Ten Little Democrats

Ten Little Democrats

Ten Democrats have qualified for the third debate to be held tomorrow night in Houston.  While it is almost certain that the moderators will not ask candidates about issues affecting Indian Country, there are important questions out there that a committed President might address.  The shift in tone from the Obama years to Trump could not be more stark.  The President’s racism and hostility towards Native Americans is readily apparent.  Though some native communities, like the Crows, favor the current administration’s friendly stance towards coal mining, other native peoples find the president’s attacks on Elizabeth Warren, despite her claims about her identity, as off-putting, and his environmental policies a direct threat to their nations.  I have written at length about President Trump on this blog, and in the coming weeks I will look at what he and the three declared Republican candidates have had to say about native peoples.  In the meantime, let’s look at what the Democrats are up to.

Joe Biden has not produced a document describing his policy goals for Native Americans. During the debates he emphasized that the United States was a nation of immigrants. Context is important: Biden was criticizing Trump’s demonstrated cruelty toward those who have crossed the southern border, but statements like this can grate on Native Americans because it appears dismissive of their historical experience as the original inhabitants of the continent. Biden chose not to attend the Frank LeMere Native American Presidential Forum in Iowa, which might have offered him a chance to lay out an agenda and talk about the generally favorable policies of the Obama Administration.  He did salute Sharice Davids and Deb Halland on their election to the House of Representatives back in November of 2018.  Biden has said little specifically about Native American concerns, but he did introduce the first version of the Violence Against Women Act when he served in the Senate, and he worked for its reauthorization as Vice-President under President Obama.

Corey Booker has a set of policies on his website for “Animal Welfare,” but nothing so far for Native Americans. Still, he mentions Native Americans frequently, and he hopes if elected to “invest in rural and Indian Country.”  His environmental proposals include stepping “up efforts to defend communities of color, low-income communities, and indigenous communities by doubling staffing in all EPA enforcement offices.” Booker’s environmental policy statement shows that he is aware that “a full one in eight Native Americans do not have reliable access to water and Black families are twice as likely as white families to live without modern plumbing”.   In his call for cleaning up abandoned coal, uranium and hard rock mines across the country, he points out that “Native American miners, essential to the nation’s nuclear development efforts, are particularly at risk,” and that “1200 of the nation’s 4000 abandoned uranium mines are located on or near Navajo reservations.”  On the 26th of August, Booker tweeted out his support for the Cherokee Nation’s effort to appoint a delegate to the House of Representatives, and earlier that month, in a speech at an AME Church, Booker referred to Jefferson’s description of native peoples as “savages” and argued that “bigotry was written into our founding documents.” It is unlikely that Booker will point out that according to a DNA test he took for Henry Louis Gates’ program Finding Your Roots, he “is 7 percent Native American.”  Booker himself wrote in 2016 that “I am descended from slaves and slave owners. I have Native American blood and am also the great-great-great grandson of a white man who fought in the Creek War of 1836, in which Native Americans were forcibly removed from their land.”

Pete Buttigieg has called for Congress to pass Savanna’s Act . As mayor of South Bend, he was involved in working with the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians to build a housing and government complex, as well as a $400 million dollar hotel and casino. The Pokagon Band appreciated Buttigieg’s assistance and in a ceremony in November of 2016 presented him with a ceremonial blanket. He has ambitious plans for improving health care in rural America that he says will benefit Native peoples.  In an interview posted online by the Des Moines Register on July 27th, Buttigieg said that he was still working on a set of policies for Native Americans.  He has not released a policy statement as of yet.  

Julian Castro was the first Democratic candidate to release a detailed policy proposal for Native Americans.  I have written about Castro’s plan on this blog, and will say nothing more about it on this time.  Elizabeth Warren gets a lot of credit for being the candidate with “a plan for that.” Castro it appears as well has a wide breadth of knowledge and a team that is helping him craft sound policy statements.

