Round 2: Asking the presidential candidates about Indian Country's issues

Senator Elizabeth Warren is a late addition to forum in Nevada; five other candidates confirmed

Less than a month away from the Iowa caucus and the sprint to the Democratic nomination, the field of candidates is starting to become more palatable.

Most recently, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, author Marianne Williamson and Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, all have dropped out of the race; dwindling the number of candidates remaining to 12.

While many of the eyes of the nation will be on the Democratic debate in Des Moines, Iowa, Tuesday night, tribal leaders from across the country will be in Las Vegas, Nevada, for the Four Directions, Inc. and Nevada Tribal Nations Native American Presidential Forum, the second forum focused on Native issues in the last year.

There are six confirmed candidates that will be taking part in the two-day forum this week: former South Bend, Indiana Mayor, Pete Buttigieg; Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts; Tom Steyer; Andrew Yang and Mark Charles, Navajo.

Only Steyer and Charles will appear in person while other candidates will be live-streamed. Additionally, out of this group, only Warren and Charles attended the first Native forum that took place in Sioux City, Iowa, last August.

O.J. Semans, Rosebud Sioux, co-executive director of Four Directions, is a part of the coalition of organizations that put together both forums and said the experience from the first forum in Iowa helped a lot in preparation this time around.

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One wrinkle he said is to have tribal leaders on the panels to ask their questions with less explanations as to why they’re asking it. Semans said it’s to put more onus on the campaigns to do their own research.

“It's going to speed things up a little bit more,” Semans said. “It's also putting the burden of coming up with answers to our issues upon the candidates instead of us holding their hand.”

A number of issues affecting Indian Country will be discussed with the presidential hopefuls, ranging from climate change and sacred sites to economic development and the 2020 Census and more.

Don Ragona, Matinecock, director of development and house counsel for the Native American Rights Fund, is looking forward to the next two days as an important chance to have Indian Country’s voices heard on a national level once again.

“We have an opportunity to give our issues and to get our concerns voiced in front of the candidates,” Ragona said. “So we've got the chance to put them on record in the national stage as to what they're going to do for Indian Country and how are they going to address the issues that we present to them.”

Ahead of the forum, a theme was created to highlight the the impact the Native vote can have in the upcoming election: “7 Generations, 7 States and 77 Electoral votes - Indian Country United.”

The seven battleground states where the Native vote could make a difference are: Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

Judith LeBlanc, Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, director of the Native Organizers Alliance called the idea and numerology behind it brilliant. She said the Native vote can have a sustained impact on policies in both the executive and legislative branches of government.

“It created a platform and an opening for us to begin to organize the kind of Native vote that can have real, long-term, sustained impact on policies that will be decided by the next administration and by Congress,” LeBlanc said.

The most notable candidate who has not appeared at either event is former Vice President Joe Biden. When asked if the Biden campaign is sending a negative message to Indian Country by not attending, Semans said not necessarily.

He added that he understands sometimes the schedules of the candidates don’t permit them to be able to attend but they are still going to reach out to the campaigns and added the fact the Biden campaign hasn’t explicitly said “no” to an appearance.

“We've gotten phone calls an hour or two before the forum started for the last one (Iowa) to say we're coming,” Semans said. “Our goal is to educate and if they're not here, we will find them and educate them.”

More information and a live-stream link for the forum can be found at nativevote2020.com.

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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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