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Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

PHOENIX — How important is the Native vote? It could play a serious role in Arizona come Nov. 3.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris met with five tribal leaders Thursday during a visit to Phoenix:

  • Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez
  • Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis
  • Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr.
  • San Carlos Apache Tribe Chairman Terry Rambler
  • Hopi Tribe Chairman Timothy L. Nuvangyaoma

The roughly half-hour meeting took place at the Heard Museum. Biden and others also toured the museum's American Indian Veterans National Memorial, which features several sculptures by acclaimed Native artists.

Tohono O'odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr., Gila River Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, San Carlos Apache Chairman Terry Rambler and Hopi Chairman Timothy L. Nuvangyaoma met with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at the Heard Museum, Oct. 8, 2020. (Photo by Carina Dominguez, Indian Country Today)

Video taken at the memorial and shared on Facebook by the Navajo Nation showed Nez asking Biden to say hi to the Navajo people. 

“Navajo Nation, stay strong; we need you,” Biden said. “We need you, we need you, we need you because you’re going to have a seat at the table if we get elected.”

Not long after, Harris shared similar words: "Navajo Nation, we are going to always fight for sovereignty. We are going to work together on the climate and what we know the original people always knew, which is that we have to protect this Earth, and we have to be smart about it. We will take your lead, and you will always have a seat at the table.”

Lewis showed Biden an image at the memorial of Gila River citizen and World War II veteran Ira Hayes, who helped raise the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima in Japan and appears in the iconic photo. Lewis asked Biden to take a photo with him next to the image.

Also with Biden and Harris was Cindy McCain. Joining the tribal leaders were Lorencita “Cee” Murphy, a Navajo Nation citizen and U.S. Army veteran, and Alfred “Fred” Urbina, a Pascua Yaqui citizen and army veteran.

Gila River Indian Community President Stephen Roe Lewis, former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and Cindy McCain take a photo next to the American Indian Veterans National Memorial at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Oct. 8, 2020. (Screen shot photo courtesy of Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer Facebook page)

Nuvangyaoma told Indian Country Today that the meeting needs to be a “stepping stone” to a larger conversation, not just a photo op with Biden and Harris. 

“Today was a pivotal point in them finding some time,” he said. “It could have been a lot of organizations they could have met with, and they decided to meet with us, which I think is pretty huge.”

(Related article: Biden-Harris campaign announces tribal nations plan)

In a Facebook post, Rambler said it was an “awesome” meeting and endorsed Biden and Harris.

“How often do we get to talk one on one with people of importance,” he said.

Rambler added that he shared “some background on our people, COVID-19 challenges, infrastructure needs, addressing the protection of our environment including climate change, and the need to invest in renewable energy."

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Cindy McCain visit the American Indian Veterans National Memorial with tribal leaders and veterans at Heard Museum in Phoenix, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Nez said in a statement that the meeting serves as a message to all of Indian Country that Biden and Harris are ready to work with tribes. 

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Nez said he highlighted the need for federal partners to work with the Navajo Nation on infrastructure development for clean water, electricity, broadband and roads. Healthcare, economic development, water rights were also a topic of discussion, he said.

“We appreciate the Biden-Harris team’s invitation to tribal leaders and their commitment to meeting with us face-to-face to build and strengthen that relationship with tribes and the Navajo people,” Nez said.

Arizona is home to 22 federally recognized tribes, including one of the largest in the Navajo Nation. Phoenix has one of the largest-growing Native populations of any city, with the last census estimating about 130,000 Native people live here, according to a Cronkite News report

The visit comes a day after early voting started in Arizona and Harris debated Vice President Mike Pence in Utah. Pence was also in the Phoenix Valley on Thursday. He held a rally at a tactical-gear supply business in Peoria.

The two campaigns passed briefly on the tarmac in Phoenix, with Pence’s motorcade driving by shortly after Biden’s plane landed.

Thursday’s visit by Biden and Harris was the first Arizona trip of the year for the Democratic presidential ticket. But it’s a long time coming for a campaign that for months has singled out the state as the first example of an expanded battleground map, owing to demographic changes, new residents and a noticeable realignment away from Republicans among key suburban voters.

Veteran lawmakers and political operatives point to three main factors driving Arizona’s move away from Republicans: Democratic-leaning newcomers; a young Latino population that was politically activated by Arizona’s immigration fights of the past decade and is now reaching voting age; and the turn away from the GOP by suburban women.

While the Trump campaign projects its own confidence in a state the president won by 3.5 percentage points four years ago, it’s notable that Thursday marked Pence’s fourth trip to the state this year, on top of Trump’s five trips here this year.

In May, Trump met with Lewis and Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer in Phoenix. Trump talked about COVID-19 and also signed a proclamation declaring May 5 National Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Native Awareness Day.

On Thursday, Biden and Harris also met with small-businesses owners and delivered remarks as part of the campaign's “Soul of the Nation” bus tour. The campaign bus was in Window Rock, Arizona, in the Navajo Nation on Wednesday.

The visit also comes after a federal judge ruled that Arizona voter registration forms received by 5 p.m. on Oct. 23 should be considered valid. The initial deadline was Oct. 5. 

A legal case involving mail-in ballots is up for appeal and could be heard in the coming days. A group of Navajo Nation citizens asked a federal judge in September to allow extra time to have mail-in ballots from residents on the vast reservation counted this November. Arizona doesn’t allow mail-in ballots to be counted if they’re not received on Election Day. Some states like Nevada, Ohio and Virginia accept postmarked ballots that arrive after the election.

Biden has a slim percentage lead in many recent political polls in Arizona, according to FiveThirtyEight. Only one Democratic presidential candidate, Bill Clinton, has won Arizona in the last 72 years.

Longtime Arizona political analyst Doug Cole told that it’s rare to have both candidates on the presidential ticket in Phoenix at the same time.

“We used to not even get TV commercials from presidential campaigns in the past,” he said. “This shows how important Arizona has become.”

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.

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Indian Country Today staff Aliyah Chavez and Carina Dominguez and The Associated Press contributed to this report, which has been updated with details and quotes.