Kamala Harris earned the wrath of gaming tribes in California where she served as Attorney-General.  According to a report by David Palermo on Pechanga, “in her five years in office, Kamala has opposed at least 15 land-into-trust applications.” During her run for the Senate, the California Democratic Party Native American Caucus expressed “deep concerns” about both Harris and her opponent.  “We are dismayed by the lack of sensitivity to tribal issues and to Native Americans as individuals that we see in our announced candidates,” said Mary Ann Andreas, a council member with the Morongo Band of Mission Indians.  “Their comments and actions provide little assurance that they grasp the government-to-government relationship guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.”  Harris skyped into the Frank LeMere forum in Iowa. In response to one question, Harris said that “I strongly believe and take very seriously and we must acknowledge that the government of the United States stole lands and took lands from the tribes.”  That is a point few people who study Native American issues would disagree with, and it borders on the edge of common knowledge. But it also is a statement any candidate could make and required little preparation, study, or understanding of the principal issues. What might it mean for a President to acknowledge that the United States sits on a stolen continent? The consequences of a President doing so are significant. Harris is trying to address the skepticism native peoples in her home state have felt about her for quite some time. During her time in the Senate, she has co-sponsored and supported the Native American Voting Rights Act and Savanna’s Act, among other pieces of legislation, and criticized Trump judicial nominees for their opposition to tribal sovereignty.

Amy Klobuchar hails from a state with a significant Native American population, and when she applied for college as a 17-year-old, wrote about Dee Brown’s  Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee as the most important book in her life. At the Frank LeMere forum in Iowa, Klobuchar said she understood well the importance of state and federal officials engaging in consultation with native communities.  She told the audience that “I will respect sovereignty and I will strongly believe in government-to-government negotiations and consultation.”  Klobuchar is knowledgeable about issues of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and has argued that her plan for infrastructure, should she be elected, will help native communities. Based on her career in the Senate, and her time in Minnesota politics before that, Klobuchar was perhaps more knowledgeable about Native American issues coming in to the campaign than any other candidate.  Though she has not produced on her website a detailed position statement, it is difficult to imagine that she would disagree much with the policies identified by Castro and Warren.  And she has none of the problems presented by a Warren candidacy.

 Beto O’Rourke was asked during a campaign stop in Oklahoma, “Native America! What about us?”  He tweeted out video of his answer. He mentioned Murdered and Missing Native American women who disappear at ten times the rate of the general population.  #MMIW and #MMIWG is an equal protection issue for O’Rourke.  He showed his familiarity with the history of violence and greed that has been the story of Oklahoma. Aware of the legacy of allotment in the west, O’Rourke suggested that unless we as a nation confront our racist past, we can never have meaningful justice moving forward.  That is a powerful argument.  How does it translate into policy? For O’Rourke it means respecting Native Americans when it comes to what happens on and underneath their lands. It means increasing funding to address the problem of #MMIW. During his time in Congress, O’Rourke voted against H.R. 538 which, in his view, aimed “to reform how Native American tribes manage their natural resources such as minerals and other energy-related assets found on their lands.” Why, because while he agreed that “Native Americans should be allowed to manage their lands and natural resources,” he worried that there could be “unintended consequences on other land and water supplies throughout the U.S. should we exempt Native American tribes from current environmental law when they attempt to access natural resources on their land.”  Sovereignty can be a tricky one, and it would be nice to hear a clearer plan from O’Rourke that goes into more detail. He chose not to attend the summit in Iowa,

Bernie Sanders recently released his plan for “Native American Rights.” His 2020 platform reads,

“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. I will stand with Native Americans in the struggle to protect their treaty and sovereign rights, advance traditional ways of life, and improve the quality of life for Native communities.”

He believes that “Native American tribes should have sovereign control over their lands,” better access to healthcare, and that important pieces of legislation like the Indian Child Welfare Act should be preserved. Furthermore, “stereotypes and slurs against Native Americans should be discouraged and denounced.” Sanders clearly understands the complexities of law and order in Indian Country, and argues that tribes must have the ability to prosecute non-Indian perpetrators of crime on reservations. That is one reason, he says, why he co-sponsored the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013. He supports the “10-20-30 Bill” which would “invest 10 percent of rural development funds into the communities where at least 20 percent of the population has lived below the poverty line for the last 30 years.” He has voted to protect Native American lands from corporate exploitation, including the Keystone XL Pipeline, which he vehemently opposes.

Elizabeth Warren’s strong command of the issues has been undermined by her false claims to Cherokee ancestry.  I have written about her claims, and about her foolish decision to trumpet the results of a DNA test. I have also written about the President’s “Pocahontas” name-calling, which is sure to catch on with the most deplorable of the troglodytes who follow him. Warren has apologized for her claims to Native American ancestry, but it appears that this may not be enough for some Democratic voters.  And this might be unfortunate, for the Warren campaign has written a detailed and sound policy proposal.   Despite a long history of “discrimination, neglect, greed, and violence,” Warren points out that “Tribal Nations and indigenous peoples have proven resilient and continue to contribute to a country that took so much and keeps asking for more.”  Despite small progress, the United has failed in its “legal, political, and moral obligations toward tribal governments and indigenous peoples.”  Warren says that “Washington owes Native communities a fighting chance to build stronger communities and a brighter future.”

