Strictly as a voting bloc, Native Americans might not seem big enough for politicians to care about.
The five million-strong living in the U.S. make up less than 2% of the total population; African Americans are about 13%; Latinos more than 18%).
Further, among the number of Native Americans eligible to vote, only 66% are registered to do so – an eligible 1 million are not. In comparison, 74% of eligible non-Hispanic whites are registered to vote.
To be sure, there are reasons many might not be registered, or voting, including Native American voter suppression and distrust of the U.S. government.
But in key voting states like Arizona, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin, there are about 1 million Native Americans with lots of electoral sway.
Because many elections are decided by such a slim margin, an increasing number of politicians at every level of government have started to pay more attention to the Native American vote.
Indeed some candidates also say they actually care about finding solutions to issues that affect many in Indian Country – high poverty rates, infrastructure problems, education options and violence against women.
It’s for those reasons, and more, that the 2020 Democratic presidential race is one taking Native Americans more seriously.
It might not be too much of a surprise, then, that a Native American presidential forum was convened last month, featuring a slew of the presidential candidates running for the Democratic nomination.
The National Congress of American Indians partnered with voting rights group Four Directions to co-host a first-ever presidential candidate forum focused entirely on the concerns of Native People.
Billed as a nonpartisan forum, it featured panels of leaders and youth representing tribal nations and Native organizations who posed questions and engaged in dialogue with the candidates about Indian Country’s most pressing issues and priorities.
Candidates who attended include Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, Navajo Nation citizen Mark Charles (I), Former Maryland Congressman John Delaney, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-MN, Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-VT, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, and author Marianne Williamson.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-CA, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio participated via teleconference.
The Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum took place on Aug. 19 and Aug. 20 at the Orpheum Theatre in Sioux City, Iowa.
Forum organizers said candidates from all the major political parties were extended invitations to participate.
Mark Trahant (Shoshone Bannock), the editor of Indian Country Today, was the moderator. He was asked on a National Public Radio interview about the forum’s significance.
“Well, certainly it elevates Native American issues to a level that just hasn’t been part of the conversation before,” Trahant said. “Instead of having candidates do their normal stump speech, they’re really forced to address things that don’t get talked about very much, like treaty rights and the role of the Indian [Health Service] and that sort of thing.”
Apology, part two
Notably, when it was time for Warren to speak, she began her remarks by giving what appeared to be a more straightforward apology for previously identifying as a Native American for two decades while she was a law professor.
“I want to say this, like anyone who’s been honest with themselves, I know that I have made mistakes,” Warren said. “I am sorry for harm that I have caused. I have listened, and I have learned a lot, and I am grateful for the many conversations that we’ve had together.”
In a February interview with the Washington Post, Warren had said: “I am sorry for furthering confusion on tribal sovereignty and tribal citizenship and harm that resulted.”
That apology hadn’t resonated as much with some in Indian Country.
Political observers say Warren’s previous comments claiming Native heritage are likely to be used against her by Republicans if she wins the Democratic presidential nomination.
Warren has said she claimed Native heritage because of family stories that she had Cherokee and Delaware ancestry.
President Donald Trump has continued his taunting of Warren by calling her an incendiary slur — “Pocahontas.” He has showed no signs of letting up on the strategy.
“Like, Elizabeth Warren — I did the Pocahontas thing,” Trump said at a rally in New Hampshire in August. “I hit her really hard, and it looked like she was down and out, but that was too long ago. I should’ve waited. But don’t worry, we will revive it.”
At the forum, South Dakota Rosebud Sioux tribal member and co-executive director of Four Directions, O.J. Semans, called the controversy over Warren’s ancestry a “nonissue” and said it was “trivial” compared with issues like health care and voter suppression.
Warren spent most of her time at the forum talking about a plan she recently released on how her administration would work toward closing health, income and wealth disparities in Native American communities.
The proposal would seek to provide tribal leaders with far more influence than they now have over federal policy that affects their land.
Videos of both days of the forum are available on vimeo.com, by searching “Native American presidential forum.”
More about NCAI can be found at ncai.org; Four Directions is at fourdirectionsvote.com.