Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders made three stops in South Dakota on May 12, leaving behind an energy and excitement among South Dakota Natives unmatched by any other presidential candidate. After rousing crowds with messages of environmental protection, economic rights, and reforming the federal government’s relationship with tribes, his support from Indian country was taken to even greater heights.
The Sanders campaign has already made great efforts to hear out the issues of tribal communities throughout Indian country. Sanders has met one-on-one with tribal leaders across the nation, appointed Native American policy advisor, Nicole Willis (Umatilla), and has released a growing number of ads on social media highlighting Native peoples and Native issues throughout the U.S.
At all three South Dakota stops, it was made evident, once more, that not only is Sanders hearing out tribal nations and responding consistently in his campaign, but he is elevating Native issues to new audiences all across the United States.
In South Dakota, Sanders stopped in at Pine Ridge, Rapid City, and Sioux Falls. The Native presence was especially strong at all three venues, and the energy, was palpable.
“The rally was exciting” said Michael A. Weston (Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe), a junior in high school. “It was very empowering and inspiring to witness as a youth.” Weston attended the Sioux Falls rally with his friends and his mom.
Bernie Sanders and Native American policy advisor, Nicole Willis, to the right of Sanders, pose with the Great Plains Dance Company in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. At far right is Sanders's wife, Jane Sanders. Courtesy Bernie Sanders campaign.
At Pine Ridge, the high school gymnasium was packed with Oglala Sioux Tribal members. Though the event was promoted by the Sanders campaign as a rally, the event turned into somewhat of a listening session and town hall meeting, as youth, adults, elders, and tribal leaders all passed the microphone to share their stories with a keenly attentive Sanders.
Sanders and his wife, Jane, spent time afterward with the crowd, hugging, taking pictures, hearing stories, accepting gifts of beadwork, and giving the Oglala people their genuine attention.
“Bernie addresses everything from education reform to the private prison industry, climate change to our veterans,” Cecily Engelhart (Ihantowan, Oglala Lakota) told ICTMN. “For decades, he has had the foresight to stand up for protecting people of color, the middle class and equity.” Engelhart, an employee of non-profit organization, Thunder Valley CDC, attended the Pine Ridge event.
“Does Bernie have all the answers to issues in Indian Country?” Engelhart added. “No, but he knows that solutions for our people begin with our people and in our community, and I believe he will be the best candidate to work with us, honor our treaty rights, and help us materialize the future we want for ourselves and our children."
Some of the Pine Ridge event attendees, who are not typically so politically involved, support Sanders because of his commitment to protecting the Earth.
“People have been giving us a lot of crap for supporting Bernie Sanders,” said Scotti Clifford (Oglala Lakota) of the band, Scatter Their Own. “But my message to them is simple. We are not Socialists. We already have a strong identity. We are Lakota! It's not a label, it is an ancient indigenous connection to Earth.”
Oglala Lakota band members of Scatter Their Own pose with Sanders after the Pine Ridge rally. Courtesy Scotti Clifford.
“We follow our hearts,” said Clifford. “And because of our love for Grandmother Earth, we only swear an allegiance to her. We could care less about identifying ourselves as a political party. But because of climate change, we all should urgently support those who put Earth first, and Bernie Sanders is the only one doing so.”
In Rapid City, which is home to a large population of Native people, Rosebud Sioux Tribal member and South Dakota Senate Assistant Minority Leader, Troy Heinert, introduced Sanders, and was received with roaring cheers of support from the crowd of mixed-ethnicities.
“When I got up on stage, and introduced myself in Lakota as proud member of Rosebud Sioux tribe, the crowd just erupted in cheer. It shocked me, because I’m not used to that. They were very, very receptive.”
Sanders supporters, who largely identify as liberal progressives, cheered loudly for Native issues at all three events. This is something not especially common for South Dakota, a state dominated by conservatives and a state often known to have shaky relationships with tribal nations. Many Natives in the crowd expressed their delight with the positive energy, and the feeling of hope and togetherness among Sanders supporters.
“Sanders is the only candidate who is even talking about honoring treaties,” Heinert told ICTMN. “His stance on healthcare is what we should have had all along, and that’s what treaties were all about- health care. We should receive the same quality of health care as anyone else.”
Julia Brown Wolf listens to Bernie Sanders in Sioux Falls. Courtesy Bernie Sanders campaign.
Heinert also had an opportunity to visit with Sanders in Rapid City.
“In my conversation with him and his wife, Jane, I recognized that they were very genuine people. I believe what he’s saying,” Heinhart said.
In Sioux Falls, the Tiospa Zina Tribal School drum group and the Great Plains Dance Company entertained the crowd before Sanders took the stage, and South Dakota Democratic delegate, Allison Renville (Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota), opened up the rally with an introduction.
“We did our best to represent our culture and our people with the performance and speech that opened the Sioux falls rally,” said Renville. “In the last couple of months there has been a group of like-minded volunteers, delegates and experienced organizers readying themselves for the arrival of the senator and his campaign.”
Renville has been involved in many organizing efforts, registering voters, campaigning for Sanders, and even visiting high school classrooms on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation to register students to vote.
“If Natives in the next primaries take the time to get involved, register your friends, rally together and show up to the polls, not only are we securing our best interests, we are securing the interests of future generations,” Renville told ICTMN.
At the Sioux Falls rally, Sanders consistently spoke of Indian issues, addressing poverty, suicide, low life-expectancy, and a crowd favorite, environmental protection. One gentleman in the crowd shouted, “No pipelines!” and the crowd erupted in a thunder of cheer.
Julia Brown Wolf (Sanding Rock Sioux Tribe), is a grandmother and a former educator who traveled all the way from Crow Creek, South Dakota, to Sioux Falls in order see Sanders up close and in person.
“I believe in always working toward a better future,” said Brown Wolf. “Bernie has an open ear and an open heart for Indian people. I like that he respects Indian sovereignty, but I really like that he wants to protect the Earth.”
Brown Wolf, 71, a long-time activist, told ICTMN, “We really need to see common people standing up again.”
In a tone of recognizable sincerity, Sanders told the Sioux Falls crowd, “We owe the Native American community a debt that we can never repay.” And the crowd, of mixed-ethnicities, heard him out, and they cheered.
The spirit of Sanders’s message, his devotion to challenging inequity, and his charges to protect the Earth, continues to inspire common people and many throughout Indian country. Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming election, Sanders’s message concerning Native peoples has already been a game-changer. Tribal communities seem to recognize this, and champion fervently for Sanders as the next U.S. President.
Sarah Sunshine Manning
Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.