'A Native lens' on the 2020 presidential campaigns

Kolby KickingWoman

Four Directions and Nevada Tribal Nations 2020 Native American Presidential Forum was neither boom nor bust

If showing up is half the battle, then the winners of the Four Directions and Nevada Tribal Nations 2020 Native American Presidential Forum were independent Mark Charles, Navajo, and Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer.

They were the only two candidates who appeared in person at the Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall on the campus of the University of Nevada Las Vegas and of the confirmed candidates prior to the forum, only Andrew Yang failed to send some sort of message. The forum was neither boom nor bust but when compared to the first Native forum held this last August in Sioux City, Iowa, and this time around didn't get as much interest.

At a press conference on Monday prior to the start of the forum, OJ Semans, Rosebud Sioux, co-executive director of Four Directions, said the video streams of the first forum received more than 200,000 views. As of Thursday afternoon, the streams from both days this week on Vimeo earned 2,586 views.

Although, that’s not to say the forum wasn’t a success. Any time Indian Country can get candidates on the record on issues affecting Native communities is a good thing.

Rueben Vasquez, Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, was grateful for the forum and enjoyed networking with other tribal leaders.

“It’s great to hear from different presidential candidates on what their views are and the different things they see,” said Vasquez, who is the vice chairman of the tribe.

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Amber Torres, Walker River Paiute and chairman of her tribe, echoed those sentiments and said despite having to compete with the Democratic debate in Iowa Tuesday night, the candidates that wanted to show up and send messages did.

“For people to hear our issues and decide whether or not they want to support that effort is huge,” Chairman Torres said.

Charles was the first candidate to take center stage Tuesday afternoon. Throughout his campaign, he has been traveling to Native communities throughout the country to shape his candidacy through a “Native lens.”

In doing research in the outset of his campaign, Charles’ team looked at the 2016 election and the number of signatures required per state to be put on the ballot as an Independent. They found that the number of Natives in each state exceeded the number of signatures it would take to be put on.

“Indian Country has the power to put me on the ballot in all 50 states,” Charles said.

One issue that has gained a lot of traction in and outside of Indian Country is missing and murdered Indigenous women. On the morning of the second day of the forum, the world premiere of “Somebody’s Daughter,” a documentary on the crisis, was played for the audience.

It was a powerful film and in introducing it, Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana chairman David Sickey said the film was for all of Indian Country.

“This documentary belongs to us all,” Chairman Sickey said. “In one voice, we say to the missing and we say to those taken from us, we will not forget you. We will not allow one more.”

Pete Buttigieg - Nevada forum
On screen: Candidate Pete Buttigieg. (Photo by Kolby KickingWoman, Indian Country Today)

In a pre-recorded interview between Semans and candidate and former mayor Pete Buttigieg, the latter said the Missing and Murdered Indigenous women crisis is unfortunately still not one that is well understood by many Americans. Buttigieg said his administration, if elected, would work with Native communities to find solutions.

“This isn’t going to go away on it’s own,” Buttigieg said. “It’s why we need presidential level action. It’s why we need to empower a commission in partnership with the kinds of organizations you’ve mentioned to act on this.”

From the start of the forum, it was unknown if former Vice President Joe Biden would make an appearance in any fashion. Even after everything began, Semans continued to talk with the different campaigns to afford them every opportunity to send something.

The former vice president submitted a short video and sent a letter answering seven questions regarding issues impacting tribes. Biden apologized for being unable to make it to the forum but said if elected, Indian Country would have an ally and an advocate in the White House.

“The progress we’ve made on Indian Country’s most urgent issues is because of all of you. You’ve demanded attention,” the letter reads. “You’ve fought for solutions and changes to the law, and you continue to fight for the authority to ensure justice and fairness for everyone in your nations.”

Representative Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, connected with the forum via live-stream from New Hampshire. Growing up in Hawaii, she said she’s seen the preservation of language and culture and its importance.

She added that acknowledging the trust and treaty obligations of the United States to tribes is just the first step and “Our nation’s first people is who we must rally around.”

Tulsi Gabbard - Nevada Forum
On screen: U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii. (Photo by Kolby KickingWoman, Indian Country Today)

“I think we can and must find solutions to these challenges and that can only happen when leaders from across Indian Country, representing these Indigenous communities, have a seat at the table with the federal government in Washington where you are no longer an afterthought,” Rep. Gabbard said. “

Similar to Gabbard, Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, also appeared via live-stream. No stranger to Indian Country, Warren said she has working with Native communities for a number of years and looks forward to continuing to do so.

She called for a permanent cabinet position on tribal affairs in her administration and said the obligations the United States government has to tribal nations would be reflected in her budget as president.

Additionally, Warren said she would give tribes the resources and flexibility necessary to fight the opioid crisis and other addiction problems many tribes face.

“We must fight on behalf of our brothers and sisters who are suffering,” Warren said.

Tom Steyer headshot
Tom Steyer was the only Democratic candidate who was on stage at the Nevada Tribal Nations 2020 Native American Presidential Forum. Nevada (Photo by Kolby KickingWoman, Indian Country Today)

The lone candidate who was on the debate stage Tuesday night who made it out to Las Vegas was businessman Tom Steyer. In his now infamous plaid tie, Steyer pitched himself as an outsider that can fix Washington, D.C.

He’s centered his campaign around the climate crisis and said for far too long, Native communities and treaties haven’t been respected. In his administration if elected, he said that would change and it starts with recognizing the true history of how Natives have been treated.

“We need to tell the true story of the last 500 years,” Steyer said, “and there’s no way to tell it without the words ‘Native genocide.’”

Last but certainly not least, Senator Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, sent a short video message to the forum. In it, he said Native communities must be given the proper resources to protect and revitalize Indigenous languages, cultures and traditions.

Sanders also called for full consultation of tribes when it comes to matters that take place on tribal lands.

“We must make sure that Washington is never acting on tribal matters without full consultation and consent of the Native American people,” Sanders said. “We need to make sure that Native Americans are represented in the highest levels of government. An administration that does not look like America, cannot represent America.”

With the Iowa caucus just a few short weeks away and the Nevada caucus day not long after, these campaigns are sure to kick into high gear. These forums have afforded Indian Country a window into how these candidates would work for and on behalf of Native communities.

If these forums have demonstrated anything, it is the power of the Native vote.

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Kolby KickingWoman is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is Blackfeet/Gros Ventre from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

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