One presidential candidate showed up and others participated via video, but the concentration of a two-day Native American forum on presidential politics at UNLV was contemporary issues, their connection to historic injustices, and how to caucus in Nevada, not the candidates.
The forum in Las Vegas on Tuesday and Wednesday — organized by voting rights advocacy group Four Directions and Nevada tribes— had a bumpy start after a scheduling conflict with the Democratic National Committee Iowa debate hampered many candidates participation.
“Look at what we had to deal with. We were waiting for the impeachment. We didn’t know if Donald Trump was going to send missiles. In an almost impossible situation we made it work,” said OJ Semans, co-executive director of Four Directions and member of the Rosebud Sioux.
Only presidential candidate Tom Steyer was able to appear in person — former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders appeared via pre-recorded videos while Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren participated via live stream.
In the end, Semas said, the two forums – one was held in Iowa earlier this year – resulted in the most attention Indian Country has ever received from presidential contenders.
“We got the top six democratic candidates to talk to Indian Country … and we were able to put our issues up there with the rest of America to be considered,” Semans said.
Panelists at the forum offered greetings in their traditional languages, before shifting to English to ask about topics of interest to native people, many related to historic injustices: the struggle to renew traditional languages decimated by the boarding schools, upholding voting rights, protecting sacred sites, federal-tribal consultation and U.S. Census undercounts of native people. Other high-priority topics were economic development, housing, education, health care and climate justice.
Voter suppression and disenfranchisement is one of many issues Native Americans face in Nevada. During the 2016 election, members of the Paiute tribe were forced to sue the state to expand access to voter registration and early voting polling places on reservations.
According to one study, the result was significantly higher turnout on the two reservations that received access to on-site early voting, in comparison to those without.
About 52,000 Nevadans from 27 different tribes (almost two percent of the state’s population) identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A substantial figure in a battleground state like Nevada.
“We wanted to use this forum to show our people that we are now part of that process,” Semans said. “We are now part of the conversation. We want to get them excited and get them motivated to participate in the upcoming 2020 election.”
Mock caucus with a twist
Caucus training was held throughout the forum. But rather than mock caucusing for candidates, participants were trained on how to caucus using indigenous focused issues like “protect what’s sacred”, “access to healthcare”, and “protect the water.”
Ryan Boone, a 20 year old computational physics major and member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, said he was now more eager than ever to participate in the state caucus.
“I do want to get involved and go to a caucus after that training. It’s cool to be around people that feel the same way you do and to be able to educate others. It’s not just about getting people on your side, it’s about sharing knowledge.”
Currently registered as non-partisan, he feels neither of the major parties speak to the issues he cares about. But the discussions at the forum and caucus training made him feel included.
While not yet committed to a candidate, Boone is interested in plans for the revitalization of native languages and access to higher education. He said the forum “brought a new view of why I should be participating,” adding 2020 would be his first time caucusing. “It made me realize that things aren’t going to change unless we get involved and raise awareness.”
The Nevada caucus, including early voting, will have same day registration for those who want to participate.
Education was another issue at the forum. Native Americans have the nation’s lowest aggregate high school graduation rate, with only about 72 percent of high schoolers earning a diploma, a rate that’s 13 percent lower than the national average. And only 13 percent of Native Americans go on to receive a college degree.
“We need a reason to participate and if that reason isn’t good enough we’re not going to participate,” Boone said.
This year’s caucus will also be the first for Elena Marcos, a 20-year-old UNLV student studying pre-med and a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe.
“I really want to show my support for Bernie and I wasn’t even really sure what a caucus was, so I think this is really important so people know what to do,” Marcos said of the training.
She fears a lack of knowledge on how to caucus and a lack of outreach to native communities will hinder caucus participation, especially among younger people.
But she does believe more young people will vote in the general election.
“We’ve seen all the damage that having Trump as president has done. It’s awoken people to realize ‘okay I need to do more. I need to do everything I can do’,” Marcos said.
The end result of the mock caucus? “Access to healthcare” got two delegates, “protecting what’s sacred” received one.
“If we are able to do a robust get out the vote effort —regardless of the outcome of the primary— the Indian participation and the Indian turnout will be a deciding factor in the general election,” Semans said.
And candidates, too
Biden sent a prerecorded video, making his first appearance to the native-issued focused forums. He promised to push on improvements to the Violence Against Women Act so that tribes would have more authority to prosecute criminals on their own reservations.
“I promise you if I’m elected as President you’ll never have a better friend in the White House,” Biden said in the short one minute video.
Gabbard called for the preservation of Native languages and fighting against voter suppression. Gabard called for a serious effort to address the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. 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.
“There are Native women whose voices are no longer heard. Whose kidnapping and death no one is paying attention to,” said Gabbard.
Warren participated in a live stream, laying out her plan to create a permanent cabinet level White House position on Native American affairs in order to strengthen nation-to-nation consultation. Warren pointed to her prior work to support of Native issues including co-sponsoring the Native American Suicide Prevention Act and the American Indian and Alaska Native Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.
“My plans regularly include Native provisions,” Warren said. “I have worked hard to consult with Native peoples and tribal leaders and I’m going to continue to do that work as president,” Warren said.
Steyer sold himself as the best candidate on climate change and environmental protection. He said he opposed turning over sacred Paiute land to the U.S. military, a position shared by other Democratic presidential hopefuls. Steyer also stressed his opposition to the construction of a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.
“I’m the only one in this race who will say climate is my number one priority,” Steyer said. “I’ve been working on this for the past twelve years. I helped to block the keystone pipeline. Every single thing I’ve done in terms of climate and the environment has started with environmental justice.”
In a short video sent by Sanders he called for honoring treaty obligations, and providing resources to revitalize Native languages, religion and cultural practices. He touted legislation he’s introduced to repeal federal land transfers to companies that desecrate Native lands, like the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“We need to make sure that Washington is never acting on tribal matters without full consultation and consent from the Native community,” Sanders said, vowing to hire Native American’s on his cabinet should he become president.