The late Native rights activist Frank LaMere is seen with talk show host Laura Flanders at the Prez on the Rez forum on Morongo tribal lands in Cabazon, California, on August 23, 2007. Photo by Alyssa Macy

Mark Trahant: Taking the Red Road to the White House

Why bother? Red road to the White House
Looking back at presidential campaigns that have reached out to Indian Country #NativeVote20 #NativeForum
Indian Country Today

I imagine how much Frank LaMere would enjoy participating in his own presidential forum next week in Sioux City, Iowa.

A dozen years ago LaMere, and then Democratic Chair Howard Dean, were the star guests at “Prez on the Rez.” This was the first presidential forum designed to bring candidates to Indian Country. It was held in Cabazon, California, on the land of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians.

The “big three” candidates at the time, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards, all passed. The usual excuses were cited: Schedule conflicts, travel logistics, and the one often unsaid, yet expressed indirectly, that American Indians and Alaska Natives were too small a constituency to matter. Why bother?

Prez on the Rez - Photos by Alyssa Macy
Prez on the Rez, August 23, 2007, Morongo Event Center, Cabazon, CA
Prez on the Rez - Photos by Alyssa Macy

Kalyn Free, Choctaw, organized the event and she was able to attract what became the “second tier” of presidential candidates: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel.

A headline in the Albuquerque Journal was just as dismissive: “Few Dems Will Be at `Prez on the Rez’.” So why bother?

Rep. Kucinich had one answer for that. He said America has something to learn from Indian Country. He praised the peacemaker court system and other alternative justice methods as something that should be expanded. He called for the creation of a Department of Peace and Non-Violence that would highlight, fund, and promote similar programs.

"Take the time to tell them that there's someone running for president who understands their heart, that there's someone running for president who understands their needs,” he said.

Gravel had his own answer. "I know how you honor people my age," he said. "And that's why you will support me." Gravel dropped out of this presidential race last week and endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders. Wow. A dozen years later he is still raising heck on the trail.

The then governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, called for full funding of the Indian Health Service and the creation of a full cabinet post for Native American programs. "You need to raise these issues to the highest levels to send a signal that other government agencies need to take Native American issues seriously," he said.

Next week in Iowa the Frank LaMere Presidential Forum will raise presidential discourse about Indian Country to historic levels. There will be a national moment when the normal political invisibility that is Indian Country will be exposed.

This is important because this country cannot live up to its potential unless it also honors its treaty obligations. And the next President of the United States, Democrat or Republican, is charged with that solemn task. And there have been candidates who got that.

In some ways Indian Country seems like an “easy” get. Show up. Find a photo opportunity and claim victory. However the candidates (and their teams) quickly learn how complex the issues are.

My first memory of a presidential campaign was a visit Bobby Kennedy made to Fort Hall before the 1968 election. He was not a candidate then, not yet, but was traveling for a Senate subcommittee on Indian education. The stark thing I remember about that visit was that a man my dad worked with had killed himself during the visit. A tragedy that Kennedy noted.

He later wrote about that trip and said he was searching for tribal members who were working as teachers -- and found none -- and discovered that there was only one book in the next town’s library that had Indians in the title, “Captive of the Delawares” about a young blond boy being scalped.

That election was a promise, of course, one that went unfulfilled after Kennedy’s murder.

Richard Nixon saw the potential from an Indian Country vote, especially in 1972. He sent his brother, Ed Nixon, to campaign in Window Rock on the Navajo Nation as well as Alaska. (Later he wanted to name his brother a special envoy to the state, but the Interior Department quickly nixed that idea.) Ed Nixon told me that he had been to Navajo as a geologist and was already familiar with people when we went to campaign in 1972.

Ed Nixon said his brother really admired his football coach, Wallace Newman, and that was why he was so keen on reaching out to Indian Country. He also recalled a conversation with their grandmother, Ruth Milhous, who told the future president that the country had not done the right thing.

“She thought we’d been treating them wrong through the years,” Ed Nixon recalled. “You make a treaty and break it, that’s just not right. Make it right. So that was in Dick’s mind, I’m sure, as he went into office.”

Ed Nixon died in February of this year. I last interviewed him in 2012.

Washington Sen. Henry Jackson ran for president in 1972 and again in 1976. This is a story that everyone in Indian Country should know because it is about redemption.

