In Trump Era, Native Democrats Desperately Search for Answers

Democratic Party struggles to find its footing in a new world of politics and policy brought on by the election of President Donald Trump.

As the Democratic Party struggles to find its footing in a new world being remade by President Donald Trump, Native American Democrats are conflicted about which side of the party—the establishment wing symbolized by the vanquished Hillary Clinton or the insurgent wing led by her 2016 Democratic primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders—will bring the most fruitful results for Indian country.

There is no easy answer as to which side is best for Indians.


What’s clear is that Clinton—who won the popular vote by three million votes, but lost the all-important electoral college balloting—offered solid, if not revolutionary, policies for Indian country, including creating jobs and continuing to fund and improve priority programs like those at the Indian Health Service, while supporting government-to-government relationships with tribes that Trump seems all too willing to ignore; and she promised to carry on traditions started by President Barack Obama, like the annual White House Tribal Nations Conferences, as well as to make progress on her husband’s positive pro-sovereignty and self-determination work with tribes when he was president in the 1990s. She also would have given hope to Native women (and men) who are passionate about finally seeing what a female president can do.
“Hillary was a known candidate to Indian country with a strong track record generally doing the right thing for Indian country,” says Wizipan Garriott, a Rosebud Sioux citizen who worked on Obama’s campaigns for president and within his administration. “However, the larger criticism of Hillary and the establishment is that they were not willing to take chances, and there is a general distrust the establishment is going to make decisions based on polling and what plays best politically.”

Garriott knows a bit about taking chances. In 2007, when it seemed that Obama, a relatively inexperienced U.S. Senator from Illinois, could never beat Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary, Garriott signed on to be his Native American Outreach Coordinator and was later promoted to become the campaign’s National First Americans Vote Director. Obama soon began visiting reservations, making promises to Indian country, and slowly but surely, tribal endorsements started trickling in. Major Native donations and votes followed.

“One thing that doesn’t get talked about too often is that Obama’s Indian outreach began very early on and was supported by campaign leaders who understood the power of the Indian vote,” says Garriott. “I spent my first week on the job in Chicago personally calling all 565 tribal presidents [at the time]. Of course, I didn’t get through to all of them, but it is representative of the kind of outreach the campaign was committed to.”

As was the case when Clinton ran unsuccessfully against Obama in 2008, some Democratic Indians feel that she ran too close to the status quo in the 2016 primary and general election on many issues, including on those of special import to Indian country. Her delay in coming out against the Keystone XL Pipeline (which she ultimately rejected after Sanders did, despite long having the issue on her plate when she served as Secretary of State) was but one symbol. “Same thing with DAPL,” Garriott adds. “Bernie was against granting the permit. Hillary came out with what many believed as a ‘weak sauce’ statement on respecting tribal lands.”

In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, the issue of how far the Democratic Party should go in its progressivism has been a question with conflicting answers about how Indians should define and shore up a progressive Native agenda on the national front.

“If the Democratic Party puts out more of the same, then they are going to lose a generation,” predicts Garriott. “Natives need to push our issues harder and more broadly. There are some great people engaged with the party right now, many of whom appear to be more progressive. Indian country will need to support these folks even more.”

Yvette Joseph, a long-time Democratic Native political advocate, who served as a delegate for Clinton for the second time in this past election, agrees that changes are necessary. The Colville citizen says that two critical components of moving forward will be to enlist more Native people to embrace being part of the Democratic Party and to encourage tribal governments to change their elections to coincide with major federal and state election dates, so that more Indians vote in national elections. She attributes recent Democratic election successes in the state of Montana specifically to tribes that have taken such actions.


Sanders, for his part, took a page from Obama’s 2008 playbook against Clinton by forging connections with Native people—not natural constituents of a Jewish Brooklynite who fashioned an independent political career in very non-Indian Vermont. Early on, he hired Nicole Willis, Umatilla/Yakama/Oglala, to serve as his Director of Native American Outreach; she had served during Obama’s first campaign as his Deputy Director for Native American Outreach alongside Garriott. Then last summer, Sanders chose Deborah Parker, former vice chair of the Tulalip Tribes, to serve on the Democratic Platform Committee. Both she and Jodi Gillette-Archambault, Obama’s former White House Advisor on Indian Affairs of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, helped to ensure that Native policy initiatives were ultimately rolled into the party’s larger platform.

“Bernie introduced several new Indian policies that would have not only continued the Obama policy but made it stronger,” Garriott says. “At the same time, many of Bernie's larger national policies spoke, in general, to Indian country issues. Could you imagine full tuition being paid to tribal colleges? Something like that would have bolstered tribal colleges immensely.”

