Indianz.Com Video: Joe Biden | Native American Presidential Forum #NativeVote2020

Democratic presidential race sees shakeup amid questions about one candidate's 'Native' ancestry

UPDATE (March 3, 2020): Joe Biden's stand-alone Indian Country policy is available. "For decades, Joe Biden has worked to foster tribal sovereignty and prosperity, and to ensure the United States follows through on the commitments it has made to Indian Country," it reads.

Note: Following publication of this story, Amy Klobuchar ended her Democratic presidential campaign on Monday afternoon.

The Democratic presidential race got a major jolt over the weekend with the resurgence of a candidate known for his work in advancing tribal sovereignty and the exit of another who had the most direct experience in daily tribal affairs.

Joe Biden, who served as vice president under Barack Obama for eight years, won a commanding victory in South Carolina on Saturday, following a series of disappointing showings elsewhere. He now heads into the Super Tuesday primaries -- voters in 14 states and one U.S. territory are going to the polls -- with renewed momentum.

"You launched our campaign on the path to defeating Donald Trump," Biden said in a victory speech on Saturday evening from Columbia, the South Carolina capital, referring to the Republican incumbent.

Among other achievements, Biden is known for decades of work in the U.S. Senate on the Violence Against Women Act. His efforts led to the historic recognition of tribal sovereignty in the version of the law that Obama signed in 2013.

Joe Biden, a Democratic candidate for president, speaks at Moving America Forward Forum in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 16, 2020. Photo: Gage Skidmore

The former two-term vice president, however, has yet to announce a standalone Indian policy or any major Indian Country supporters. He declined to participate in the first Native American Presidential Forum, held last year in the key voting state of Iowa, and only sent a a brief video message to the second one in Nevada, where he lost the Democratic caucuses by a wide margin to Bernie Sanders barely a week ago.

"I promise you. If I'm elected president, you'll never have a better friend in the White House than me," Biden said in remarks delivered to the Four Directions and Nevada Tribal Nations Native American Presidential Forum on January 15. In his plan to end violence against women, he has called for expanded recognition of tribal authority over non-Indians and has pledged to take steps to address the "epidemic" of missing and murdered Native women and girls.

Another participant in the Native forum, meanwhile, ended his presidential aspirations. After a fourth-place showing in South Carolina, an outcome that earned him no new Democratic delegates, Pete Buttigieg announced he was dropping out of the race.

"I will no longer seek to be the 2020 Democratic nominee for president, but I will do everything in my power to ensure that we have a Democratic president come January," Buttigieg said on Sunday night from South Bend, Indiana, where he served as mayor for eight years.

Unlike Biden, Buttigieg had a comprehensive Indian platform and a team of Indian advisers and supporters that included prominent figures like Keith Harper, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who served as a U.S. Ambassador during the Obama era; Bryan Newland, the president of the Bay Mills Indian Community; and Alex Wesaw, a council member from the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians.

Announcement from Pete at 8:30 pm EST

Pete will be delivering remarks from South Bend, Indiana at 8:30 pm EST. We will be live streaming the event here and at Thank you.

Posted by Pete Buttigieg on Sunday, March 1, 2020
Pete Buttigieg: Campaign Announcement - March 1, 2020

As mayor of South Bend, Buttigieg helped make history by welcoming the Pokagon Band back to its homelands following the tribe's trust acquisition of 166 acres in the city. He helped negotiated a government-to-government with the tribe, a first in Indiana, and was a frequent promoter of the tribe's civic and economic achievements.

“I know that my community’s challenges won’t be undone in one election cycle or even in one presidential term, but it’s important that we elect a president who recognizes one of the darkest chapters in our nation’s history and will begin to tackle these challenges with the urgency that is required," Alex Smith, who is the youngest person to serve on the council of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, said in his endorsement of Buttigieg.

Despite a strong showing in Iowa, where he had campaigned on the Meskwaki Nation, Buttigieg was trailing in the Democratic delegate count, the numbers needed to secure the party's nomination. Sanders, the senior U.S. Senator from Vermont, has emerged as the front-runner with 58 delegates, followed closely by Biden, who has 50 delegates thanks to his new win. Buttigieg was running third with 26 delegates.

Elizabeth Warren, the senior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, and Amy Klobuchar, the senior U.S. Senator from Minnesota, are running behind as well, with 8 and 7 delegates, respectively. Both remain the Democratic race, along with Tulsi Gabbard, the member of Congress from Hawaii with 0 delegates, and Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, who also lacks delegates.

