Opinion | Politics

Mark Trahant: Bernie Sanders is paying attention to Indian Country

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Photo from Bernie 2016

#NativeVote16 – Bernie Sanders is paying attention to Indian Country
By Mark Trahant

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is paying attention to Indian Country. That does not often happen in national elections.

Last week he met with Native Americans in Kansas, Minnesota, and Michigan. Sanders won caucuses in Kansas and Minnesota and Michigan voters will weigh in on Tuesday. A story by Levi Rickert in Native News Online said that Sanders’ stump speech had a portion “devoted to the mistreatment of Native Americans, who Sanders referred to as this country’s “first peoples.” The post quoted Belinda Bardwell, a former tribal councilor of the Little Bay Bands of the Odawa Indians and current Masters of Public Administration student at Grand Valley State University saying: “He brought tears to my eyes. No candidate ever mention us in their campaign speeches.”

Indeed. This is inspiring politics. Think about the history of the United States and all that’s gone wrong. And yet in 2016 a presidential candidate is making the case that the country can do better. That message also reflects the difference in style between the Sanders campaign and that of Hillary Clinton. Sanders is drawing crowds and stirring pride; Clinton is methodically building a delegate lead. On Saturday Sanders won Kansas and Nebraska, but Clinton netted more delegates by winning Louisiana.

I think we journalists over emphasize the horse race – who’s winning? – and I don’t want to spend much time on that point. But just know that Sanders has to do two things to ace his nomination test: He needs to start winning big states, such as Michigan, and he needs more Democrats to vote. Voter turnout so far this season has been mediocre. That could be a troubling sign for either Democrat this fall.

There is another win for Indian Country that comes from the Sanders candidacy. My bet is that he will be a better advocate going forward. If you look at all 100 members of the Senate, Sanders would not have been the go-to-member for any tribal issues. Indian Country was not his passion. But that was also true for then-Sen. Barack Obama. Until he ran for the White House.

That’s also what happened with George McGovern. He had a reason to be a voice for Native Americans. He represented South Dakota. And he won his Senate seat in 1962 by 597 votes; a victory he credited to the Indian electorate.

McGovern was one of the first in the Senate to reject termination, the failed policy that set out to pretend that treaties did not matter and to eliminate federal programs on reservations McGovern even proposed a new federal Indian policy in 1966. “The foremost characteristic of our Indian policy should be self-determination for the people it serves,” McGovern said. “Too often in the past the federal government has done what it has thought best for Indians, with minor regard for the hopes and aspirations of the Indians.” As I have written before, and in my book, The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars, McGovern was making an early pitch for tribal self-determination. But he also said any new policy ought to focus on self-help, be consistent, have enough resources to be successful and allow for innovation in Indian country. The Senate passed McGovern’s resolution, but it failed in the House.

McGovern was also part of the liberal-Nixon coalition in the Senate that outmaneuvered Democratic Party leaders over the return of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo.

But there remained many questions about McGovern on Indian issues. “McGovern’s Indian critics discuss his absenteeism from regular Senate subcommittee working sessions on pivotal reform Indian legislation, and his frequent absences during critical floor votes in the Senate,” Richard LaCourse wrote for the American Indian Press Association. “They question whether he has used his chairmanship on the Indian affairs subcommittee to its fullest in serving the legislative needs of Indians.” LaCourse said that even in South Dakota there was “some disenchantment” with McGovern. “Indians who believe that once he won his Senate seat he lost his working concern for Indian needs and, instead devoted himself to ‘national issues.’ Consequently,” LaCourse wrote, “he has a credibility problem with the Indians at home.”

On the 1972 campaign trail, however, McGovern was a reformer and called for a new answer to the role of American Indians in society. He promised that the Bureau of Indian Affairs would be restructured either as a White House operation or as a cabinet-level agency. “It is still shamefully true that the Indians of the United States are not free. The first order of business is to clear the way, fully, quickly, and without equivocation, for them to secure for themselves every freedom enjoyed by other Americans,” McGovern said. (More on the McGovern campaign from a piece I wrote for Indian Country Today Media Network).

The point here is that campaigns change people. McGovern was a much better Senator after his failed campaign. Win or lose I expect Sanders will be someone who champions Indian Country issues in a new way from now on.

It’s also worth mentioning that so much of the modern ideas about Indian Country and presidential elections stem from that campaign. Detailed position papers from each side (in this case, McGovern and Nixon) outline their priorities for Indian Country. That’s true today for both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. (Somehow I don’t expect one from Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.)

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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