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Aliyah Chavez
Indian Country Today

A prominent part of the Democratic National Convention is the roll call. It is the process where individual states formally elect a presidential nominee.

In a normal year, people selected on behalf of their states address the convention in person and share tidbits about themselves, their states and who they will cast their vote for.

This year’s DNC featured a virtual “Roll Call Across America” on Tuesday night. It took convention viewers to 57 states and territories across the country, over the course of 30 minutes.

(Related: Female leaders headline Democratic Native Caucus)

On Monday night, nearly 28.9 million Americans tuned in to the convention by television or digitally, a spokesman for Joe Biden’s campaign said.

This year’s roll call featured what was likely a record number of Indigenous speakers. Native American leaders from Alaska, New Mexico, North Dakota and South Dakota were chosen to speak on behalf of their states:

  • Chuck Degnan, Yup’ik and Unupiaq, a veteran, fisherman and party activist, discussed the climate change on tribal waters
  • State Rep. Derrick Lente of Sandia Pueblo celebrated his state’s diversity and commitment to preserving natural and cultural resources
  • Cesar Alvarez, Mandan, Hidasta and Arikara Nation, discussed his unique path to college and Biden's plan to open up educational opportunity
  • Kellen Returns From Scout, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, issued a plea for forward-looking leadership

Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands also had Indigenous roll call speakers:

  • Hawaii: Civil rights activist Dr. Amy Agbayani offered a special message to American immigrants
  • Guam: Party chair Sarah Thomas-Nededog celebrated the 70th anniversary of Guam citizens becoming American citizens
  • American Samoa: Party leaders Aliitama Sotoa and Patti Matila celebrated American Samoa’s legacy of military service, and Biden’s work to improve the territory’s infrastructure
  • Northern Mariana Islands: Party chair Nola Kileleman Hix described her organizing efforts as a young party leader

Tuesday night also featured remarks by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, who joined several other Democrats in giving a keynote address. He has been dubbed one of 17 “rising stars” in the party.

During a group speech, Nez added comments such as, “Let’s get real: There’s a lot riding on this election."

Speakers praised small-business owners, educators and health care providers. They also said President Donald Trump has lacked a plan for dealing with the coronavirus as doctors, nurses, parents and others struggle.

Of Trump, Nez said: “He’s looking out for himself.”

In 2016, Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, addressed the DNC convention wearing a traditional Laguna Pueblo dress while she voted for Hillary Clinton as the presidential nominee on behalf of the state of New Mexico. At the time, Haaland served as the first Native woman to chair the New Mexico Democratic Party.

Here's a closer look at some of this year's Native roll call speakers:

Chuck Degnan of Alaska
Chuck Degnan, Yup’ik and Unupiaq, filmed his remarks near the water of the Northern Bering Sea.

“We were just happy to be voting for Joe Biden and we support him because he belonged to the Obama administration who supported tribes to protect the Northern Bering Sea,” Degnan said. “That resulted in tribes having a say in how the area is managed.”

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Degnan serves as the first vice-chair of the Alaska Democratic Party. He is a veteran who served in the Alaska National Guard and U.S. Army. He is also a former state representative and attended three national conventions as a delegate.


Left to right: Sherri Burr, holds a #NMDEMS sign, while state Rep. Derrick Lente speaks. Angelica Ortega holds the New Mexico sign. (Photo courtesy of NM Democratic Party)

Derrick Lente of New Mexico
State Rep. Derrick Lente took viewers to his home on the Sandia Pueblo reservation.

"I was honored to represent New Mexico and the Pueblo of Sandia as we cast our votes to nominate the next President of the United States,” Lente said. This is the second consecutive year a Pueblo person has been chosen to give New Mexico’s roll call remarks.

"This video tells a story about what brings us together as New Mexicans. We're proud to represent a state that includes people from so many backgrounds and 23 sovereign nations, and we recognize the importance of honoring that heritage,” New Mexico’s Democratic Party Chair Marg Elliston said. 

Cesar Alvarez, MHA Nation, films his DNC roll call remarks from the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. Also pictured is Jaron Noisy Hawk. (Photo by Roger White Owl)

Cesar Alvarez of North Dakota
Cesar Alvarez, MHA Nation, filmed his remarks at Crow Flies High, a scenic overlook on Lake Sakakawea, located on the Fort Berhold Reservation. He begins by saying “hello” in the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara languages.

“I’ve always found that the strength of our Democratic Party is the diversity of our party.” Alvarez said. “It was a humbling experience to be asked to do this.”

“We wanted someone who would represent North Dakota, and Cesar does that incredibly well,” North Dakota Democratic Party Chairwoman Kylie Oversen said. “He represents the first people who lived on this land.”

Kellen Returns From Scout
Kellen Returns From Scout, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, recorded his remarks in the Black Hills, a place home to his tribe’s creation story.

Returns From Scout is the first Native person elected to this role, the South Dakota Democratic Party says.

Kellen Returns From Scout, Standing Rock Sioux, films his DNC roll call video remarks in the Black Hills of South Dakota. (Photo by Peter Hill)

“It has been an amazing experience,” he said. “My grandparents are somewhere in the star nation, in the spirit world, hopefully shining down and beaming with great pride that their grandson is fulfilling the destiny that was laid out for me.”

“We suggested he represent S.D. in the roll call, not only because of him being chosen as our delegation leader but also because he represents the future of our party,” Pam Cole, Executive Director of the South Dakota Democratic Party said.

Tuesday night’s theme was “leadership matters.” 

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Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez or email her at achavez@indiancountrytoday.comIndian Country Today national correspondent Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, contributed to this report. 

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