Location. Location. Location.
It’s said to be the realtor’s mantra, but also something OJ Semans strongly considered when choosing a place to have the first ever Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum August 19 and 20. The forum is set to be held at the Orpheum Theatre in Sioux City, Iowa.
Iowa can make or break a campaign for those aspiring to hold the highest office in the land, it’s the first state to hold its caucus leading up to the 2020 election on Feb. 2, 2020.
“Hey guess what? They’re going to be there,” Semans, Rosebud Sioux, said of Democratic candidates campaigning in Iowa. “We picked a place where they could come out of their backyard picnic to talk to us. It wasn’t like we put it in the middle of nowhere, it was where they’re at.”
Semans is the co-executive director of Four Directions, a Native American voting rights advocacy organization. Over the course of his tenure at Four Directions, Semans has noticed the rising number of Natives voting in elections, as well as running and winning races for public offices.
Looking ahead to 2020, the organization identified seven battleground states with high concentrations of Native Americans; Arizona, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nevada and Colorado.
The margins of victory were slim in those seven states, making the Native vote even more important.
Semans said they contacted tribal leaders in those states to see if they would take part in this historic presidential forum.
“We’re pretty positive that this will be a historic forum and one where candidates aren’t coming there for ‘we got you’ questions,” Semans said. “More of, ‘we want to teach you’ questions.’ We want you as a presidential candidate to understand the people you signed treaties with and what those treaty obligations are.”
So far, six individuals have said they will participate: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, author Marianne Williamson, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, former United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, former United States Representative John Delaney and Mark Charles, a member of the Navajo Nation.
The forum will be moderated by Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today. Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, said it's important that candidates address issues that are important to Native communities. "Too often elections are an afterthought," Trahant said. "It's essential to broaden the conversation."
Trahant moderated "Prez on the Rez" in 2007 on the Morongo Reservation in California. In that campaign forum, frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama did not participate, but New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel.
There are other forums on Native issues being considered by presidential campaigns this election cycle. And Trahant is inviting all national candidates to visit Indian Country Today at Arizona State's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication for a TV studio interview.
The Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum will also be lived-streamed through Facebook and by Native media.
All in all, Semans is hoping to have 10 candidates take part in the forum and is in serious talks to fill the remaining slots. He says it’s important candidates take part because whoever becomes president, it will be their duty and obligation to honor treaties.
“If you don’t understand those treaties, how are you going to honor them?” Semans said. Let’s be honest, if the United States honored their treaties as they were written years ago, we wouldn’t need their assistance.”
Topics such as the Remove the Stain Act, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, housing, health care and transportation are just a few Semans believes tribal leaders will bring up.
Tickets have yet to become available but a waiver system is being worked on so tribal members can attend for free. Semans is hoping for a large audience to pack the theatre.
“I think it’s really going to be powerful, I really do,” Semans said. “We have Indian Country in the house.”
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 - firstname.lastname@example.org