Iowa debate bumps candidates from Nevada Native American forum

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Buttons available at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum on August 20, 2019 in Sioux City, Iowa. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

The second-ever presidential forum focusing entirely on Native American issues will take place over two days in Las Vegas this month, but scheduling of the Iowa debate has all but assured that top tier candidates won’t be in Nevada for the forum.

The Four Directions and Nevada Tribal Nations Native American Presidential Forum 2020 will be held on January 14-15 in Las Vegas on the campus of the University of Nevada Las Vegas at Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall, while the next Democratic debate will be held on January 14.

On Nov. 27 Four Directions announced the date for their presidential forum and on Dec. 12 the Democratic National Committee announced the date of the Iowa debate. 

“It’s going to make it impossible for the candidates who made the debate to appear in person,” said forum organizer O.J. Semans, co-director of the voting rights group Four Directions and an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “We’re still proceeding ahead. We are not discouraged and we’re still very optimistic about making this work.”

Semans said he has received calls from candidates who have qualified for the January debate and is working on arranging livestream appearances of the candidates. So far, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar have qualified for the debate stage, as well as Former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

In an email meant for the organizers of the Nevada event, staff for Klobachar said she was “completely booked” and could not participate in the forum via livestream, offering to send a video instead.

With a little over a week until the forum and the debate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign staff said they “can’t confirm logistics yet” on whether she could participate in the forum. Likewise, Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign staff said they are still ironing out logistics.

“Last time when nearly everyone came on board it was nearly seven days prior to the forum itself,” Semans said. 

Multiple attempts to reach the DNC for comment were unsuccessful.

With Native American electoral power growing, tribal leaders are demanding more from presidential candidates, who are increasingly courting Native American voters ahead of the 2020 election.

The first Native American forum held by Four Directions in Sioux City, Iowa attracted a livestream audience of nearly 200,000 viewers online. Eleven candidates participated in the August event, nine in person and two via livestream.

After the event in Sioux City, a number of candidates came out with concrete plans focused on Native American issues, said Semans.

“The point of this forum is to show Native Americans that they are included in this process by having their issues discussed with these candidates,” Semans said. “That’s very important. If you are going to go out and vote you’re going to vote because you are a part of that process.”

Four Directions has lead several fights over voting rights, working to secure equal voting access for Native Americans in a number of states including North Dakota in 2018 when the state imposed ID voting requirements that were particularly difficult for Native people to meet.

Four Directions has a history in Nevada too. Four years ago the group, lead by Semans, was part of the fight to expand polling places on reservations in the state. 

Eventually, the Pyramid Lake and Walker River Paiute Tribes filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that the state of Nevada and Washoe and Mineral counties were violating the Voting Rights Act by denying their requests for polling places on their reservations. They won that case.

In the last Legislative session, lawmakers also passed a bill that requires county clerks to establish permanent polling places on reservations in the state unless a reservation specifically asks to change it. 

Nevada’s attention to native voting rights made it a fitting location for the forum said Semans.

Beyond just engaging people in the political process, the forum is meant to prepare Native Americans especially in battleground states for the 2020 election.

One panel titled, “Native American political engagement – From denial to full participation” will look at the voting history of Native Americans. Semans believes that in order for people to fully participate they need to understand the barriers that keep them from voting.

Native American voters can influence election results in major swing states in 2020, said Semans. Tribal leaders from seven battleground states including Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, and Wisconsin will participate in the event.

“The Native vote in these seven states can actually tip the scales one way or another,” Semans said.

In Nevada, candidates have courted the native vote in part by weighing in on local issues faced by tribes. Several presidential hopefuls have used the national stage to voice their opposition to a military expansion into the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, long considered sacred land to the Moapa Band of Paiutes. 

Candidates have also spoken out on environmental justice issues affecting Nevada tribes, opposing the use of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository, a sacred site for Shoshone and Paiute tribes, and elevating the issue of groundwater contamination on Yerington Paiute Reservation, which the tribe believes is related to the abandoned Anaconda Copper Mine.

The forum will include caucus training throughout the day to teach the attendees how to participate in the Nevada Caucus, using presidential candidates native policies as a training tool for the caucus.

“We may be small as far as rural communities go but when we come together and we put our backing behind somebody we can make things happen,” said Chairman Amber Torres of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, who will participate in the forum. 

Torres said a lack of focus on Native American issues and barriers to voting has disenfranchised native voters, stressing the importance of speaking with presidential candidates about the issues facing Indian Country. 

“Regardless of whether you can get there you can always call in or come on video chat,” Torres said of the scheduling conflict with the Iowa Democratic debate. “There are ways you can still get there without having to have a physical presence.”

Many Native American issues have been put on the wayside for too long, said Torres, including health funding and addressing violence against Native American women.

The Indian Health Service, an agency that serves 2.2 million Native Americans through a special government-to-government relationship between tribes and federal officials, is chronically underfunded leading to health disparities in native communities.

Native American women are killed or trafficked at far higher rates than the rest of the U.S. population. On some reservations, Native women are murdered at more than ten times the national average, according to the Justice Department.

Torres anticipates that the Native American community will “get out in droves” to vote in the upcoming elections.

“We feel the effects of the current administration,” said Torres, highlighting the financial strain tribal communicates felt during the government shutdown a year ago which lead to a denial of services. “People are getting fed up with it. People are seeing services cut, programs being cut that help us on a day to day basis, so we know we need to get out there and vote.”

When asked about the forum’s scheduling conflict with the Iowa debate, Torres said, “It is what it is. All you can do is try to make the most of it.”

Chairman Laurie Thom of the Yerington Paiute Tribe said it was disappointing that the conflict would prevent many candidates from being physically present at the forum. 

“Whether or not our concerns are heard is going to be dependent on whether or not we’re actually talking to the candidates,” Thom said. “It’s important for these candidates to understand that tribal leaders are bringing the voices of our people to them and it’s important to be there.”

She doesn’t blame candidates for being unable to make the forum, but said it raised questions on whether tribal voices we’re being heard. 

“We should be able to talk directly with the candidates with no conflict of another event they need to be at,” Thom said. “We just want to be respected for our time and our efforts.”

Still, Thom said it’s an argument for having more forums focused on Native American issues where tribal leaders and members could meet with candidates in the future.

“I’m just glad we have the coordination now to be able to do this for the native nations and I appreciate all the effort,” Thom said.

“I just wish they could solve the conflict.”

Jeniffer Solis
Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.