The success of the first-ever Native American Presidential Forum last week indicates that presidential candidates are paying more attention to tribal issues, said the moderator of the event, veteran journalist Mark Trahant.
“Indian Country, just like rural America more broadly, often gets left out of the conversation,” said Trahant, editor of the news site Indian Country Today. But things seem to be changing.
Trahant, a member of Idaho’s Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, sees the rising interest in Native American sovereignty and policy concerns as a positive sign. The Frank LaMere Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa, last week drew 11 candidates and hundreds of Native Americans and tribal leaders.
“I thought it was amazing, and I’d start with the historical nature of the event,” Trahant said. “There’s so much nuance when you get to ask even a few minutes of questions on these critical policy issues.”
Trahant said that the key issue addressed by the tribal leaders who questioned the candidates was government-to-government relations between Native American tribes and the federal government.
“That’s about making sure that tribes have equal say when dealing with other government agencies,” Trahant said. “That’s about involvement in drafting legislation or executive orders. The Obama administration really set the standard on this with the White House Conference with Tribal Nations. Most of the candidates (at the LaMere Forum) agreed that they’d like to get back to that approach.”
The second key issue, according to Trahant, is a growing international standard for requiring “free, prior, and informed consent” for decision affecting indigenous people. The standard requires that governments include Native people in decision-making that will affect their community. “It’s not just about tribal consultation on resource extraction,” Trahant said. “It’s about making communities sure that tribe’s give their consent.”
The Frank Lamere Presidential Forum was attended by 10 Democratic candidates for president and one independent. The Democrats who participated were former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Senator Kamala Harris, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, Marianne Williamson, former Representative Joe Sestak, former Representative John Delaney and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Mark Charles, a member of the Navajo Nation, also participated as an Independent.
Trahant sees the forum and its strong participation, as well as strong voter turnout in Indian Country in the 2018 mid-term election, as a trend of rising activity and interest on Native American voting issues. “For an off-cycle election, Native turnout was extraordinary, particularly in North Dakota. Indian Country voters tend to be, like other minority voters, really active in presidential years and then they disappear. The 2018 results themselves are an example of a difference, and that could carry into 2020.”
While the majority of Native Americans live in urban areas — mirroring the population more broadly – they make up such a small percentage of voters in cities that it’s hard to get attention from candidates. “In rural areas the opposite is true,” Trahant said. “In places like Glacier and Bighorn counties in Montana where Native voters are the majority.”
“And it’s not only the voting population. Often, in many rural counties, the tribes are often the region’s largest employers,” Trahant said.
So Native voters can be critical in key geographic locations, according to Indian Country Today, such as Alaska (20 percent of the state’s population), Oklahoma (13 percent), New Mexico (11 percent), Montana (7 percent) and Arizona (6 percent). Those numbers are even more prominent for the Democratic primaries, as a large majority of Native American voters tend to support Democrats.
Indian Country Today’s Election Coverage Plans
Indian Country Today is hoping to expand and deepen the conversation with presidential candidates throughout the election cycle, Trahant said. The online publication has offered one-on-one interviews focused on Native American policy issues to all candidates, including President Trump.
“One thing I’d like to speak with the candidates about is the topic of Medicaid expansion,” Trahant said. “That’s important because of what it means for rural hospitals in states that haven’t expanded Medicaid versus those that have a robust Medicaid expansion. We really now have some data to document the difference in coverage and health outcomes.”
The publication is also covering a large increase in number of Native Americans being hired and working within campaigns, an important indicator of representation in policymaking, according to Trahant.
Trahant did say he would like to “throw a dart” at the mainstream media’s treatment of Frank LaMere Forum. “It’s interesting how little coverage this forum received given the significance and historic nature of the event,” Trahant said. “As soon as Elizabeth Warren was gone, the majority of the media took off. That was really interesting.”
Warren has been regularly attacked with racial slurs by President Trump for previously claiming Native American heritage without being an enrolled tribal member.
The Frank LaMere Forum was organized by the nonprofit Native American voting rights group, Four Directions, and the Native Organizers Alliance. Cohosts included the National Congress of American Indians, Native American Rights Fund, Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, Coalition of Large Tribes, Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes and United South and Eastern Tribes.
The forum took its name from Frank LaMere, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. LaMere was a longtime activist, organizer for the American Indian Movement, opponent of alcohol sales near Native American reservations, and leader of the National Native American Caucus within the Democratic Party, among other accomplishments. LeMere died from cancer in June.
The full Frank LaMere Forum can be viewed online at: https://vimeo.com/fourdirectionsvote