Jackson was a longtime supporter of termination. He viewed in the context of his background. He was the son of Norwegian immigrants. He saw assimilation as the logical next step, blend in, be American, that sort of thing. He championed termination while in the House and continued on that path while in the Senate.

When he was running for president, a number of colleagues suggested he look at the issue again. The argument was “get right” on Indian issues. Seattle physician, Abe Bergman, who often worked in Native clinics, urged Jackson to not only get on the right side of history but to reach out to tribal communities in his campaign.

As I wrote in my book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” Jackson reversed his policy. He hired Forrest Gerard as his professional staff member and championed the most significant legislation of the 1970s, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, the Indian Finance Act, and changed the very nature of the policy discussions.

To me this story is about what a candidate can be, not what they are now. If Jackson ran in the age of Twitter, his candidacy would have been dismissed. Terminationist. End of story.

Perhaps the candidate most knowledgeable about American Indians and Alaska Native issues was Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona. He also ran in 1976. (Udall wrote about his failed enterprise in his book, “Too Funny to be President.”) After one of the primary elections where Udall came up short, he said, "The people have spoken — the bastards."

Franklin Ducheneaux, Cheyenne River, who worked with Udall on the House Interior Committee for many years once told me. “He was a great man, I think. I don't know what kind of president he would have made, but he was sure a great man.”

One of the first candidates to really engage Indian Country, at least during the campaign, was Jesse Jackson in 1984. I was the editor of the Navajo Times when Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition showed up to meet with the Navajo Nation Council. The reporters came back excited, telling me the reaction from the council was stunning, as delegates rose to their feet after an inspirational talk.

Jackson was written off by the press. Why bother? He was reaching out to communities that did not vote -- or at least that was the perception. But he eventually captured third behind Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado and former Vice President Walter Mondale who won the nomination. Jackson earned 3.2 million votes and won five primaries. Jackson changed the narrative in Indian Country.

Barack Obama: Crow Reservation in Montana

In addition to the public story, there are also many Native Americans who work behind the scenes for candidates. When a candidate is successful, it translates into the type of people who are hired to work in the next administration. This is as important as the candidates. Because talented leaders hire talented people.

Suzan Harjo worked for the Jimmy Carter campaign in 1976 and organized a meeting with tribal leaders. She later told Cultural Survival that Carter “pledged to sign the act into law, along with the Indian Child Welfare Act, Tribally Controlled Community Colleges Act, Eastern Indian land claims settlements, and other federal Indian legislation. I have to point out that he made a lot of promises to us and kept every one.”

Barack Obama was engaged with Indian Country as a candidate. As Kevin Washburn, Chickasaw, who later became the Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, told Indian Country Today: “Early on, as a candidate, Obama identified Indian country as something that was important to him, an area where he personally wanted to make a difference … from the beginning, we saw that he was intellectually committed to Indian country. By the end, he was emotionally committed. I don’t think we’ve seen that before.”

“Few have been ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans, the first Americans,” Obama, said during his May 2008 visit to the Crow Nation. “My Indian policy starts with honoring the unique government-to-government relationship between tribes and the federal government and ensuring that our treaty responsibilities are met and ensuring that Native Americans have a voice in the White House.”

The Obama administration may have been the most successful and productive in the country’s history for American Indian and Alaska Native issues, not just in terms of policy, but in terms of broad representation at the senior levels of government. The president’s visit to Alaska (and the Arctic) as well as his tribal nations conference.

Four years ago the Bernie Sanders team was more engaged than any presidential campaign ever. As I wrote in my blog at the time, Trahant Reports, “You have to give Bernie Sanders credit for elevating American Indian and Alaska Native issues. He traveled across Montana, South Dakota, and North Dakota, and at every stop (as he has been doing for months now) he called for a new relationship between the federal government and tribes.”

“The reason we are here today is to try to understand what is going on in Pine Ridge and other reservations,” Sanders said in one stop. “There are a lot of problems here. Poverty is much too high. There are not enough decent jobs in the area. The health care system is inadequate. And we need to fundamentally change the relationship between the U.S. government and the Native American community.”

That brings us back to Iowa. Sanders was one of the first candidates to agree to the Frank LaMere Presidential Forum. It’s a conversation he started on the campaign trail four years ago and one that could be amplified by many more voices now.

Mark Trahant is the editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter @TrahantReports.

This story originally appeared on Indian Country Today on August 15 2019.

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