrastructure proposal, which she said she’ll pay for by rolling back Trump’s tax breaks to the rich.

Uplifting Native American culture, Klobuchar said, would be a high priority.

“What a change that would be from a president who’s been sending out mean tweets and mocking people,” she said.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who’s making his second run for the presidency, was greeted with a standing ovation as he took the stage.

If elected, Sanders promised to treat the tribes as equals and to solicit their participation in key national initiatives, especially issues involving the environment, land conservation and climate change.

The forum’s biggest attraction was U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts – hence the coverage by the Times and the Post. She is rising dramatically in the polls and has moved within striking distance of the Democratic front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Warren was introduced by Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, a Democrat and the first Native American woman elected to Congress.

Like Sanders, Warren was greeted with a standing ovation.

She released a detailed policy plan, just ahead of the forum, that addresses key Native American concerns in which she pledged “to protect tribal lands and to bolster funding for programs that serve Native people,” according to the New York Times.

Warren opened her remarks with a heartfelt apology for any harm or offense caused by her long-standing claims of Native American heritage. Late last year, Warren released DNA results conducted by a Stanford scientist that affirmed distant Native American ancestry.

She took the test to fend off attacks by Trump, who has derided her as “Pocahontas” and accused her of lying about her heritage.

Honor Sachs, an assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado Boulder, wrote in 2018 that Trump had turned the nickname “into a punchline, one intended to demean, ridicule and minimize [Warren’s] personal and political legitimacy.”

Trump uses “Pocahontas” as a slur. Many Native Americans are repulsed when they hear Trump’s use of “Pocahontas” as a pejorative when he mentions Warren.

By contrast, Warren’s warm welcome at the Native American Issues Forum and Trump’s abysmal poll numbers among voters of color could go a long way towards putting the controversy over her heritage, however scant, behind her.

The political fortunes of the individual candidates aside, the forum’s greater significance is that it highlights the growing political clout of Native American voters nationwide.

Haaland, a self-described Warren surrogate, told the Des Moines Register, “The Indian vote is going to make a difference for various congresspeople across the country, for House and Senate seats across the states, for county commissions.”

While in swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada and Arizona, where the outcome of the presidential race is likely to be up for grabs, Native American voters could be decisive factor in picking our next president.

Editor’s note: This column was originally published on

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Opinion: Native Americans could be decisive factor in presidential election