Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) addresses the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., on February 14, 2018. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Elizabeth Warren vows sweeping improvements in Indian policy as president

Elizabeth Warren: Honoring and Empowering Tribal Nations and Indigenous Peoples

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren is promising major changes in the federal-tribal relationship as part of a policy platform she unveiled ahead of a Native issues forum in a key voting state.

Warren, the senior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, is calling for full recognition of tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians, a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and stronger protections for sacred and ancestral lands as part of the platform, announced on Medium.Com on Friday morning. With a key supporter by her side -- Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), one of the first two Native women in Congress -- she vowed to increase federal funding, elevate Indian issues across government and establish a permanent voice for tribal nations in the White House.

"To achieve this, we must end the corruption that empowers giant corporate interests to trample the interests of indigenous peoples," Warren states in her expansive platform. "We must end the neglect that allows Congress to chip away at nutrition assistance, health care, education funding, and other programs, many of which are grounded in treaty commitments exchanged for millions of acres of native lands, and that too many Native families rely on to survive. And we must go further."

"We must ensure that America’s sacred trust and treaty obligations are the law of the land -- binding legal and moral principles that are not merely slogans, but instead reinforce the solemn nation-to-nation relationships with Tribal Nations," she continues. "Accomplishing this will require structural change."

With the announcement, Warren is making a major splash right before the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum. She's one of the participants in the highly anticipated event, taking place on Monday and Tuesday in the early voting state of Iowa. It's the first of the 2020 presidential cycle to focus on Indian issues and the first of its kind in more than a decade.

And while she isn't the first with a comprehensive Indian Country statement -- that achievement goes to Julián Castro, a former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who is also taking part in the forum -- Warren goes further than her counterpart in many respects. One of the most notable is her call to recognize the authority of tribes to punish anyone, regardless of race, who commits crime on their lands.

Through the Violence Against Women Act of 2013, Congress recognized the "inherent" authority of tribes to arrest, prosecute and sentence non-Indians who abuse their domestic partners. Legislation mired in partisan politics on Capitol Hill would expand on the landmark provisions to cover sexual assault, stalking and trafficking, as well as crimes against children and law enforcement.

But Warren wants Congress to go further and fully address the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, a destructive ruling that restricted tribal authority based on a paternalistic views of their governments. In doing so, she is the first presidential candidate of the 2020 cycle to call for jurisdiction over non-Indians in all criminal aspects.

"My administration will provide Tribal Nations that choose to exercise this authority with the necessary resources to administer justice fairly -- like providing funding for legal representation for indigent defendants -- and to expand the scope of their enforcement without imposing any additional financial burdens on tribes that have been systematically underfunded," Warren states.

And unlike her fellow candidates, Warren benefits from a prominent backer: Deb Haaland, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna. Along with the platform, the pair on Friday are announcing comprehensive legislation to address Indian Country's unmet needs, many of which were outlined in a recent report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

"We will call it the Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act," Warren said. "This legislation will not address every major policy issue of concern to Tribal Nations and indigenous communities. But it will represent an urgently needed and long-overdue step toward ensuring that the United States finally, and for the first time, fully meets its resource obligations to Indian Country."

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) poses with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) following the Democratic presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan, on July 30, 2019. Photo: Deb Haaland for Congress

Haaland, who made history by becoming one of two Native women to win seats in the U.S. House of Representatives last November, announced her endorsement of Warren last month, calling the U.S. Senator a "great partner for Indian Country." She's already hit the trail in support of the campaign, including a stop in Detroit, Michigan, when many tribal leaders were in town for a series of roundtables with the presidential candidates and for the official Democratic party debates.

“Native American communities have endured a long history of oppression and broken promises – from blankets laced in disease to times when my grandparents and others in their communities were taken away from their families and put into boarding schools – the federal government has failed to live up to it responsibility to Native Nations to provide support for basic necessities in exchange for land and mass extermination of Native people,” Haaland said on Friday of the Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act. [Legislative Proposal | Outline | Full Bill]

“Congress will have an opportunity to address the longstanding failures of the federal government. This legislative proposal is the vehicle to further the conversation about what Indian Country needs for these promises to be adequately fulfilled", and to empower tribal governments to serve their people," Haaland continued. The federal government must honor its promises.”

