Julián Castro, then serving as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, appeared at the White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C., on September 26, 2018. Photo: National Congress of American Indians

Candidates make first major play for Native vote in 2020 presidential race

The 2020 Democratic presidential field is a crowded one and some candidates are seeking to distinguish themselves by making a play for the Native vote.

Though American Indians and Alaska Natives only represent about 1.3 percent of the nation's population, their votes can sway outcomes in several battleground states. With more than two dozen hoping to lead the United States, presidential hopefuls can't afford to ignore the voices of the first Americans, advocates say.

“No candidate should take the Native American vote for granted,” said O.J. Semans, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “But when candidates demonstrate they understand the issues and will work for the betterment of our people and our communities, they can earn our votes.”

In hopes of demonstrating that point, Semans and Four Directions, an organization he co-directs, are making history with the Frank LaMere Presidential Candidate Forum. To be held next month in Iowa, one of the most important campaigning states, the event is the first of the 2020 cycle to focus on Indian issues and it's the first of its kind in more than a decade.

“Candidates want to say yes to this event, because they understand voter turnout is increasing dramatically in Indian Country,” said Semans of the forum, named in honor of the late Frank LaMere, a prominent activist who passed away last month after dedicating his life to advancing Native causes.

Five of the major party candidates so far have agreed to take part in the August 19-20 event, organizers announced on Thursday. The Democrats who already said "yes" are: Bernie Sanders, the U.S. Senator from Vermont, author Marianne Williamson; Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana, Julián Castro, a former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; and John Delaney, a former U.S. Congressman from Maryland.

Additionally, independent candidate Mark Charles, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, will be attending the forum. It's being held at the Orpheum Theatre in Sioux City, a community with a thriving urban Indian population and one near the homelands and reservations of several tribes.

Ahead of the event, Castro announced on Thursday that he will be returning to Iowa to campaign. His weekend includes a session with citizens of the Meskwaki Nation in Tama, about 220 miles east of Sioux City.

At the event on the Meskwaki Settlement on Friday, Castro will formally unveil his "People First Indigenous Communities Policy". His platform stresses sovereignty, treaties, justice for Native women and tribal-federal partnerships.

"We can never undo the injustice of our country’s treatment of Indigenous people. But as a nation, we can live up to our treaty obligations, strengthen tribal sovereignty, and be a serious partner in improving and strengthening our shared destiny," Castro, who led the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Barack Obama administration, said of his platform in a post on Medium on Thursday.

With the release of the platform, Castro is the first Democratic candidate to offer a comprehensive look at his vision for the first Americans. He promises to revive the White House Tribal Nations Conference, a popular event that drew hundreds of tribal leaders to the nation's capital for the eight years of the Obama presidency, and create a White House Council on Indigenous Communities, an idea that follows in the footsteps of a similar body during the Obama era.

In contrast, the tribal conference and the Native council have gone dormant under President Donald Trump's watch, at a time when relations with tribal nations have been strained, difficult and even non-existent in some instances. It wasn't until this month that the White House brought someone on board a focus on Indian policy as key leadership positions, including one at the Indian Health Service, have gone unfilled in year three of the Republican administration.

Castro, though, isn't the only Democratic presidential candidate who has articulated an Indian policy. But his is far more detailed than the one offered by Bernie Sanders, whose "Empower Tribal Nations" platform also focuses on sovereignty, treaties, Native women and the environment.

"Native Americans are the first Americans, yet they have for far too long been treated as third class citizens. It is unconscionable that today, in 2019, Native Americans still do not always have the right to decide on important issues that affect their communities," the 2020 platform reads.

During the 2016 campaign, Sanders was popular among Native voters in several states. During that race, he had a much more expansive Indian policy document than the one currently posted on his 2020 site.

Similarly, Marianne Williamson touts "Native American Justice" on her campaign site. Her policy, which also promises an annual White House summit, is slightly longer than Sanders' though it's still not as detailed as Castro's.

"It is time for our generation to atone and make fundamental amends for the accumulated transgressions of US policy," Williamson states. "We must seek to overturn wrongs of the past that in many ways still linger today, and redress the problems that have been caused because of them."

