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Three presidential candidates make appeals to Indian Country

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivers a video message to the National Congress of American Indians on October 19, 2015. Photo by Indianz.Com

The National Congress of American Indians got a small taste of the crowded 2016 presidential field on Monday as three candidates pitched their pro-tribal agendas to participants.

But none of the hopefuls showed up in person to the largest inter-tribal gathering in the Lower 48. Instead, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, along with Republican Ben Carson, delivered video messages to the crowd in San Diego, California.

Clinton, though, had a significant leg up over the competition. In addition to the video, her team sent three well-known representatives to NCAI to explain why the former Secretary of State and former U.S. Senator from New York deserves the Native vote.

"We have a great field of Democratic candidates," said Holly Cook Macarro, a member of the Red Lake Nation and a lawyer / lobbyist who is advising Clinton's campaign. "I think it's very dynamic conversation that's going on."

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson delivers a video message to the National Congress of American Indians on October 19, 2015. Photo by Indianz.Com

Charlie Galbraith, a member of the Navajo Nation and another lawyer / lobbyist, is serving as co-chair of Clinton's Native American policy group. He played a similar role during the first campaign of President Barack Obama, whose Indian platform outpaced Clinton's in 2008, and later went to work for the White House to help turn the agenda into reality.

"This is important because this is where a future administration's policies get started," Galbraith told NCAI of the endeavor.

The other co-chair is Rion Ramirez, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and a tribal attorney based in Washington state who also worked for one of Obama's campaigns. He promised a "very vibrant outreach" to Indian Country to help develop Clinton's policies.

"We're going to work in conjunction with tribal leadership," Ramirez said. "We're going to have a phenomenal, phenomenal platform."

Representatives of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, from left: Charlie Galbraith, Holly Cook and Rion Ramirez at the National Congress of American Indians on October 19, 2015. Photo by Indianz.Com

The in-person presentation and Clinton's links to Obama's successful Indian Country initiatives were well received at the convention. But Sanders also drew considerable applause for a video that was at times more specific and more passionate than his rival's.

Sanders, a U.S. Senator from Vermont, doesn't have much of a record on Indian legislation. He spoke with an authoritative voice, though, on a wide range of issues as he called for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service to be exempt from the harmful effects of sequestration.

"There is no question that Washington faces a serious budget problem," Sanders said in his video."But last time I checked, it was not because we are spending too much on Indian housing, health care or education. It is not because we are spending too much on addressing the scourge of diabetes, improving crumbling infrastructure or creating jobs in Indian Country. It is not because we are spending too much supporting Native American veterans."

Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, came across somewhat differently. After briefly mentioning a meeting with tribal leaders in Colorado, he veered into a discussion about "pheasants and rabbits" that didn't appear to have a direct relation to Indian Country. Participants could be heard laughing loudly at that point in his video.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders delivers a video message to the National Congress of American Indians on October 19, 2015. Photo by Indianz.Com

"I hope you will join me and our endeavors to get the government out of our lives as much as we can, possibly, and to improve education and to create autonomy and, you know, self-reliance," Carson said.

Carson's visit to Colorado came as the Environmental Protection Agency was under fire for its handling of the Gold King Mine waste spill. He didn't mention the impacts on the Navajo Nation or the Southern Ute Tribe during his video, though.

Randy Noka, the first vice president of NCAI, pointed out that the organization offered an equal opportunity for all of the campaigns to present at the convention. He said the showing by just three candidates reflected poorly on their rivals.

"If they couldn't send something, then shame on them," Noka, a leader of the Narragansett Tribe, said of the no-shows to applause from the crowd.

For those that did participate, NCAI executive director Jackie Pata said their messages indicate that they are paying attention to the Native vote. By the organization's 2016 conference in Arizona, the two parties will have settled on their nominees.

"Having informed candidates makes big differences because it raises the level of awareness of all of the other candidates," Pata said.

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