Activating the ‘fire’ within Native voters
Indian Country Today
Aliyah Chavez and Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today
The environment, health care, voter suppression, sovereignty: The second and final meeting of the Democratic National Convention’s Native American Caucus featured big-name speakers who highlighted a wide range of challenges and successes in Indian Country.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former second lady Jill Biden gave remarks, along with many well-known Native leaders, lawmakers and political candidates.
Actor Mark Ruffalo made an appearance to discuss the importance of getting out the vote — along with Jodi Archambault, Standing Rock Sioux — during one of two panels held during the two-hour virtual meeting.
“We're not going to mistake representation for power. Power is the water. Power is the hurricanes,” said Archambault, a former special assistant to the Obama administration’s Native affairs council. “That's real power. And real power is land back. We're not going to ever achieve land back as Indigenous peoples if we don't get involved.”
The other panel focused on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and included an emotional account from Grace Bulltail, Crow, whose niece Kaysera Stops Pretty Place disappeared in 2019 after going out with some friends. Her body was found four days later.
Many officials discussed their previous work in Indian Country, and rang praise for the first two Native women elected to Congress, Reps. Sharice Davids of Kansas and Deb Haaland of New Mexico.
“Thank you for your courage to run for office ... to bring the Congress a much-needed diversity of Native American women for the first time,” Pelosi said of the representatives. “The two of you have made such a tremendous difference.”
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Other elected officials, including Sanders, rallied behind the need to reverse “harmful” decisions made by the Trump administration.
“My fundamental belief, and the belief of Joe Biden, is that Native Americans must have the strongest possible say in the future of their communities,” he said in pre-recorded remarks.
Sanders talked about turning back Republican efforts to repress voting rights and cut Interior Department funding. He added this election is a chance to vote for a president who will respect tribal sovereignty.
“We need an administration that works to restore tribal lands and protects the sacred places in Native languages and culture,” he said.
Many of the speakers included non-Native allies of Indian Country, including Ruffalo, who has recently worked to bring awareness to COVID-19 efforts on the Navajo Nation.
He shared his experience growing up in an immigrant community, where he said people of color showed him kindness before he gained success.
"I'm just moved by this work, and I'm moved by the people who are forgotten about ... and who are on the downside of this system," Ruffalo said. "The people who the system doesn't work for, and for whatever reason — I don't know if it's my calling, or what — but that's where I feel like I need to be."
Archambault urged Native people to make a voting plan ahead of November’s election.
"This fire that we have in us as Indigenous peoples, to resist and to go towards the things that tell us that we're not supposed to be, is a part of the system. This is what we need to dig into,” Archambault said. “We've been resisting since contact.”
Haaland moderated the panel on MMIWG, saying solving the crisis is one of her top priorities in Congress and in life.
“This epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls has too long been overlooked. It is my mission to raise our voices, shine a light on it, bring legislative solutions. And there are so many aspects of the problem that need attention,” she said.
Haaland said it’s been an ongoing issue since colonization began in the late 1400s and will require several pieces of legislation.
Many rallied behind finding solutions, noting it’s not yet possible to know the full extent of the crisis given that comprehensive data is lacking.
“Thousands have disappeared, but the exact number and their fates are unknown because there's no single federal database tracking our stolen sisters,” Haaland said.
Also during the panel, Bulltail spoke about 18-year-old Kaysera Stops Pretty Places, saying she was like a daughter to her. Kaysera was a member of the Northern Cheyenne and Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.
"She was beloved by her large extended families," Bulltail said. "And despite the hardships that many of our Native youth face, she was a kind, loving and compassionate soul."
Kaysera disappeared on Aug. 24, 2019. Her family reported her missing several times to county law enforcement, which never filed a missing person’s report, said Bulltail. Kaysera’s body was found on the lawn of a home next door to where she was last seen but was labeled a “Jane Doe” for two weeks, and the family was not notified until Sept. 11, she said.
"To this day, we have no information from law enforcement with any investigation into Kaysera's death," Bulltail said. "Kaysera's only fault was being an Indigenous teenager in a county, state and country that does not value her life."
Next, Cherrah Giles, Muscogee (Creek) and chair of the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center, noted the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that affirmed much of eastern Oklahoma remains tribal land. She called the McGirt ruling “one huge victory.”
But, Giles said, “now it's time for us to really shine and really say, 'OK, how do we protect not only our tribal women but women in our community, women that live in our reservations.'"
Other speakers Thursday included:
- Tom Perez, DNC chairman
- Rep. Hakeem Jefferies
- Sen. Catherine Cortez Mastro
- Rep. Barbara Lee
- Rep. Raul Grijalva
(Previous: Female leaders headline Democratic Native Caucus)
Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today. Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a longtime Alaska journalist.
Indian Country Today Deputy Managing Editor Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, also contributed to this report.
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