Decades-long efforts to increase Native American voting, voting rights and political engagement have paid off for indigenous communities, with Democratic candidates paying unprecedented levels of attention to their issues.
In 2018, over 100 Native Americans ran for office. In states like North Dakota with high native populations and close elections, native voters were in a position to influence the midterms.
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Julian Castro mingles with people who attended the unveiling of his People First Indigenous Communities Policy on July 26, 2019, in Tama, Iowa.
This year, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro’s Indigenous Communities Policy, was the first policy plan to be released, specific to Native Americans. A month later, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., released a plan of her own.
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Then, on Aug. 19 and 20, there were 11 Democratic candidates who spoke in Sioux City, Iowa, at the Frank Lamere Presidential Forum. It was the first presidential forum organized by Native Americans to address issues specific to them.
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Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson speaks at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum, Aug. 19, 2019, in Sioux City, Iowa.
O.J. Semans, a long-time activist and the co-executive director of Four Directions — nonprofit dedicated to Native American voting rights — helped organize the forum.
“We understood the candidates had to have a reason,” Semans said. “Our issues and our fights really weren’t going to be a reason for them to come running.”
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For Christine Nobiss of Seeding Sovereignty, a non-profit that grew out of the Standing Rock protests, tailored policy proposals from the presidential candidates are crucial when it comes to addressing Native American issues in the 2020 campaign.
“If all candidates come out with a Native American policy, not only is that going to help us tremendously with whoever is in office, but it’s going to provide us with educational materials that we can use as tools moving forward,” Nobiss said. “I think Standing Rock did us a great service. It truly did. It activated a lot of people. I mean look at (Rep. Tulsi) Gabbard — Gabbard went to Standing Rock. Look at AOC (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) — she went to Standing Rock. Standing Rock motivated her to run.”
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"Not Me Too: No More Stolen Sisters" is written on a sign that activists held up during the Frank Lamere Presidential Forum on August 19, 2019, in Sioux City, Iowa.
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To attract candidates, organizers researched the potential impact of the indigenous vote in seven battleground states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Arizona, North Carolina, Nevada and Colorado.
“We identified large Native populations in those states,” Semans said. “Even in Minnesota, we saw that Secretary (Hillary) Clinton only won that by a little less than 2%. So what we then did is we put the numbers in and figured — what if we actually had a robust, get-out-the-vote on these reservations. It could actually sway the election one way or the other.”
September’s special election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District will serve as a test run.
“The Lumbee tribe — that has over 40,000 eligible voters — asked us to work with them in identifying the voting access barriers and to help with getting out the vote,” Semans said. “So we’re actually putting our theory to work.”
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Native American issues have received less attention from Republicans. Neither President Donald Trump or former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld have released plans addressing any indigenous issues. And though the forum in Iowa was nonpartisan, only Democratic candidates attended.
“What I would rather have seen here,” said Nobiss, “is Trump and [Weld], the other candidate that’s running against him, as well, because they were also invited. …We need more conversation and dialogues with the Republican segment of government.”
Joseph White Eyes, 24, of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe said there was also room for improvement at the forum. For example, many of the forum panelists hold leadership positions in Native American nations across the country.
“There weren’t people who know the lay of the land, know what’s going on, know about the housing crisis,” he said. “They need more grassroots-level people [at the Forum] instead of just the higher-ups.”
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PHOTO:Buttons available at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum on Aug. 20, 2019 in Sioux City, Iowa.
Semans declined to compare the different candidates, but was grateful to those who attended.
“All of them were willing to come there and discuss the issues,” he said. “It was an educational moment for them to understand where we’re coming from and to keep that dialogue going.”
And that educational moment could lead to progress on indigenous issues.
To North Dakota state Rep. Ruth Buffalo, the growing influence of Native Americans represents something more than any one legislative victory.
“There’s a re-ignition of our courage to be fearless,” she said. “What’s at the forefront here is taking courage and carrying out what our ancestors prayed for.”