Indianz.Com Video: 'I'm a symbol of our resilience': Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) #DemConvention

'Voting is sacred': Democratic convention ends with calls for Indian Country to vote for Joe Biden

Speaking on the final night of the Democratic National Convention, one of the first Native women elected to Congress called upon all American citizens to exercise their right to vote and support Joe Biden for president and Kamala Harris for vice president.

In her prime-time address on Thursday, Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico invoked the sacrifices made by her people, the Pueblo people, and their centuries-long struggle to gain the right to vote.

“I know we can’t take our democracy for granted, especially now as people are dying, as our land is abused, as our constitution is under attack,” she said. “We must work for it, by getting involved, by registering voters, by voting.”

“Voting is sacred. My people know that," said Haaland, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna.

Haaland’s words, delivered from the tribally-owned and operated Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, came during the fourth and final night of the Democratic National Convention, which began Monday and has been hosted almost entirely virtually due to COVID-19. Some keynote speakers have taken the stage at the Wisconsin Center, located on Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe and Potawatomi homelands in Milwaukee. Biden officially accepted his party’s nomination as president on Thursday night from his home state of Delaware.

Elected in 2018 and seeking reelection this year, Haaland offered the most extensive speech among the handful of Native speakers invited to make primetime presentations at this year’s convention.

On Tuesday evening, four Native leaders presented the delegate totals for the states of Alaska, New Mexico, North Dakota and South Dakota. They were part of a 57-state and -territory roll call at the convention.

Before the last night of the convention Thursday, tribal leaders gathered for a second and final Native American Caucus meeting.

The caucus heard from political heavyweights like Joe Biden’s wife Dr. Jill Biden, House Speaker and California Rep. Nancy Pelosi and former presidential hopeful Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The caucus also heard from frontline Native advocates and activists during panel discussions on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls and the importance of voting in Indian Country.

Jill Biden is an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College and is thought to be the first second lady to hold a paying job while her husband was vice president.

“We see the stakes of this election every day, especially for the Native American communities that are feeling the pain of COVID more than others,” she said Thursday. “From health care to voting rights to tribal sovereignty, your rights are on the line. You deserve a partner who will stand by you, not in your way, and that’s Joe.”

Biden asked Native caucus members to imagine waking up on a day in 2021, after Biden and Harris have taken office.

“You pick up the morning paper and the headline isn’t about some late-night tweet storm,” she said. “Instead, it’s a story about the children who will benefit from universal free kindergarten and dramatic increases in school funding.”

Dr. Jill Biden was among the Democratic party luminaries who addressed the Native American Caucus on August 20, 2020.

“You turn on the local news and the anchors aren’t talking about a pandemic raging out of control with no end in sight. Instead, they’re talking about how tribes are receiving funds to make sure that there is running water that is clean, roads that are safe, schools that are healthy places to learn and everyone has the broadband they need.”

She said Biden, who served as vice president with Barack Obama, and Harris., the U.S. Senator from California, would honor treaties with tribes and the nation-to-nation relationship between the federal government and tribal nations.

Pelosi said the Native vote could tip the election in favor of Biden and Harris and urged tribal leaders to encourage their people to vote.

“The Native American vote will make the difference, particularly the vote of native youth,” she said.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California), the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was among the Democratic party luminaries who addressed the Native American Caucus on August 20, 2020.

Sanders, meanwhile, criticized the Trump administration for failing to respect tribes and their sovereign rights.

“Time and time again, our Native American brothers and sisters have seen the federal government break solemn promises and huge corporations put profits ahead of the sovereign rights of Native communities,” he said. “On November 3, we must elect an administration that will fight for the sovereignty, justice, opportunity and dignity of Native people.”

During a panel discussion on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, Haaland talked about Democratic efforts in the House to gain reauthorization of the 2013 Violence Against Women Act and expand the list of crimes that could be authorized to include stalking, child abuse and trafficking.

“We still need the Senate to take it up,” she said. “We passed a bill. It’s sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk.”

She said Biden has promised to prioritize the MMIWG issue if elected and said he also would seek to expand tribal authority and access to culturally sensitive resources for victims and survivors.

“He gave me his direct commitment that it would be a priority in his administration,” Haaland said.

Montana MMIW activist Grace Bulltail, an assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spoke about Kaysera Stops Pretty Places, a young woman she considered her daughter. Kaysera disappeared in August 2019 and her body was found five days later in her hometown of Hardin, Montana, a reservation border town.

“She was a kind, loving and compassionate soul,” Bulltail, a citizen of the Crow Tribe, said. “Her death was not treated as a homicide. … To this day, we have information about any investigation into Kaysera’s death.”

She said local authorities failed to file a missing person report after Kaysera’s family reported her missing, forced her family to cremate her remains against cultural beliefs and prematurely ruled her death as caused by exposure due to drug or alcohol use. Bulltail said a complete autopsy and toxicology report proved the coroner's original assessment was wrong. The report was withheld from the family for 16 weeks, she added.

“Kaysera’s only fault was being an Indigenous teenager in a county, state and country that does not value her life” Bulltail said. “Our calls go unheard by those in the Montana justice system.”

Said Haaland: “I promise you that we are going to everything we can to make this right for you.”

During a panel discussion on voting in Indian Country, Clara Pratte, tribal engagement director for the Biden-Harris campaign and a Navajo Nation citizen, talked about the impact of COVID-19 on her tribe, which has seen 9,500 positive cases of the virus and 484 deaths due to the virus.

“We’re seeing the real devastating impacts of what that means for our tribal communities and what underfunded Indian Health Service means and the impact that can have,” she said.

She encouraged tribal leaders to ensure their people have access to the polls and the information they need to make well-informed decisions.

She urged people to text “VOTE” to 30330 in order to register to vote.

“It’s a hard fought right that we are not going to give up,” she said.

North Dakota State Rep. Ruth Buffalo, a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, said Native people need to first focus on encouraging those around them to vote.

“People will listen to us, especially those who love and respect us the most, and that means our family units,” Buffalo said. “So I’m really stressing the importance of doing what you can from you’re at within your reach by having these conversations with your families, encouraging them to get out and vote.”

Actor Mark Ruffalo, probably best known for his role as the Hulk in Marvel’s Avengers movies, said he has fought for environmental justice, including fighting the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, because he believes in helping those who are being victimized by corporate interests.

He said voting is especially important for minority people, including Native Americans, and indeed is the only way to remove corrupt leaders from positions of power.

“The more that they exercise their power in this system, the more just this system will become, and that’s why it’s so important and that’s why they’re working so hard to disenfranchise people of color, to keep them away, to make them think their vote doesn’t mean anything,” he said.

Jodi Archambault Gillette, former Native policy advisor for the Barack Obama administration, talked about the need to organize and mobilize Native communities in order to ensure the Native voice is heard in this election.

She invoked the unprecedented voter turnout within Native communities in North Dakota in 2018, when Buffalo was elected to the state legislature, beating the state representative who sponsored a controversial voter ID law that disenfranchised many Native voters.

“We are really good at organizing against things that are trying to hold us back,” said Gillette, who is a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

And she praised Biden and urged Native voters to support him.

“I worked alongside him in the White House,” she said of the Democratic party's presidential nominee. “He understands us. He talks to the right people.”

“We have to organize ourselves, our families. The stakes could not be higher for our people.”

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