SIOUX CITY, IOWA — No one knew quite what to expect when Native American activists organized their first-ever presidential forum this week.
How many candidates would attend? How read in would they be about the issues of greatest concern to indigenous people? How many would present fleshed-out programs pertaining to Native American concerns?
One day after the forum in Sioux City, Iowa, tribal members have their answer. They say the two-day political event went better than they expected.
SIOUX CITY, IA – AUGUST 20: Tribal elder, Marcella LeBeau, (C) asks Independent candidate for president Mark Charles a question at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum on August 20, 2019 in Sioux City, Iowa. Lebeau wanted to know Charles’s position on rescinding the Medals of Honor awarded after the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
“Having 11 presidential candidates participate the best they could reflects the understanding that the Native vote has an impact on national elections,” said Brandon Stevens, vice chairman of the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin.
“It shows engagement that … was more of a conversation. Not gotcha questions,” he said.
One barometer of success is that the candidates seemed to have a good grasp on a number of issues that uniquely pertain to Native Americans.
Most of the candidates addressed the need to give Native Americans greater access to the ballot box one year after massive voter suppression efforts in North Dakota and other places.
The presidential contenders also addressed the crisis of murdered and missing indigenous women, the growing awareness about how climate change impacts Native communities, and efforts to protect tribal sovereignty and indigenous lands.
Stevens said he was especially pleased about the timing of the forum. “Getting them early in the election cycle will help elevate Native issues,” he said.
SIOUX CITY, IA – AUGUST 20: Buttons available at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum on August 20, 2019 in Sioux City, Iowa. A number of 2020 presidential candidates are speaking at the event. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Candidates’ command of these issues — and even their willingness to engage with members of the community about them — marks a watershed moment, Native leaders said.
— Danielle McLean (@DanielleBMcLean) August 20, 2019
“It means for once we were treated equal. Our voices were heard. They spoke to us as they spoke to the general public,” said O.J. Semans, an organizer of the Frank LaMere Presidential Candidate Forum here.
SIOUX CITY, IA – AUGUST 19: Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) speaks at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum on August 19, 2019 in Sioux City, Iowa. Haaland introduced Sen. Elizabeth Warren who she has co-sponsored legislation with to help the Native American community. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
The candidates also addressed the need to reduce homelessness, especially among Native veterans, and to improve the schools. Several candidates addressed an issue of great emotional importance to many in attendance, who said they wanted to strip Medals of Honor from U.S.-government soldiers who fought Native Americans at Wounded Knee, an 1890 battle that they consider a massacre.
The forum gave some Native Americans encouragement that they are finally being viewed as a constituency worth reaching out to.
“It just gives us more incentive to continue…forcing out our issues and demanding communication,” said Semans, co-executive director of the Native American voting rights group Four Directions, which hosted the event.
The forum included 10 competitors for the Democratic nomination and Mark Charles a Native American who is running as an independent. Many of the candidates likely faced a steep learning curve to get up to speed on the challenges faced in Indian Country.
“Some of them, this is probably the first time they dealt with Native issues before,” Semans told ThinkProgress. “It’s not that they had the strong solutions, it’s that they heard what we had to say.”
SIOUX CITY, IA – AUGUST 20: Democratic presidential candidate and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro speaks at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum on August 20, 2019 in Sioux City, Iowa. Castro fielded a variety of questions pertaining to Native American communities. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
“Some of them really did not work in Indian country or know any Nation. But they learned. They were actually able to see there are Native Americans and to listen to their problems, and that’s a start.”
Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today, who moderated the candidate forum, said the event took public discussion and debate of Native issues from the back burner and gave them mainstream prominence.
“It raised … so many issues to a level of discourse that was just unheard of,” Trahant said.
SIOUX CITY, IA – AUGUST 20: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) listens to a question at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum on August 20, 2019 in Sioux City, Iowa. Sanders addressed a number of questions about issues facing the Native American community. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Issues including American honoring treaty rights, Indian Country health care, and Native people being historically undercounted in the census: “Those are issues that just don’t get a lot of attention,” he said.
In the audience, too, prominent officials and Native elders from communities across the country were able to meet, share ideas, and trade notes on issues of concern to people in Indian Country.
Until this week, Trahant said, “representation (at) all levels of government have been missing the Native voice.”
This piece has been updated adding an Oneida Nation official.