But Warren's road to the White House has at times been overshadowed by a controversy connected to her past. Though she was enthusiastically received by the National Congress of American Indians in early 2018 for asserting to her "mother’s family was part Native American," her campaign stumbled later in the fall when she released the results of a DNA test which she said proved her claim of having Native ancestry.

A key official from the Cherokee Nation responded angrily to the genetic analysis, calling it "inappropriate and wrong" for anyone to claim ties to a tribe simply based on the result of such a test. Chuck Hoskin Jr., who was serving as the Cherokee Secretary of State at the time, is now the new Principal Chief of the largest tribe in Oklahoma, Warren's home state, and the largest in the U.S., in terms of citizenship numbers.

Other Cherokee citizens -- including prominent genealogists and historians -- have debunked any claims of Cherokee ancestry in Warren's family tree. But while they do so in a scholarly fashion, they aren't the only ones who have brought race and identity into the national debate.

Republican President Donald Trump and his supporters frequently use the name of a Native woman as a slur against Warren in an attempt to ridicule her. As the 2020 campaign heats up, he's promising to employ "Pocahontas" even more, despite its offensive connotations.

'We'll have to hit 'Pocahontas' very hard again if she does win," Trump said in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, referring to the competition for the Democratic nomination. "She's staging a little bit of a comeback."

The Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum is named in honor of the late Frank LaMere, a prominent activist who passed away in June after dedicating his life to advancing Native causes. He also was active in elevating Indian issues within the Democratic party.

“The passing of Frank LaMere, my good friend and hero for Indian Country, who fought for justice and a voice at every table, will leave a void that none of us can easily fill," Haaland said after his passing on June 16 at the age of 69. "His activism and kind and generous heart will be missed.”

The forum is being held in Sioux City, Iowa, a community with a thriving urban Indian population and one near the homelands and reservations of several tribes. LaMere also called it his home.

In addition to Elizabeth Warren, several Democrats are participating in the two-day event at the Orpheum Theatre. They are: Bill de Blasio, the Mayor of New York City; Amy Klobuchar, the U.S. Senator from Minnesota; 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 hosted by Four Directions and the Native Organizers Alliance, two advocacy organizations.

“This forum isn’t about ‘gotcha’ moments. It’s about ‘get it’ moments. We want candidates to grasp the challenges and aspirations of Indian Country," said said O.J. Semans, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe who co-directs Four Directions.

On board as co-hosts are the National Congress of American Indians, the Coalition of Large Tribes, the Global Indigenous Council, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, the Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes, the Native American Rights Fund, the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, and the United South and Eastern Tribes. Together, the organizations represent nearly every tribal nation in the lower 48 states.

The Big Fire Law and Policy Group, a newly established legal firm that's 100 percent Native owned and one of the first to be majority owned by Native women, is also a co-sponsor.

“Never before has our country had a presidential forum singularly dedicated to issues impacting tribal nations, it is long overdue, and Big Fire Law & Policy Group is happy to work with Four Directions, tribal leaders, and our tribal advocacy groups to be a part of this important change,” said Lance Morgan, an attorney and citizen of the Winnebago Tribe.

“If we’re serious about tackling the biggest problems facing Indian Country, we need our voices to be heard, for the candidates to understand the serious issues tribal governments are facing and then have conversations about solutions," said Morgan, who also serves as president and chief executive officer of Ho-Chunk Inc., the Winnebago Tribe's economic arm. “This forum will create an important opportunity for candidates to hear directly from tribal leaders and Native voters.”

Ho-Chunk Inc. also owns Indianz.Com but the website operates independently and is not involved in the corporation's activities, or with the legal firm's involvement in the presidential forum.

The Coushatta Tribe, based in Louisiana, is serving as 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 the forum. Tickets can be purchased online for a nominal fee.

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
More 2020 presidential candidates line up for historic Native issues forum (August 6, 2019)
Aaron Payment: Candidates must understand and respect tribal sovereignty (July 31, 2019)
Tribal leaders grill 2020 Democratic presidential candidates on Indian issues (July 30, 2019)
Candidates make first major play for Native vote in 2020 presidential race (July 25, 2019)
Trending in News
More Headlines