Jennifer LaMere adjusts her father Frank LaMere's robe just before commencement services at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln on May 11, 2019, when her father received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree for his work in advancing Native causes. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Record number of presidential candidates lined up for historic Native issues forum

O.J. Semans is skeptical when it comes to coincidence.

That fact was most recently demonstrated as the Rosebud Sioux tribal citizen and others began planning a highly anticipated presidential candidate forum in Iowa.

The No. 7 – a number considered sacred to many tribes – kept showing up.

Seven presidential candidates. Seven battleground states where the Native vote could make a difference. Seventy-seven electoral votes within the nation that could be decided by Native voters.

“It may be a coincidence, but it’s also a sign,” he said. “Our culture, we always talk about seven generations.”

O.J. Semans, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe who co-directs Four Directions Vote, is seen at the #RemoveTheStain press conference in Washington, D.C., on June 25, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Semans spent much of Friday at the Orpheum Theatre in Sioux City, Iowa, making final preparations for the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum, which begins Monday and ends Tuesday evening.

As Semans was at the venue, the forum was confirmed to feature eight Democratic candidates for president: Elizabeth Warren, the U.S. Senator from Massachusetts; 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.

In two last-minute additions announced on Sunday, Kamala Harris, the U.S. Senator from California, and Joe Sestak, a former U.S. Congressman from Pennsylvania, agreed to join. Harris will participate via Skype while Sestak will appear on stage.

Independent candidate Mark Charles, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, is also on the forum schedule.

Two Native advocacy organizations, Four Directions and the Native Organizers Alliance, are hosting the forum, which is the first of the 2020 presidential cycle to focus on Indian issues and the first of its kind in more than a decade.

Semans, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe who co-directs Four Directions, said the organization decided to host the forum as Congressional leaders began drafting legislation to rescind the 20 Medals of Honor awarded to soldiers who massacred women and children in 1890 at Wounded Knee.

“After we were able to get that legislation, we thought we needed to do more in order to make our issues heard,” he said.

Knowing presidential candidates would be visiting Iowa this August, primarily for the State Fair in Des Moines, Four Directions decided to host the forum in Sioux City, a city of about 82,000 people on the banks of the Missouri River in northwest Iowa. At least three tribes – the Winnebago, Omaha and Santee Sioux – have trust land near Sioux City, which is also home to many Lakota and Dakota people.

South Sioux City, Nebraska, just across the river, was home to the forum’s namesake, Frank LaMere, a prominent Winnebago activist who passed away in June after a lifetime spent advancing Native causes. He also was active in elevating Indian issues within the Democratic Party.

His daughter, Jennifer LaMere, said this week that’s she proud to have her father’s name on such a prestigious event.

“I definitely support it,” she said. “What an honor to see my dad’s name on that.”

Neither of the two Republican presidential candidates, President Donald Trump and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, agreed to attend the forum. Former Vice President Joe Biden also hasn’t agreed to attend the forum.

Semans said Four Directions invited all presidential candidates to the forum.

The forum will feature the presidential candidates sitting on a stage as tribal leaders and others ask questions of them. Indian Country Today Editor Mark Trahant, a citizen of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, will moderate the forum.

A different Native elder and a Native youth will escort each candidate to the stage.

Each candidate will be allowed to give an opening statement, and questions by tribal leaders and the candidates’ answers to those questions will have time limits.

Semans said the event will feature tribal flags from tribal homelands across the country, though he learned this week that that posts for the flags won’t arrive until Tuesday.

“We’re scrambling,” he said. “Hey, there’s got to be something. Otherwise, you’re not dealing with Indian Country.”

He said the forum will give tribes the opportunity to tell their stories to a larger audience. Semans said he expects many national media representatives to cover the event.

“A lot of the non-Indians, if they heard and understood the questions that we’re presenting to these candidates, they would think that it’s absurd that we’re being treated this way,” he said. “They are going to know who we are and the issues that we face like they’ve never heard it before in U.S. history.”

Native veteran Marcella LeBeau: Remove the Stain Act

He said the two main issues that will be presented through questions to the candidates will be missing and murdered indigenous women and the Remove the Stain Act, the legislation now being considered by Congress that would rescind the 20 Wounded Knee Medals of Honor. [H.R.3467]

He said the two issues are intertwined.

“It’s not just a fluke that we have missing and murdered indigenous women,” Semans said. “It’s because of the mindset that America has given other citizens that it’s okay.”

“That’s why we’re putting those two issues out into the forefront.”

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