Steve Bullock already beat Castro to the Meskwaki Settlement by hosting one of his first campaign events there back in May. He has enjoyed a strong relationship with tribes since becoming governor of Montana in 2013 but his 2020 site doesn't boast much in terms of specifics on policy issues, Indian or otherwise.

"We've worked government-to-government to expand health care," Bullock said after his May 21 listening session on Meskwaki homelands. "We've addressed the unique challenges and business opportunities for Native American collateral loan programs and we actually, this passed legislative session, really took on the problems of missing and murdered Indigenous women."

John Delaney, one of the confirmed candidates at the Frank LaMere Presidential Candidate Forum, doesn't have anything about Indian Country on his 2020 campaign site's "Issues" page so far.

Mark Charles: "Throughout the history of the United States, 'We the People' has never meant #AllThePeople. I think it's time we corrected that."

Charles doesn't have much on his ite either at this point, but his views on a wide range of topics, from genocide and race relations to boarding schools and reconciliation, are well known due to his frequent columns that have been posted on Indianz.Com, Native News Online and on other platforms.

"My goal is visit all 50 states and our territories, such as Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the District of Columbia, as well as reservations in Indian Country," Charles said in an interview with Native News Online. "I want to visit the states with multiple reservations or numerous tribes."

"I think anyone who wants to be president should be respectful to first visit Native nations of Turtle Island," Charles added. "I plan to go to the Navajo Nation to hold a campaign event."

Sioux City in Iowa is known as a crossroads for tribal people from around Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. The Omaha Tribe and the Winnebago Tribe both own trust lands nearby, and their citizens represent a large portion of the two percent of the population who are Native.

Ho-Chunk Inc., the Winnebago Tribe's economic development arm, operates a number of businesses in and around Sioux City, including the Ho-Chunk Centre, a prominent office building in the downtown area. The facility was initially considered as the location for the Frank LaMere Presidential Candidate Forum until organizers turned to the Orpheum, which has hosted events for other presidential candidates, including Elizabeth Warren, the U.S. Senator from Massachusetts.

The upcoming presidential forum is named in honor of the late Frank LaMere, who was an activist from the Winnebago Tribe. He is seen here receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Nebraska Wesleyan University at a commencement ceremony in Lincoln on May 11, 2019. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Warren has not confirmed her attendance at the upcoming forum. Shortly after announcing her 2020 run, she appeared at a Native women's event in Washington, D.C., in February but it was not open to the general public. Representatives of the media were barred from entering without having purchased a ticket ahead of time.

Last year, Warren was received enthusiastically by tribal leaders at an event hosted by the National Congress of American Indians. During her speech, which was seen by many as a prelude to her presidential run, she insisted her mother's family was "part Native American" but acknowledged she lacks documentation of her heritage.

"You won’t find my family members on any rolls, and I’m not enrolled in a tribe," Warren said at the time, adding: "I respect that distinction. I understand that tribal membership is determined by tribes -- and only by tribes."

Later in the year, she upset leader and citizens of the Cherokee Nation by releasing the results of a DNA test which she said indicated the existence of a Native ancestor in her family. She has not spoken in detail about Indian issues during her campaign even as President Donald Trump and the conservative media continue to use the name of a Native woman as a racial slur against her.

In addition to Four Directions, the Native Organizers Alliance is serving as host of the Frank LaMere Presidential Candidate Forum. Co-hosts include NCAI, the Native American Rights Fund, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, the Coalition of Large Tribes, the Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes and the United South and Eastern Tribes.

O.J. Semans said the Coushatta Tribe, based in Louisiana, will be the "Lead Premier" sponsor for the event while the NDN Collective has joined as "Lead Underwriting" sponsor. Tom Rodgers, a citizen of the Blackfeet Nation and founder of the Carlyle Consulting firm, has joined as "Lead Stage" sponsor.

Mark Trahant, a citizen of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes who serves as the editor of Indian Country Today, is scheduled to moderate.

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