Elections 2012: North Dakota Candidate Reaches Out to Native American Voters

One way to judge candidates for statewide office is to see what they say on their own websites and then see where they go. Is Indian country mentioned? Are Native American issues even on the radar?

One way to judge candidates for statewide office is to see what they say on their own websites and then see where they go.

Is Indian country mentioned? Are Native American issues even on the radar?

North Dakotans have had this kind of attention for a long time. Former Senator Byron Dorgan was chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. After he left office, he established the Center for Native American Youth. Its mission is to improve “the health, safety and overall well-being of Native American youth through communication, policy development and advocacy.”

Dorgan’s successor, John Hoeven, a Republican, maintains that connection. Earlier this month he sponsored a tribal leaders’ forum to talk about issues impacting Indian country.

And, in that same spirit, Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat running for the Senate, is reaching out to Indian country. She appointed Diane Johnson, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and a lawyer, to her campaign staff. Heitkamp is a former attorney general and tax commissioner.

“I have seen too many instances of politicians paying lip service to Indian country or ignoring it altogether,” said Johnson on the campaign website. “With Heidi, her respect for the culture and the sovereign rights of the tribes and her devotion to addressing longstanding issues in Indian country like the lack of affordable housing, domestic violence, education, and healthcare, are genuine and made it clear to me that she will be a true advocate and partner to Indian country when she is Washington.”

Heitkamp said: “Diane has an intimate knowledge of the issues facing Indian country in North Dakota, it as an honor to have someone with her background and experience join the campaign. I am completely committed to working with the tribes here in North Dakota, and having someone of Diane’s caliber working on my team will further enhance my ability to reach out to and partner with the tribes in working to resolve many of the difficult challenges that they continue to face on and off the reservations.”

She’s also supported the Violence Against Women Act, the Tribal Law and Order Act, including the power of tribes to prosecute non-members.

“The recommendation from violence against women folks around the nation, especially Native Americans, is to allow tribal court jurisdiction over non-enrolled offenders which is absolutely the right way to take this,” she told a North Dakota TV station. “But there are people in D.C. who don't understand the risks and don't understand tribal jurisdiction and they're trying to stop it.”

This weekend Heitkamp will attend the Sitting Bull College Powwow in New Town.

She’s running for Kent Conrad’s seat and Republicans have all but written this race down as a sure thing. At least until recently. Polls at Real Clear Politics show that the Republican, Rep. Rick Berg, leads by 5 points. It rates the race as a “toss up.”

But in North Dakota (like Montana) the one issue that haunts Republicans is the inability of Congress to come up with a farm bill. “Rep. Rick Berg claimed to support the Farm Bill in North Dakota, then voted in Washington to slash crop insurance and cut $180 billion from farm programs,” said Brandon Lorenz, a spokesman for Heitkamp. “Now that Rep. Berg has voted for a budget that would slash farm programs, the chickens have come home to roost and his own colleagues aren’t about to reverse themselves just to bail out Rick Berg.”

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.