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Native American issues once again focus of presidential forum

Native American voters seem to be getting more attention from Democratic presidential candidates this election cycle.

For the less cynical, the reasons could be that the hopefuls actually care about issues that affect Indian Country.

The more cynical might think the attention comes down to getting votes in close elections.

After all, there are a significant number of Native American voters in swing states where elections are decided by just a handful of ballots.

Nevertheless, the second (ever) presidential forum that was solely focused on Indian Country topics took place Jan. 14 and Jan. 15 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Four Directions organization and its staff were organizers and sponsors of the presidential forum in Las Vegas with other Native American groups. Barb and OJ Semans (front, right) are the cofounders and co-executive directors of Four Directions. (Photo Trejo Vanegas )

Nevada holds its presidential primary June 9 and is one of those key swing states, along with Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin. Those four states alone have about 1 million Native Americans with lots of electoral sway.

The forum was held at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall.

The first forum was held at the Orpheum Theatre in Sioux City, Iowa, on Aug. 19 and Aug. 20. Both forums were billed as nonpartisan events.

What they said in Vegas

One Democratic hopeful appeared in person, some interacted with the audience via livestream and others sent taped messages.

Themes candidates referred to often included support for tribal sovereignty, pledging resources to address the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous woman (MMIW), the disproportionate violence against Native American women, and assurances the federal government would recognize existing treaties.

There was also talk about the establishment of a new Cabinet-level position for Native American affairs and for more Native American federal judges to be appointed.

Businessman Tom Steyer was the only candidate to appear in person. He spent about an hour answering questions from a panel of tribal leaders.

Steyer said he’d been working for Native American interests in Nevada through his support of a passed ballot initiative in 2018 that required electric providers to increase renewable resorces.

He also said his NextGen America organization had helped to register and energize Native American voters.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-M.A., answered questions via livestream for about 30 minutes.

She detailed some of the specifics of her plans regarding Native American affairs, including suicide prevention, child abuse treatment and housing legislation.

Warren said it was part of 55 bills she has been involved in that have had positive effects on tribal communities.

Warren also said that as president she would halt the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines and that she wanted to see the Native American Voting Rights Act passed.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, appeared briefly via livestream and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg offered a pre-taped interview to the forum.

Gabbard and Buttigieg, both military veterans, praised the history of Native American contributions to the country’s Armed Forces.

In a brief video statement, former Vice President Joe Biden promised to strengthen tribal nations in the same way the President Barack Obama administration did.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-V.T., submitted a six-minute video message late in the day that organizers described as “substantive.”

Native American activist Mark Charles, an independent running for president, was involved in both days of the forum.

“I think we have now done one of the most powerful things in Indian Country that is going to be carried on from generation to generation,” Four Directions co-founder and co-executive director OJ Semans (Rosebud Sioux) said after the final day of the forum.

Four Directions is a Native American voting rights organization and one of the main sponsors of the forum.

“We did this for our people and our only ask of all of this is for our people to respond in order to empower more of our people. So this is not about me or about an organization, it’s about us. It’s about nations, it’s about our people and it’s about empowering us and taking back what is ours.”

Along with Four Directions, sponsors included Nevada Tribal Nations, Native American Rights Fund, National Congress of American Indians, Native Organizers Alliance and Seeding Sovereignty.

Find videos of the forum on vimeo.com, by searching “Native American presidential forum.”

More information is also available at fourdirections.com.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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