            How to do that? Warren, along with Representative Deb Haaland, assembled a legislative proposal for what they will call the Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act. It will not address every problem but, Warren says, “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.”  The Honoring Promises plan, she says,

will seek to end the problem of inadequate funding by removing these programs from the traditional appropriations process and instead ensuring predictable, guaranteed funding for all of these vital initiatives — no matter the circumstances in Washington.Predictable, guaranteed funding can take a variety of forms, including multi-year advanced appropriations and sequestration exemptions; automatic inflation adjustments to ensure that adequate support does not erode over time; and mandatory funding available under all circumstances, like Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. Trust and treaty obligations do not vanish because of political games in Washington; federal funding must no longer vanish for these reasons, either.

Warren’s policy proposal is lengthy, detailed, and well-informed. I recommend that you read it.  Only Castro’s comes close in terms of its thoroughness. The Cherokee claims are a problem for many voters, and have given ammunition to the President and his racist supporters, but Warren has studied this issue and has a well-researched set of policy proposals in place.

Andrew Yang has said little about Native Americans. His UBI Plan, or Universal Basic Income, would help Native American families. Yang did not attend the Frank LeMere Forum in Iowa and his website, filled with policy proposals, includes nothing related to Native Americans.


The Top Tier: Warren and Castro have devoted the most time and energy to Native American affairs thus far in their campaigns.  Whatever one thinks of Warren’s identity claims in the past, she and Castro clearly lead the field in this issue. 

The Next Best: Because Sanders has taken the time to produce a set of policy proposals, and because of Klobuchar’s experience in Minnesota and in the Senate working on Native American issues, they belong below Warren and Castro.

The Rest of the Pack: Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, and O’Rourke have all responded to questions about Native Americans in a manner that shows their familiarity with the fundamental issues.  Each of them can do more. That these candidates have explicitly characterized much of American history as “racist” is notable: I am not sure I can remember this many Democratic candidates asking their supporters to take a long look at the nation’s history.  This has come through their discussions of the legacy of slavery, and the nation’s treatment of native peoples. 

Disappointing: Biden has had a long enough career that his inattention to Native American issues cannot be ascribed to a rookie mistake.  He can and should do more.  I am not sure what to make of Yang’s candidacy, but clearly Native American issues are not on the list of matters he considers importance.

Native Americans make up a small percentage of the American population, but they can tip an election in Montana, and in the Four Corners states.  They are an important voting bloc in Alaska and throughout the western states and the western Great Lakes.  Beyond their electoral importance, a Presidential candidate’s views on Native Americans, I would argue, can tell us something about their understanding of history, their appreciation of the complexities of the federal constitution, and, most of all, their understandings of justice and equality.  Even Warren and Castro, who have done considerably more than their rivals, have not addressed every issue. The candidates’ discussions of sovereignty are ambiguous and undefined: they speak of consultation, which is important, and allowing tribes the right to control what takes place on Indian land, but they do not clearly say how far they are willing to go.  Their definitions of sovereignty are considerably less than those laid out, for instance, in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document none of the candidates has mentioned.  Neither have the candidates discussed the high rates at which police are killing Native Americans.  Their solutions to address poverty seem to emphasize economic development, which can have serious negative consequences. They seem almost completely unaware that many native peoples do not live on Indian reservations.  Still, the attention we have seen thus far given to the issue is unprecedented, and that is a product of the hard work of Native American activists and their allies who have pushed the government to do something about the scourge of missing and murdered indigenous women, and about the despoliation of tribal lands by corporate interests. We have candidates for a major party’s nomination talking openly and energetically about the nation’s exploitative, violent, and racist past. There is no reason, furthermore, to believe that the candidates who have not spoken about the issues would disagree with Warren and Castro on the broad policy questions, and some of the solutions candidates have suggested are creative and refreshing.  There is little doubt that Democrats view Native American issues as much more important than does the Trump Administration, that they are more willing to listen to native peoples, and that they will reap the resulting small rewards on Election Day.  Whether that is enough is another question.

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