Forum attendees welcomed Sen. Elizabeth Warren with lulus and a standing ovation after Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, introduced the presidential candidate on stage at the largest and second Native American presidential forum.
Haaland, who also received welcoming applause, spent approximately 25 minutes introducing the Massachusetts senator and talking about their legislative proposal that they collaborated on. Other candidates’ introductions were scheduled for around two minutes.
The New Mexico representative decided to address Warren’s ancestry controversy in the beginning so the panelists could focus on the issues.
“Some media folks kept asking whether the criticisms of her regarding her ancestral background will hamper her ability to convey a clear campaign message,” Haaland said. ““Elizabeth knows she will be attacked. She’s here to be an unwavering partner in our struggle because that is what a leader does.”
The room erupted in applause.
Yesterday at a press conference, Judith LeBlanc, director of the Native Organizers Alliance, who is the co-host of the forum, predicted that the 2020 election “will be the largest Indian voter turnout that we’ve ever seen.”
How is that?
Forum moderator and Indian Country Today Editor Mark Trahant has been reporting on politics and federal Indian policy for years.
“One of the things that’s really striking about the Native vote when you look at the data, 2018 was a record for an off-year election but we still have this back and forth where presidential years get more people than non-presidential years,” he said. “To go back in history we have not have had a vote bigger than Barack Obama and if we can get back to that level, it would probably shift seven states easy.”
Arizona and Minnesota could be shifted. If it’s a close call, Washington and Montana are possible, he said.
Alaska could be a “surprise,” he said. Sen. Lisa Murkowski credits her 2010 win to the Alaska Native vote.
Wisconsin could happen “conceivably,” he said. And Nevada.
Washington, Alaska, and Arizona are part of the top 10 states with the highest population of eligible Native voters, according to the National Congress of American Indians.
Those Native voters are looking at how candidates will help them as tribal nations and individuals.
Robin LeBeau, Cheyenne River Sioux, said she and many others want to look at the issues their communities are facing.
“We have important issues to move forward with here. We have many, many more years to deal with our issues cause every year we’re going to have to move forward,” she said. “We like to move forward.”
Her top three policy areas she likes candidates addressing are water, treaty rights, and human rights.
“When it comes to sovereignty and treaties, I want the candidates to look at us like this,” LeBeau said while pointing at herself. “Are we not humans?”
When she was a tribal council representative for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe from 2010 to 2014, she took a trip to the Capitol to meet with lawmakers.
The trip was “a waste of money,” she said because they met with staffers of lawmakers. “We can’t get to the next level because nobody is looking at us for the true leaders we are.”
The red carpet is rolled out for other global leaders when they visit the U.S. and sit with the president, she said.
“They’re given a table right next to each other to talk about it, right? Are we not that leader?” she asked.
LeBeau went on to question why tribal leaders of sovereign nations are not treated with the same respect as foreign dignitaries.
“We’re still not given that same direct role. Like Elizabeth Warren said, it’s written in the law but it’s not being worked on,” she said. “We have to talk to someone less than the president himself when doing business and that’s not government-to-government, that is not nation-to-nation.”
That’s what Warren plans to do as proposed in her 19-page legislative proposal for Indian Country. The “Honoring Promises to Native Nations” act wants to re-establish a permanent, cabinet-level White House Council on Native American Affairs.
Forum attendee Sheila Corbine, Lac Courte Oreilles, said she likes how Warren’s proposal is “an actual plan” for Native communities.
“The other candidates said the right things but it was more pie in the sky,” she said. “Like they said it would be great if we could do these things but it wasn’t a plan. A realistic plan.”
Corbine thought it was “good” that Warren has the expertise of Haaland’s knowledge and reputation.
“I think it was pretty clear that [Warren] is relatively well-versed on many of the issues that Native people have,” she said.
Vernon Ike Schmidt, Rosebud Sioux, noted the support Warren had in the room.
“I thought Senator Warren did well,” he said. “I think she’s one of the favorites.”
She had the largest crowd of the day at the forum with approximately 500 people listening.
Each policy area of her legislative proposal hit key areas that attendees want in a president: sovereignty, treaty and trust obligations, and self-determination.
“We need to change the rules and make it happen. Government-to-government relationship. That is not optional. We need to change the rules and make it happen,” she said. “The message I have for Indian Country is one of resilience and hope.”