Still, Garriott notes that Sanders’ work on the Indian front did not happen as early in the campaign process as did Obama’s 2008 effort. “The groundwork that Obama was working with was much different and much farther developed than what Bernie had,” he says. “Bernie’s campaign didn’t hit its stride until much too late. Hillary had eight years to plan her campaign. It was simply a lot to overcome.”

Clinton, meanwhile, had several establishment Native political operatives pulling for her, including the support of many tribal leaders, especially ones with deep pockets.

“Key Native Democratic leaders, including Rion Ramirez (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), Charlie Galbraith (Navajo) and Holly Cook Macarro (Red Lake Chippewa) were driving much of the agenda and helped guide substantial contributions to the Clinton campaign,” Joseph says.

Joseph feels that Clinton ultimately fell short, especially when it came to communicating a Native platform, due to an absence of Indian staff. “Hillary Clinton’s Native American campaign did not hire staff directly,” she says. “And that was a big mistake. I expected the Clinton-Kaine campaign to hire the two [Democratic National Committee Native-focused] interns, and yet that did not happen. I believe New Mexico’s State Democratic Party Chair Debra Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) worked to ensure there were Native staff in New Mexico, and it paid off with increased votes.”

Momentum appeared to be on Sanders’ side with grassroots Indian voters and other constituencies, especially younger voters, yet he fell far short of beating Clinton in the primary. All the more reason that fervent supporters of Clinton, like Joseph, can’t help but feel mad at Democratic Indians who did not support her in the end against Trump, with some even choosing to support the Green Party, or other Third Party candidates.

“I can choose to remain angry at the Sanders folks who joined the Green Party, but there is no gain,” Joseph says. “And I can tell anyone who listens that Hillary Clinton clearly predicated Russian interference in the elections because of the $600 billion oil and gas interests of their leader Vladimir Putin and people running the Trump campaign. None of that will make much of a difference if we don’t join together and lock arms to protect the climate, sustain the Indian Health Service and see that our working families and those who are unemployed can heat their homes and feed their children or grandparents.”


One early place in the presidential election aftermath that has allowed Indians to think about their collective voice within the Democratic Party came with the February selection of the new Democratic National Committee Party chair—a race that boiled down to Tom Perez, Obama’s former Labor Secretary, against Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, who was supported by Sanders and was the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress. Perez, seen as the establishment candidate, ultimately won the race, but he and Ellison have since vowed to jointly run the organization with Ellison serving as Perez’ deputy.

Theresa Sheldon, a Tulalip Democratic activist, says she felt Ellison would have been better for Indian country in the DNC chair position, as he worked alongside Deborah Parker on the DNC Platform Committee, and he was instrumental in getting the Native American agenda included in the overall Democratic platform.

“Keith has already established himself as a fighter for Indian country,” Sheldon says. “If he would have become the DNC chair, he would have worked at reuniting this established party that frankly seems to be disconnected from the average-day Democrats.”

Establishment Native Democrats, like Chris Stearns, who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton as the first Director of Indian Affairs for the U.S. Department of Energy, supported Perez. Now a lawyer with Hobbs Straus Dean & Walker and a former chairman of the Seattle Human Rights Commission, Stearns worked with Perez when he led the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under Obama.

“It was right after Seattle Police officer Ian Birk shot and killed First Nations Woodcarver John T. Williams in 2010 that dozens of community-led organizations, including Native ones, asked Perez to launch a federal investigation of systemic police misconduct in Seattle,” says Stearns, a citizen of the Navajo Nation. “Perez listened to the Seattle Native community. He made sure that the Native community was included during the year-long investigation and then as Justice Department sued the City of Seattle and forged a consent decree. Tom and his team were always mindful of the importance of Native Americans in Seattle. He was honest, kind, and forceful and I have the utmost respect for him.”

“I’m not real familiar with either one,” Garriott says regarding Perez and Ellison. “I think the big issue is going to be around messaging. The American electorate is looking for leaders who they feel are being honest. The whole alt-fact issue is fascinating right now, as is the research coming out around why and how people support candidates—even support candidates who are clearly not in a voter's best interest. People liked Bernie because they felt he was honest, and he demonstrated an urgency and excitement for addressing the issues. Bottom line, Perez and Ellison will be successful if they are able to find ways to ignite passion.”

And on Indian issues, “If the Perez/Ellison leadership supports us in efforts grounded in the idea of Native nation building, rather than spouting tired old talk of government-to-government relationships, then I think the party will have a chance of engaging future Indian voters,” Garriott adds. “It’s time for the party to admit that we’ve had 40-plus years of self-governance, which has made strides, but it is now time for a new nation-building Indian policy.

“If the party is not willing to engage and support these efforts, then it will be a sign of more of the same.”