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Indian Country Is Finally Getting the Political Attention It Deserves

Is the long-endured era of lip service from presidential candidates coming to an end for Native voters?

Justin Sullivan/Getty

It took 243 years, but the path to the United States presidency, or at least the Democratic nomination, will run through Indian Country.

On August 19 and 20, eight presidential candidates will descend on Sioux City, Iowa, to participate in the Frank LaMere Native Presidential Forum. The two-day event, named after the late member of the American Indian Movement and chairman of the Native American Caucus of the Democratic Party, will feature two panels of tribal leaders, sovereign tribal nation citizens, and Native youth from across the country asking questions of the presidential hopefuls.

The lineup includes Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Kamala Harris, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, author Marianne Williamson, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, and former Representative John Delaney. They will be joined by Independent candidate Mark Charles, a member of the Navajo Nation (Diné). Mark Trahant, the editor of Indian Country Today and a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, will moderate the forum.

Given the history of Native invisibility in American politics—the product of an ongoing national erasure campaign, propagated to this day by both politicians and the media—the idea that an event like this exists, let alone that it secured two of the top three candidates in the Democratic primary, is stunning. After all, it was just twelve years ago that the “Prez on the Rez” event, a forum held at a casino-resort owned and operated by the Morongo Band of Mission Indians drew only three lower-tier candidates. The Democratic front-runners at the time—John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama—all cited scheduling conflicts and opted not to attend. (Obama went on to visit and give a speech at Crow Agency in Montana the following May.)

In the dozen years since Prez on the Rez, Native visibility among non-Native politicians and the American public has marginally improved, thanks to the hard work of tribal nations, Indigenous leaders, and grassroots activists. But the ability to sustain the attention of the elected officials occupying the 50 state houses and Congress has continued to prove a steep hill to climb.

While some part of the American population may now be familiar with, say, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls crisis, the R-word debate, or the crucial and wide-spanning legal ramifications of upholding of tribal sovereignty, little political capital has been invested in Native issues by non-Native politicians. And this is an ever-growing problem as many of Indian Country’s most pressing issues—establishing renewable energy alternatives to combat climate change, stemming the opioid epidemic, bridging the infrastructure gap between rural and urban communities—demand responses from both the sovereign tribal nations and the entirety of the United States.

That’s where Native voting rights advocates Four Directions comes in. The organization has spent the past decade fighting to make ballots more accessible by suing county and state election boards to install satellite early voting centers on reservations. It’s thanks to Four Directions that the majority of the Democratic field will be in Sioux City next week. O.J. Semans, a member of the Rosebud Sioux and the organization’s co-executive director, told The New Republic that after over a decade of securing voting rights in key battleground states, Native voters are now participating heavily enough that politicians, at least on the left, have little choice but to vie for their votes.

“Prez on the Rez didn’t stand a chance because there was no equality, at least like we have now,” Semans said. “And don’t get me wrong—we’re still fighting. There’s so much inequality at the ballot box; we have a long way to go. But it took all those years to get to this moment of a presidential forum.”

Even with the prime timing and location, convincing candidates to sign on wasn’t initially easy. Then, on July 7, the Sioux City Journal opened its Sunday edition with an article on the forum. With recognition by campaign media that the forum could become a new opportunity during the crucial Iowa circuit, the tone changed. Combined with the announcement that the National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Fund would be partnering with Four Directions to run the event, the confirmation calls started rolling in.

Semans said that his team learned from the 2007 forum. By hosting the forum in Iowa, candidates wouldn’t be able to use scheduling as an easy excuse. Those who chose not to attend would not be casually brushing them off—they would be making a clear statement. Former Vice President Joe Biden and former Representative Beto O’Rourke declined their invitations, as did a Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld. President Donald Trump never responded to Four Directions, according to Semans.

“We needed to take their excuses away,” Semans said. “We made it so that if a candidate was really serious about winning the Native vote, they had to give very serious consideration to attending. And when I say serious, I mean attend.”

It’s that genuine commitment to Native issues that Semans and Four Directions were hoping to parse heading into the event, and it’s easy to see why. As of publishing, just two candidates have issued a detailed plan specifically aimed at the Indigenous population.

In late June, Castro posted his People First Indigenous Communities platform. Upon its release, the five-step plan inarguably marked the most proactive proposal by a major-party candidate in the past 20 years. It called for strengthening tribal sovereignty, funding Native-focused federal programs like the Indian Health Service, and implementing a “Carcieri fix” to reaffirm the ability of the Department of the Interior to take land into trust for tribal nations, among a host of other ideas.

In an interview with TNR last week, Castro said he felt as though under the Trump administration, federal relations with Indian Country have “slid backward,” and that he hopes to reverse the trend with a plan that provides Indigenous people a voice in how the government can best work alongside their nations.

“The federal government has never fully done right by Indigenous communities,” Castro said. “But I want to come [to the forum] with respect and humility and the hope of a stronger relationship—to be a good partner, if I’m president.”

Warren released her plan for Indian Country Friday morning. Like most of her plans, it is impressively researched and impossible to summarize in a single paragraph. The hefty 20-page road map includes a host of proposed legislative actions, including a partnership with Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico on the Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act. That bill aims to guarantee federally funded Indian Country programs, thus sidestepping the current year-to-year budget negotiations that leave many tribes and tribal people in the lurch.

Warren’s plan also called for a cabinet-level position for a representative of a presidential Indian Country commission, as well as plans to fully fund Bureau of Indian Education schools, a jurisdictional fix to allow tribal law enforcement to charge non-Native suspects (currently, tribal police do not have the power to arrest non-tribal members for crimes they commit on reservations, which has led to depressingly high rates of sexual and physical violence), and a promise to expand and protect tribal land interests from gas and oil companies.

With the higher qualifying bar for the September Democratic debates, the Iowa forum provides a unique opportunity for the candidates. Not only do they have the chance to convince the Native voting bloc that they will deliver more than the previous 45 presidents, but they can deliver their ideas to both Native and non-Native audiences—the event will be livestreamed and attended by a host of local and national media outlets.

The attention is nice—and long overdue—but as Semans pointed out to TNR, the forum isn’t ultimately about the candidates, the panelists, or even the tribal leaders who will attend. The event is about the five million Natives across the country who will finally see the American government not as an external agent of colonization, but as their own elected representative, one that they can shape and mold themselves.

That such a reality is even possible for a people once pushed to the brink by that very same government is, as Semans put it, “pretty damn cool.”