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Candidates for Democratic National Committee Chair Share Views on Indian Country Issues

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It is no secret that the Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee took a whupping in November. Obviously the 45th President happened and that is tragic enough. However, around the nation, Democrats were largely taken to task for not seeing past their historical strongholds and “firewalls.” That lack of vision had disastrous results for the Dems.

One obvious element that the Democratic Party needed was some new vision. That old vision was not working; how do we know that? Because that aforementioned whupping happened. Therefore, one measure is to bring certain communities that had been overlooked into the fold.

As a matter of historical fact, Native people vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates when we vote. Moreover, there have always been a few Natives within the Democratic machinery, trying to make the Democrats’ platform more responsive to Native communities. Yet, importantly, there are probably more Native Democrats at the national level now than ever before who will help determine the Democratic National Committee leadership roles. Currently, Debra Haaland, Frank LeMere, Joe Pakootas, Dan Halpren and Chairman Rion Ramirez serve in the Native American Caucus. And here we are, at a historical moment; every single candidate to Chair the Democratic Party’s National Committee has responded to a questionnaire prepared for the benefit of Indian Country.

Each of the candidates for DNC Chair gave thoughtful responses regarding some pretty difficult questions. Native people absolutely have a large stake in this process—obviously Natives vote for Democrats. But for all of the very real shortcomings of the Democratic Party, this 45th President has also shown how crazy the current generations of Republicans are. PLUS…there’s an added interest: Peggy Flanagan, currently a State Representative in Minnesota, very well may end up in the United States House of Representatives depending upon who wins the DNC Chair. She would be the first Native woman to be a US congressperson!

So these questions matter. And in fairness, the candidates did a great job with our inquiries. For example, we asked:

You can read the Democratic National Committee candidate full responses under each of their respective names.

What is your personal position on Tribal Sovereignty? What facts, research and/or people have informed that position?

And we received responses such as these excerpts below:

Mayor Pete Buttigieg: I have seen first-hand how much it means to individuals and families who are both South Bend residents and tribal citizens to have access to the resources the tribe provides for them, and was proud to support the restoration of their tribal homeland. That’s why I support protecting the government-to-government relationship between the sovereign tribes and the U.S. government.

(Full responses by Mayor Pete Buttigieg)

Sally Boynton Brown: The treaties that govern the relationship between the U.S. government and the tribal governments should be honored. To that end, I honor tribal sovereignty. My state has several different tribal governments and I have learned over the years that each of these governments are distinct from one another. Through my relationships with fellow Idahoans who are tribal people or who work with tribal governments I have learned that there is great complexity in these rich cultures. I would always seek guidance on tribal issues from tribal people. Native communities have informed my understanding of native communities and they will continue to do so.

(Full responses by Sally Boynton Brown)

Sam Ronan: Tribal Sovereignty is a constitutionally protected status, plain and simple! The fact that the US Government continues to violate its treaties, and your lands is appalling. The only way to change that is by holding our elected officials accountable not just on Election Day, but as party members, and voters exercising their immense rights to do so! 

(Full responses by Sam Ronan)

Secretary Tom Perez: The United States has, for far too long, not honored treaty rights and tribal sovereignty. Because tribal sovereignty is often not respected, tribal nations often struggle to prosecute violent crimes that occur on tribal lands because the offender is not a tribal member…No two tribes are the same and one-size fits all solutions don’t work. Tribal self-determination is key to bringing economic success to Indian Country. 

(Full responses by Sec. Tom Perez)

Congressman Keith Ellison: Part of honoring our nation’s treaty and trust obligations is for the Democratic Party, using every means possible to elect tribal leaders, and other candidates across this country, who will fight to increase resources for economic development, health care, Indian education, youth engagement and other services. It also means seeking American Indian cultural advice and reducing violent crime in Indian Country, and real government-to-government consultation on all infrastructure projects that affect the health and welfare of Indian Country.

(Full responses by Congressman Keith Ellison)

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Jehmu Green: For many people, Tribal Sovereignty can be a nuanced position. The ward/guardian relationship characterized by the Marshall Trilogy, obviously still affects the way sovereignty is understood today. Legally the concept of sovereignty can be complicated and good people are stretching those bounds every day. The push and pull, and the dynamic processes of sovereignty unfolding in the courts and legislatures nationwide are vital and we need to do more to strengthen and support sovereignty. Having said that, for me the issue is simple, I believe in the inherent sovereignty of tribal nations. In many cases they were governments before the United States even existed, our Founding Fathers looked to the Iroquois Confederacy for guidance when framing the Constitution, we need to honor that as a country, and support the self-determination and sovereignty of Tribes.

(Full responses by Jehmu Green)

Jaime Harrison: My personal position on Tribal Sovereignty is that which is laid out in the 2016 Democratic Platform: “We recognize the inherent sovereignty of Indian nations and will work to enact laws and policies that strengthen, not reduce, the powers of Indian nations over people who interact with them in Indian Country.” That position is influenced primarily by history and morality. Tribal Sovereignty has existed since before American sovereignty did, and we must recognize the sovereignty of Tribes just as we recognize the sovereignty of all nations. Of course, we have a much greater obligation to respect Tribal Sovereignty because of the U.S. government’s lack of respect for Native communities throughout our nation’s history. Supporting Tribal Sovereignty is integral to supporting Tribal governments and should always be at the forefront of the platform of the Democratic Party.

(Full responses by Jaime Harrison)

Ray Buckley (withdrew from race, endorsed Keith Ellison):I fully respect and acknowledge Tribal Sovereignty and I would advise all our public office holders to keep an open dialogue with all our nations to ensure Native communities’ needs are being met. Coming from a state with a relatively low Native population, this is an area I look forward to learning about further. 

(Full responses by Ray Buckley)

Obviously these candidates will need to do more than have good words. However, it is significant that each candidate for DNC Chair answered the full questionnaire and gave meaningful responses to each question.

Finally, the Chair of the Native American Caucus, Rion Ramirez (Turtle Mountain Chippewa) was kind enough to share the process that he says he will use to determine who he will vote for:

Rion Ramirez’s DNC Chair Endorsement Process

As the Chairman of the Native American Council, I have spent the last few months talking with the candidates and their staff to make sure I am as informed and thoughtful as I can be in understand each candidate’s position, work and heartfelt commitment to Indian Country. I had the below main talking points that I emphasized with each candidate when we spoke and I wanted to hear a commitment by the candidate to:

  • The fulfillment of the US’s treaty obligations, trust responsibilities and protect of the sovereignty of all tribal nations.
  • Staffing the Native Desk at the DNC under his/her administration.
  • Move the Native American Council to equal footing with other groups of color in the DNC and make it a Caucus going forward.
  • Increase Native American Representation on the DNC through recruitment and Chair appointments. This is an essential part of moving from a Council to a Caucus at the DNC.
  • Support Tribe’s in their opposition to pipelines that impact their tribal communities and in particular the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Great Sioux Nation in their opposition to the DAPL.
  • Recruit, train and support Native candidates across the country.
  • Support Peggy Flanagan for Keith Ellison’s seat in the House if Keith is elected DNC Chair.

This is an important discussion. Who would you choose?

Gyasi Ross, "Thing About Skins," Editor at Large

Gyasi Ross, "Thing About Skins," Editor at Large

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large

Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories

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