Mateo Morales waited patiently behind the curtains at the Orpheum Theater in Sioux City, Iowa. He watched silently on stage left as tribal leaders, youth and elders made their way to designated seats. He was dressed sharply in a two-piece suit, wearing black sneakers, waiting for his cue.
Then Morales escorted his guest, Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro, onto the stage.
“I’m feeling pretty excited,” he said with a smile.
The panel was one of many at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum where 11 presidential candidates discussed their platforms on Indian Country.
But while all of the attention was focused on the candidates onstage, off stage it was the community of the elder and youth volunteers who helped make the historic event a success.
The volunteers came from communities all over Indian Country and more than half were youth, said Native Organizers Alliance Director Judith LeBlanc.
Many delegations came in from the seven states where “the Indian vote is the swing vote” and has an impact on 77 electoral votes, according to LeBlanc. These organizations include the Little Earth Housing of United Tribes, Native American Community Development Institute, Menikanaehkem Community Rebuilders, Diné C.A.R.E., and much more.
“We’ve invited communities who are very involved in youth projects, organizing and intergenerational organizing,” LeBlanc said. “They’re a reflection of the grassroots communities who are creating solutions for the young people through their engagement and dealing with the real problems.”
Each volunteer served an important function. Whether it was the youth standing outside handing out tickets to the public, or the elders warmly greeting attendees upon entry, or the latter of them ushering people to their designated seats, or the acting security making sure that guests had the proper credentials to access backstage, all of the roles were rooted in community.
“We’re trying to encourage that all of this organizing that we’re doing is rooted in intertribal traditional ways,” said LeBlanc, Caddo Tribe of Oklahoma. “From starting the staff meeting the way that we do, asking people that they contribute and to really think about what their role can be, everyone has a role to make this historic event a good one for our people because this is going to be so many people’s first political event.”
For Elva Stricker’s family, it was just that.
Jumping at the chance to volunteer on behalf of the Kul Wicasa Brave Heart Society, Stricker, Kul Wicasa Oyate Tribe, drove four hours from the Lower Brule reservation in South Dakota with her son and two nieces, all high schoolers who signed up as ticket handlers and escorts for candidates.
“It’s very important that we’re here today because my family, my Oyate, will learn something,” she said Monday. “My first-time voting was the last election, I’ve never voted before, not even tribal. I hope they’ll understand that our votes count for our families and communities. Little does my son know this is going to mean something in the future. He’s going to look back at this time and say, ‘Hey, that’s why I did that,’ or ‘I was there.’”
With both days being eventful and busy, one thing was certain among the volunteers: everyone knew that they were a part of history.
Volunteers with the Center for Native American Youth had the unique opportunity to accompany panelists onstage and directly ask a question to each candidate. For Rory Wheeler and Nancy Deere-Turney, this showcased that Native youth finally have a seat at the table when it comes to the national discussion on Indian Country.
“We can’t talk about the future if we don’t have young people here to live the policies that are being talked about and being implemented today,” said Wheeler, Seneca Nation, a senior at Niagara University who escorted candidates. “We’re going to be the next elected officials, tribal and even national leaders. We’ve been overlooked for so long. Now we’re here helping with our visibility by showing that we’re still here and we have an invested interest in these issues that happen every single day.”
Although she had just finished 12 hours of volunteering Monday evening, Deere-Turney, Muscogee Creek Nation, said she felt energized by the discussions, especially after asking a question to Gov. Steve Bullock.
“I get tired of saying American Indians, Alaskan Natives, our issues are some of the worst in the country and we get this side note like, ‘We see you over there, we know you got some bad stuff going on, but hold on, hold on,” she said. “Today I really felt like finally we’re not being told to hold on anymore. And it’s not because they noticed us -- it’s because we made them notice us.”
For Carol Davis, a grandmother of four from Dilkon, Arizona, volunteering alongside the youth and seeing them take on leadership roles nearly brought her to tears.
“For me, it is emotional because what I’m seeing is we’re trying to help create that quality of life that we want for our grandkids, for future next generations and all those who aren’t born yet,” Davis said. “It gives me hope that our young people are going to step up to the plate and really want to assume those leadership roles. Even just the fact that they’re here with us, I see them as young leaders already. It’s not like someday they’re going to be a leader, they’re already doing something that not all kids are willing to do. The young ones I’ve seen are really outspoken, they’re very knowledgeable about their history, they’re secure in their self-identity and that just makes me feel so proud.”
As for the future, many are returning home to their communities knowing that their roles all served a higher function of bringing tribal sovereignty to the national forefront.
“We’re trying to help the leaders of the 21st century to our strength and the work of our ancestors,” LeBlanc said. “In our debrief meeting, we ended with the AIMs song which for many of us elders it brings back that spirit of empowerment that drove the American Indian Movement and the upsurge in the ’70s but in the 21st century the upsurge we’re seeing today is so much better and is actually a spiritually directed strategy. There isn’t one leader, it’s the community in which the leaders are creating that will make the difference and lead to its transformational change and our long-sought recognition for our tribal sovereignty.”
“I hope this becomes an annual thing,” Davis said. “I’ve watched presidential forums on TV and there’s never been anything that addresses our population. Joe [Sestak] said, ‘I had learned something here.’ I think they’re all learning something here. Somebody else had asked Amy [Klobuchar] about Free Prior Informed Consent and she did not understand it. For Diné C.A.R.E., that is a big issue for us. I’m working on re-wording it, so if they never heard of FPIC, I’m going to educate them.”
Taylor Notah is a Diné journalist originally from the Navajo Nation. She works as senior editor for Arizona State University’s Turning Points Magazine.
Cover photo: Mateo Morales escorts Julián Castro onto the presidential stage. (Photo by Taylor Notah)