2020 Democrats are stepping up their courtship of Native American voters. Here’s why.
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Christina Blackcloud remembers a childhood of running freely between her home on Iowa’s Meskwaki settlement to annual harvest-time celebrations across the street. She joined other kids playing in the water of the Iowa River, a longtime source of fresh fish for the state’s only federally recognized tribe.
The same river today is brown, murky and fenced off, she said. Blackcloud’s children and grandchild aren’t making the same memories on the land, she lamented.
“Fossil fuels, pipelines, water quality, air quality — it all affects tribal people first because everything we do and believe is centered around nature,” she said. “Everything we’re surrounded by is politics, whether or not we see it every day.”
But Blackcloud, vice chair of the Iowa Democratic Party’s Native American caucus, says she’s “hopeful for change.” Presidential candidates visiting the settlement she grew up on are “showing they have an interest in tribal peoples’ priorities,” she said.
Democrats seeking the White House are starting to focus on issues facing Native Americans: Native American voter turnout has ticked upward in the last several elections, and while Native Americans make up a small slice of the electorate, they overwhelmingly support Democrats.
An increase in Native American voters in key battleground states could overcome the margins of victory President Donald Trump earned in Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and North Carolina, native activists said.
“You might think, well, 2% of the population, that’s not going to make a whole big difference for the president,” said U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, one of the first Native American women to serve in Congress. “The Indian vote is going to make a difference for various congresspeople across the country, for House and Senate seats across the states, for county commissions.”
Oliver “OJ” Semans, an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, said it’s long past time for candidates to engage directly with Native American people.
The two-day forum will be the first in history to question presidential candidates exclusively on issues facing Native Americans.
“This forum is not a gotcha moment,” Semans said. “It’s more like an educational forum. You don’t have to know a lot about us coming in, but at the end you are going to have more information than the majority of Americans.”
Native Americans make up a small slice of the electorate. According to the 2010 Census, 5.2 million people identified as American Indian and Alaska Native alone, or in combination with at least one other race, though the population is routinely undercounted.
The vast majority vote Democratic, except in states where energy is a large focus of the regional economy, such as Alaska, North Dakota or Oklahoma. Support in those states tends to be more bipartisan. Oklahoma’s Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt is a member of the Cherokee Tribe; two of that state’s U.S. House members, Tom Cole and Markawayne Mullin, are also enrolled members.
On the eve of the November 2018 midterms, Native Americans said in a national poll by Latino Decisions they were planning to vote 61%-to-33% for Democratic U.S. House candidates, a nearly two-to-one margin. The poll had a margin of error of four percentage points.
The Native American vote could be a factor that tips the outcome in six key states next year: Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.
In those states, the number of eligible native voters exceeds the margin won by the victor in 2016. (Trump won four; former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won two.)
In a seventh, Colorado, the estimated number of native voters (130,796) will come close to matching the 136,386-vote margin Clinton carried in 2016.
Native Americans’ traditional support of Democrats doesn’t automatically mean the party wields an advantage, said Laura Evans, a University of Washington professor who studies the relationship between tribes and the federal government.
“Native American voters need to be convinced about whether either party is going to truly serve their interests,” Evans said. “I think either party has to get out there and communicate their message.”
Native turnout expected to increase
While the numbers of Native Americans are relatively small, Indian Country Today editor Mark Trahant said they make up an important share of voters in key primary states, including Arizona, Nevada and Iowa, which holds the first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Among Democratic candidates, Trahant thinks the ones who could benefit most by robust native turnout are those whose home states have significant native populations, such as Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado.
In 2018, Native Americans made important political gains. That election saw the first two Native American women elected to Congress: Haaland and Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas — as well as the election of the highest-ranking native woman in executive office in U.S. history — Peggy Flanagan. Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, was elected lieutenant governor of Minnesota.
“Indians tend to vote in higher number in presidential election years, anyway, and I think with the enthusiasm built in 2018, it probably will build on that,” Trahant said.
Trump’s record differs from Obama’s on Native issues
The same Latino Decisions poll that found two-to-one support for Democrats among Native American midterm voters also found widespread displeasure with Trump. Two of every three native voters said Trump’s rhetoric and policies “will cause a major setback to the progress” made in recent years.
President Barack Obama, who was adopted by the Crow Tribe in Montana during the 2008 campaign, directed his administration to actively consult with the nation’s 573 federally recognized tribes.
The Obama White House held an annual conference in Washington where Native American leaders could air their concerns with federal policymakers. And while his administration had a mixed policy record, Obama himself was warmlyviewed by many tribal leaders.
Since he took office in 2017, Trump has reversed Obama administration decisions by approving the Keystone pipeline and Dakota Access Pipeline over objections from nearby tribes citing environmental and treaty concerns.
