On the dawn of the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum, the field of candidates attending continued to expand with two last minute additions.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, is now slated to take part Tuesday afternoon as well as former Congressman Joe Sestak. Although, Sen. Harris will not physically be taking the stage in Sioux City, Iowa, she will appear before the panelists via a live video-stream.
That brings the total of participating candidates to 11 but it could have easily been 12. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, was going to take part in the historic forum but had to leave the campaign trail for two weeks to fulfill Army National Guard obligation.
She left to take part in join military training exercises in Indonesia and will resume her campaigning on August 25. In a press release, she said there is no such thing as the wrong time to go and serve your country.
“I love our country. I am grateful to be able to serve our country and the American people in many ways, including as a soldier," Gabbard said. "And so, while some people are telling me, ‘Gosh, this is a terrible time to leave the campaign. Can't you find a way out of it?’ That’s not what this is about. I look forward to joining my fellow soldiers for a joint-training exercise with the Indonesian military, focused on counterterrorism and disaster response.”
OJ Semans, co-executive director of Four Directions and one of the organizers of the forum, said he had been in contact with the Gabbard campaign and was trying to work out a way she could participate before she got the deployment call. As a veteran himself, Semans says he completely understands her decision to fulfill her duties and respects her choice.
“If you look at our culture and our history, our people always served at a higher percentage, so I have no problem where she chose duty over forum,” Semans said. “I think any Native would’ve done the same thing.”
During a press conference Sunday afternoon Indian Country Today Editor Mark Trahant and Semans both wanted to make sure candidates not attending the forum know they still have an invitation to address Indian Country through other avenues.
“We need to keep our door open respectfully and just keep on educating them and bringing them into the fold,” Semans said about the candidates who did not accept invites to the forum.
“I want to add to that, one of the things we thought at Indian Country Today is we have an open invitation to any of the candidates to come visit us in Phoenix and we’ll have a conversation about Native issues,” Trahant said just after Semans.
With democratic presidential candidates taking over the Orpheum Theatre for the next two days, Semans is hopeful that this is the first step to establishing similar forums like this in the future; possibly even one in the general election.
“I thought this was impossible and it’s not,” Semans said. “So that means if we’re coming to a general election with two candidates, why can’t we take and start pushing to have that debate before Native people?”
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