I just got home from spending the last few days in the homelands of the Omaha, Ponca, Dakota, and Winnebago people at the first-ever Frank LeMere Native American Presidential Forum. This historic event was named after Winnebago activist Frank LeMere who devoted his life to making sure Indigenous peoples not only had a voice in American politics but had the representation needed to address our issues.
The road for Native voting rights has been a long one but the 2020 primaries have set a new precedent in presidential elections for our communities as we have seen two presidential hopefuls roll out Indigenous platforms ahead of the forum, bringing our issues into the national conversation.
Former HUD Secretary Julían Castro was the first candidate to work with Indigenous communities throughout Turtle Island to roll out his People First Indigenous Communities Platform. Soon after Senator Elizabeth Warren partnered with Congresswoman Deb Haaland to launch her Honoring and Empowering Tribal Nations and Indigenous Peoples Platform. Both were in attendance at the forum along with Senator Sanders, Cherokee tribal member Mark Charles — even Kamala Harris Skyped in despite her anti-tribal sovereignty history.
This forum was historic, but has been long in the making. If you look back at the past decade, you see that we are in the midst of an Indigenous rising in electoral politics.
In 2018 we saw Senator John Tester win a close re-election race by less than 20,000 votes — a victory that was carried by the tribal nations in Montana including my own the Fort Belknap and Fort Peck Nations. Montana has six Indigenous majority districts and the most Indigenous elected officials in the U.S. with 12 Indigenous representatives. 2012 North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp credited her one percent win margin to Indigenous voters. 2018 was also a historic year for North Dakota as we saw Ruth Buffalo becoming the first Indigenous woman elected to the North Dakota legislature after beating Randy Boehning who tried to disenfranchise Native voters with an ID law.
Tribal relations are complicated with the American government, navigating voting rights from nation to nation tells different stories. While we have made progress, we know that progress is not linear and we must fight to make our voices heard.
These wins have also come with more pushes to disenfranchise Indigenous voters who sometimes travel long distances because polling sites are off tribal lands, dealing with pole workers who are unable to translate Indigenous languages and intimidation at the ballot box. In 2012 Indigenous Alaskan Senator Albert Kookesh lost due to unjust redistricting that weakened the Indigenous vote in Alaska. Just months after Senator Heitkamp was elected, Republican lawmakers moved quickly to pass stricter voter ID laws. Last year the US Supreme Court failed us in refusing to block the strict voter ID laws passed in North Dakota making it harder for tribal communities and rural voters to vote.
I left the Native forum confident that many 20200 candidates know that Native vote matters. We were well represented by our tribal leaders who asked questions about how candidates would strengthen our government-to-government relationships and by water protectors who weren’t afraid to call out candidates who haven’t taken strong enough stances against extractive industries that devastate tribal communities. Voting, the protest, our relationship to the settler state are all important pieces of the puzzle as we navigate a post-settler world and
Frank inspired us all to fight for our people’s voice to be heard in the halls of government and in the streets. Many work hard to live up to his legacy because we know a better world is possible.
Aba Wasté Yuhá.
Jennifer K. Falcon (Hay Shaw Wiÿa), Assiniboine Lakota Hunkpapa īnã, is Communications Coordinator for the Indigenous Environmental Network.