Trump also has offended Native Americans with his praise for Andrew Jackson, who led the slaughter of tribes as an American general and forcibly removed them from their lands as president. And his “Pocahontas” nickname for 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who apologized this year after claiming Cherokee ancestry, has been widely derided by native people.
Haaland, who has endorsed Warren, said tribal leaders she speaks to are “devastated” by the president’s behavior.
“They hate the rhetoric,” she said. “They are speaking up and saying: ‘We’re a community. We care about each other. We are not going to follow the example of our president.’”
The fight for equal voting rights
Semans, the organizer of the Iowa forum, has made it his mission to increase Native American participation in elections.
Twenty-two years ago, that meant meant paying local counties to offer equal early voting for people living on South Dakota reservations.
In 2000, South Dakotans living outside the Rosebud Indian or Pine Ridge reservations had 46 days to cast an early ballot, he explained. Those in majority-native counties had only one day. Four Directions raised $20,000 to pay Oglala Lakota County, then called Shannon County, to staff early voting sites in future elections.
“And so we waited,” said Semans, who lives on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in Mission, South Dakota. “They did a little bit in 2002. … 2004, they gave a few days. 2006 — nothing. We decided that enough’s enough, and we filed a lawsuit against (Fall River County) and the (South Dakota) Secretary of State.”
After settling out of court, the county set up a satellite office in the Pine Ridge reservation, through an agreement that expired last year.
Semans’ daughter, Donna Semans, said her parents roped her into the task of knocking on doors when she was a teenager in their effort to increase local turnout, starting in 2000.
“It’s been remarkable,” said Donna Semans, a grassroots organizer at Four Directions and enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, who lives in Provo, Utah. “I have to take a step back sometimes to process it all, and how far we’ve come. Native voters never felt important enough, and now… the whole community has a different sense of being.”
Pete Buttigieg, in a meeting with the Des Moines Register editorial board, says he’s working on polices related to issues facing Native Americans. Kelsey Kremer, email@example.com
Indian Country faces unique challenges
As part of the forum, organizers hope presidential candidates will address issues specific to the native community, as well as issues that are dealt with more broadly as a society.
For instance, the U.S. opioid epidemic, caused in part by widespread increases in prescriptions of opioid medications, has devastated parts of Indian Country, tribal leaders said.
“The substance abuse crisis is a huge problem for Indian Country. Our area, without a doubt, is hit hard by it,” said W. Ron Allen, tribal chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe in Sequim, Washington, and former president of the National Congress of American Indians.
While issues related to substance abuse, health care, climate change and education are universal, other crises uniquely affect indigenous communities.
The murder rate among native women in some counties comprised primarily of tribal lands is more than 10 times the national average, according to the Department of Justice. But the DOJ’s missing persons database includes only about 2% of the 5,712 reports of missing indigenous women and girls in 2016, according to a 2019 report by the Urban Indian Health Institute.
Bullock brought up the epidemic of violence against native women in a short speech at the Meskwaki Powwow this month in Tama. As governor of Montana, he signed a bipartisan bill this year to create a missing persons specialist role within the state DOJ.
“No family should have to go for, at times, literally decades without justice being delivered,” he told reporters in Tama.
Meskwaki Tribal Chairman Anthony Waseskuk said Bullock’s attention to the issue was a welcome departure from the numerous past visits by presidential hopefuls to the settlement. He noted a 41-year-old Meskwaki woman, Rita Papake, went missing in 2015.
“(Candidates) seem to be more interested (in Native American issues) than they have been in the past, especially the issue of missing women, especially Native American women,” Waseskuk said.
Some 2020 candidates have already released proposals to combat some of these issues.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro recently unveiled a five-point plan to increase funding for the Indian Health Service and upgrade infrastructure on tribal lands, among other goals.
Warren’s plan, the longest of any she’s released in her campaign so far, calls for economic development and improvements in access to health care.
Sanders, like Castro and Williamson, dedicates a section of his official website to Native American issues like tribal sovereignty and historical racism.
Semans hopes to highlight another subject uniquely damaging to the indigenous population: The 20 Medals of Honor awarded to the 7th Cavalry soldiers who killed more than 250 Native Americans, mostly women and children, at the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. Each candidate at the Iowa forum will be asked whether they would withdraw those medals, he said.
Blackcloud, the Meskwaki politician, said none of these issues would get national attention anytime soon if not for the forum. And while a fraction of the two-dozen Democratic candidates have committed to attend — despite that nearly all of them will attend a labor forum in central Iowa the following day — she’s optimistic for what it means for the future.
“The forum could lead down the path where this is just a normal event you go to, that people will commit to in the future,” Blackcloud said. “I don’t hold anything on any candidate not attending. But I would hope to expect that candidates start seeing this as important.”
Des Moines Register reporter Ian Richardson contributed to this report.
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