Tom Steyer, a businessman who had been endorsed by Sue Masten, a former president of the National Congress of American Indians, dropped out of the race on Saturday, following a poor showing in South Carolina. He didn't have any delegates either.

Warren announced a detailed Indian policy platform back in August, promising to uphold the federal government's trust and treaty obligations as president. But she continues to face questions about her commitment despite counting Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), one of the first two Native women in Congress, as one of her high-profile supporters.

The doubts center on Warren's assertion of being "part Native American" on her mother's side of the family. Though she has openly admitted none of her ancestors will be found on any tribal rolls, and genealogists haven't found any such heritage, citizens of the Cherokee Nation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians believe she has caused "real harm" to their communities with her "false claims to American Indian identity," which she later attempted to bolster with a DNA test that drew scorn from a Cherokee Nation official who now serves as the tribe's chief.

"Stating you do not qualify for citizenship is not enough; the truth is you and your ancestors are white," a open letter signed by nearly 150 Cherokee citizens and joined by more than 70 allies from other Indian nations stated.

Warren, who participated in both Native American presidential forums, acknowledged as much in a 12-page response to the open letter. She said she identifies as "white" and that she continues to talk about her family history as "an explanation, not a defense" of her ancestry claims.

"I am very sorry to have played any role in contributing to the invisibility of Native peoples," Warren added, addressing a point raised in the open letter, which also cited the steps she has taken in the Senate and as a presidential candidate to advance Indian issues.

But Warren's reaction doesn't appear to be changing any Cherokee minds. The organizers of the letter, including genealogist Twila Barnes, professor Joseph M. Pierce, scholar Daniel Heath Justice and award-winning journalist Rebecca Nagle, have called the response inadequate because they believe it fails to address the underlying critique.

"She's holding onto a story that not only has zero basis in reality, but is based White supremacy and Indigenous erasure," Nagle, who recently won American Mosiac Journalism Prize for her coverage of a major tribal sovereignty case, wrote on social media.

Of the candidates still in the race, Klobuchar also has released an Indian Country platform. In it, she vows to ensure tribes are consulted on issues that affect them, to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and invest in infrastructure in tribal communities, among other pledges.

"Senator Klobuchar has long advocated for the Violence Against Women’s Act Reauthorization and is a strong supporter of Savanna’s Act to address violence against Native American people, particularly women and children," the candidate's policy reads. "She authored and introduced the Tribal Adoption Parity Act to bring parity to tribal government for the adoption tax credit and she has introduced bills that would expand broadband deployment and adoption in consultation with tribal governments."

Mike Bloomberg, a Democratic candidate for president, addresses a rally of supporters in Phoenix, Arizona, on February 1, 2020. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Bloomberg, who led New York City for three terms, has a comprehensive Indian policy as well. He outlines a number of proposals, many of them focusing on improving economic, educational and social conditions among the first Americans.

“Mike Bloomberg’s plan to uphold tribal sovereignty and improve the lives of Native Americans is achievable and long overdue, Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear of the Osage Nation said in support of a platform released last Thursday. "He will reaffirm Indian Country land rights, upgrade our infrastructure and combat environmental injustice. He’ll elevate tribal authority and protect Native American women and girls. He will fully fund the Indian Health Services and will enhance economic and educational opportunities for tribal members."

Despite his current pledges, Bloomberg was a major player in efforts to diminish tribal economies by going after tobacco businesses that operate on Indian lands. After filing a lawsuit against Indian smoke shops, he called on the governor of New York to take a harsh stance toward such retailers by forcing them to pay taxes to the state.

"You know, get yourself a cowboy hat and a shotgun," Bloomberg said on a radio show in August 2010. "If there's ever a great video, it's you standing in the middle of the New York State Thruway saying, you know, 'Read my lips: The law of the land is this and we're going to enforce the law.'"

Bloomberg later won an injunction against retailers on the Poospatuck Reservation, which is home to the Unkechaug Indian Nation, whose sovereign rights are recognized in state law. But that didn't stop him from sending undercover agents to the reservation, even though it lies outside New York City limits.

The Super Tuesday primaries include California, Minnesota and Oklahoma, all states with significant Indian Country populations. A huge chunk of delegates are up for grabs, representing 34 percent of pledged delegates, according to Ballotpedia, a non-partisan encyclopedia of American politics and elections.

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