Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) speaks to citizens of the Meskwaki Nation during a campaign visit to the tribe's settlement in Tama, Iowa, on May 21, 2019. Photo: Governor Bullock

Tribal leaders grill 2020 Democratic presidential candidates on Indian issues

As the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates hit the stage for their second round of debates this week, some of the hopefuls are sitting down with tribal leaders for a grilling on Indian Country's most pressing issues.

About 25 to 30 tribal leaders are participating in the roundtables, taking place over three days in Detroit, Michigan, the same location as the official party forums. They will hear presentations from six of the candidates and ask them questions about matters of importance to their communities.

The format, according to Keith Harper, a former U.S. Ambassador and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, allows for "real debate" on tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, the federal-trust relationship and other key policy concerns. He and Rion Ramirez, an attorney and citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, organized the roundtables as the White House contenders seek to stand out in an otherwise crowded field.

One way to do that, advocates argue, is to reach out to Indian Country. Though it's still early in the race, some of the hopefuls are proving eager to tap into the power of the Native vote in key states across the nation, including Michigan and others in the Midwest.

Against the high stakes backdrop, the presidential candidates confirmed to meet with tribal leaders are: Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana; Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana; Julián Castro, a former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; Kamala Harris, the U.S. Senator from California; Bernie Sanders, the U.S. Senator from Vermont; and Elizabeth Warren, the U.S. Senator from Massachusetts.

Additionally, tribal leaders will meet with Tom Perez, a former Obama administration official who serves as chair of the Democratic National Committee.

First up to meet with tribal leaders on Tuesday afternoon is Bernie Sanders, who enjoyed strong support among Native voters during his ultimately unsuccessful 2016 presidential campaign. One reason for that was his detailed Indian platform, which he has yet to resurrect during his current run.

Still, his "Empower Tribal Nations" page on his campaign site carries on some of the similar goals, focusing on sovereignty, treaties, justice for Native women and the environment. During his time in the U.S. Senate, he also championed Native causes like protecting Oak Flat, a sacred Apache site in Arizona, from resource development, and opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota for similar reasons.

"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 current Sanders platform reads.

At the tribal roundtables, Sanders will be followed over the next two days by the five other confirmed candidates, all six of whom are taking part in the Democratic debates on July 30 and July 31.

Among the field, only Julián Castro, who led the
Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Obama era, has released a comprehensive, written Indian policy.

"In developing his People First Indigenous Communities platform, Secretary Castro consulted a number of indigenous activists and policy experts from across the country," Liza Acevedo, the campaign's deputy press secretary, told Indianz.Com on Tuesday. "He is the first candidate to commit to including Native Americans in senior positions in his administration and has proposed launching a White House Council on Indigenous Communities as well as individual tribal advisory committees within all Cabinet-level agencies by the end of 2024. "

The White House Council on Indigenous Communities follows in the footsteps of a similar body during the Obama era. Castro also plans 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.

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.

As the mayor of another Midwest city, Pete Buttigieg has direct experience in a number of tribal issues. He helped make history by welcoming the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians back to its homelands in South Bend, Indiana.

Buttigieg's stance is notable because local governments often oppose attempts to tribes to acquire trust lands. Instead, the mayor helped negotiate and implement a government-to-government agreement with the Pokagon Band, one that has resulted in significant economic and social benefits for his community.

"These funds will help lift up our community’s children and families across all neighborhoods," Buttigieg said in January of the
tribe's latest contribution to South Bend.

His presidential campaign site, however, doesn't mention his positive tribal record. The "Issues" page doesn't offer many details about Native Americans, except for a pledge to "protect voting rights on tribal lands" and to "support self-determination of Indigenous populations."

During his two terms as governor of Montana, where Native Americans represent nearly 7 percent of the population, Bullock has enjoyed a strong relationship with tribes. After announcing his 2020 presidential campaign, one of his first stops was the Meskwaki Nation, based in the key early voting state of Iowa.

"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."

His 2020 site, though, doesn't boast much in terms of specifics on policy issues, Indian or otherwise.

For Kamala Harris, her Indian Country record hasn't been all that great. When she served as attorney general in California, she opposed at least 15 tribal homelands applications, Dave Palermo first reported for, a Native news site. She also participated in two high-profile cases that attempted to undermine the status of tribal lands in her home state.

In one instance, she even accused a tribe of straying too far from its "reservation" even though the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians is seeking land in the same county where its original rancheria was located before being terminated by the federal government.

Since joining the Senate in January 2017, Harris hasn't done much to change the record. In the case of the Lytton Band, whose leaders have asked Congress to approve their homelands application and a government-to-government agreement, a local official credited her with slow-walking the legislation.

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Native Americans: 'Let's Talk About Pocahontas'

Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, has introduced and co-sponsored key Indian legislation during her time in the Senate. She even boasts at least one Native staffer on her presidential campaign, as does Castro's.

Yet her efforts have long been overshadowed by questions about her ancestral lineage. She told tribal leaders last year that she was "part Native American" on her mother's side of the family but admitted she lacks proof of it.

"You won’t find my family members on any rolls, and I’m not enrolled in a tribe," Warren said at a meeting of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., in early 2018, adding: "I respect that distinction. I understand that tribal membership is determined by tribes -- and only by tribes."

But after announcing her presidential campaign later in the year, she upset leaders 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. Still, 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.

Of the six candidates sitting down with tribal leaders this week, three of them -- Bullock, Castro and Sanders -- have already agreed to participate in the Frank LaMere Presidential Candidate Forum. Being held August 19 and August 20 in Iowa, 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.

Besides the trio, author Marianne Williamson and John Delaney, a former U.S. Congressman from Maryland are taking part in 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. He also was active in Democratic party politics.

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.

O.J. Semans, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe whose Four Directions organization is organizing the forum, is still hoping to attract additional participants. He told Indianz.Com on Tuesday that Midwest tribal leaders who are in Detroit this week will be working to bring more of the Democratic hopefuls on board.

Sioux City 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,

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.

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. d their citizens represent a large portion of the two percent of the population who are Native.

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