On Thursday, Clyde Bellecourt, founder of the American Indian Movement and elder statesman in the Twin Cities civil rights community, was the last audience member to be given the mic to question Bernie Sanders at the Black America Forum in Minneapolis. Despite repeated interruptions by the moderator to keep his question short, Bellecourt, a 79-year-old Anishinaabe elder, blasted Sanders and other presidential candidates for not saying “a single word about Native people.”
Bellecourt introduced himself both by his name in his language and his “colonial name” and reminded Sanders and those gathered of the long struggle of Native Americans to be heard on the national stage. He described his own role and AIM’s in leading Native American people to Wounded Knee in 1973 in an armed takeover of an Oglala Lakota village on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, site of the infamous 1890 massacre of Lakota men, women and children.
The moderator, Anthony Newby, chided Bellecourt, reminding him that the organizers had opened the event by recognizing they are on Indian land. Newby also told the elder that Native American issues were not being brought up at this forum because it is a Black forum, to which Bellecourt responded forcefully, “This is a people of color forum!”
As Sanders was standing to leave for another meeting he was late for, Bellecourt asked him if he would honor the treaties between the federal government and the Native American community to which Sanders responded: “I will do everything I can to redress that.”
The entire exchange can be seen on Youtube and is being widely shared via social media in the Native American community.
Just a week ago, Sanders’ campaign was riding high with Native American voters, having just announced the creation of a new Native American Policy committee to advise the candidate, and won a landslide victory on the Meskwaki Indian Settlement. Clinton won only 16.7 percent of the vote in that district.
Native supporters for Bernie were quick to counter Bellecourt’s accusation of not mentioning Native people by pointing out that in his New Hampshire primary victory speech Sanders did mention Native Americans, saying, “It is a political revolution that will bring tens of millions of our people together…It will bring together blacks, and whites, latinos, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, straight and gay, male and female.”
Indian Country Today contacted the Bernie Sanders campaign for a response to the video. However, in an interview with Nicole Willis, the campaign’s Native American consultant, she stressed that Sanders is notable for his work as the co-sponsor of the 2013 Violence Against Women Act, which featured an unprecedented increase in sovereign jurisdiction of tribes over non-Indians. The act allows for tribal prosecution in tribal courts of non-Indians accused of domestic violence on reservation land. This constitutes the largest increase in tribal jurisdiction since the Oliphant vs. Suquamish Tribe Supreme Court ruling in 1978 that determined tribal courts do not have authority to try and punish non-Indians unless specifically authorized to do so by Congress.
“Oliphant’s impact on the development of federal Indian law and life on the ground in Indian country has been nothing short of revolutionary,” writes legal scholar and professor Dr. Bruce Duthu in his book American Indians and the Law. “The opinion gutted the notion of full territorial sovereignty as it applies to Indian tribes.”
The Oliphant decision has led to a gap in jurisdiction is reported well known and exploited by offenders who know they will most likely not be prosecuted. The fallout was outlined in a 2010 Department of Justice report that found Native women had 2 and one-half times the rate of rape and murder of other American women. It has also been reported that the FBI which has jurisdiction in such cases declined to prosecute in over 70 percent of reported cases. This expansion of tribal jurisdiction was bitterly fought by Republicans.
Sanders has also co-sponsored the Save Oak Flat Act to repeal the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange Act that authorized the transfer Oak Flat, land sacred to the Apaches and other tribes in the Tonto National Forest to a foreign mining company. He has also remained outspoken against the Keystone XL pipeline in contrast to his opponent, Hillary Clinton, who was initially “inclined” to approve the pipeline and hired a major Keystone lobbyist as a consultant for her campaign.
Jacqueline Keeler is a Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux writer living in Portland, Oregon and co-founder of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, creators of Not Your Mascot. She has been published in Telesur, Earth Island Journal and the Nation and interviewed on MSNBC and DemocracyNow and Native American Calling. She has a forthcoming book called “Not Your Disappearing Indian” and podcast. On twitter: @jfkeeler