Skip to main content

Most of the candidates running for president are already on the campaign trail. They’re mostly visiting Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, California and the Deep South. The first votes will be cast in less than a year.

The logic here: Iowa and New Hampshire have always gone first. It's the tyranny of, “we have always done it that way.”

But the United States is changing fast. And these two states are among the least representative of what the country will be, and especially unrepresentative of the Democratic Party. In Iowa there is one tribal nation, the Meskwaki, Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi, and the total Native population is four-tenths of one percent. New Hampshire is even less so, no tribal nations, and a total population of three-tenths of one percent.

Previous story: What's the story: Debating presidential policies or Elizabeth Warren's apology?

One reason this matters: As the campaign unfolds the “issues” involving Indian Country have largely focused on Elizabeth Warren’s identity, her DNA test, and her apology to the Cherokee Nation. And this weekend she raised a new issue: Reparations for Native Americans. She told The Washington Post. said when asked whether “they” should receive some kind of relief. “I think it’s an important part of the conversation. The Post said there were few details, but she referenced America’s "ugly history … We need to confront it head-on. And we need to talk about the right way to address it and make change.”

Reparations are well and good. But it’s not an issue that has surfaced much in Indian Country. There are dozens of issues that tribes are eager to insert into the national discourse -- and reparations would have been way down on that list. What is important? A candidate could promise to literally fulfill promises already made to tribal nations and citizens via the treaties. This isn’t as headline grabbing. It would be a candidate saying, for once, that yes, the Constitution is the Supreme Law of the land, and the budget will finally match the country’s own aspirational language. It’s as simple as the country promising to do what it says.

Indeed. A campaign official reached out to Indian Country Today after this post went up with the longer statement from Warren. "Tribal nations have unique interests, priorities, and histories, and should not be treated monolithically," she said. "I fully support the federal government doing far more to live up to its existing trust and treaty responsibilities and that includes a robust discussion about historical injustices against Native people. Tribal nations have a government-to-government relationship with the federal government, and they deserve a seat at the table in all decisions that will affect the well-being of their people and their communities."

Fulfilling the treaties would mean a real funding plan for the Indian health system. As the National Indian Health Board says: The fact that American Indian and Alaska Native “patients still have only one-third the per capita health spending of the general U. S. population to address overwhelming health disparities is indefensible. The fact that our citizens are disproportionately at the bottom of almost all reportable health status indicators is shamefully predictable given the lack of investment in the IHS delivery system.”

The health board recognizes that Congress won’t do this all at once. “We are asking for our trustees to partner with tribal leaders to create a strategic roadmap to fully fund the Indian Health Service within a 12 year phase-in time period.”

Campaign flyer. (National Museum of African American History and Culture)

Campaign flyer. (National Museum of African American History and Culture)

Let’s ask candidates about that.

The first time I saw a presidential candidate campaign in Indian Country was Jesse Jackson in 1984. He took the time to meet and speak with the Navajo Nation Council as well as events in Window Rock and Shiprock. He did this because it was the right reason. Now imagine, what if Navajo had a primary? What if early in the process, Jackson won those delegates and the conversation about his viability was matched with the delegates that included Indian Country?

Presidential campaigns have already changed candidates. As I wrote in The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars, Washington Sen. Henry Jackson went from being a longtime supporter of termination to a champion for self-determination and primary sponsor of legislation to make that so (as well as hiring Forrest Gerard to do the work). He did this about the same time he ran for president.

George McGovern's 1972 campaign for president.

George McGovern's campaign for president in 1972.

George McGovern wasn’t a strident supporter of tribes before he ran for president. But he was sure was after.

Before running for president -- and after -- is a line of questioning that virtually all of the challengers should be asked about. For example: California’s Sen. Kamala Harris needs to distance herself from the positions she took while she was attorney general (not unlike other states’ attorney generals who’ve run for higher office). She needs to figure out where she stands on tribes, treaties, and specific issues, such as land into trust.

Or a presidential candidate could pledge to invest in education in a whole new way.

Indian Country has an advantage that the United States needs, a young population. This is a perfect moment for education innovation -- and that takes resources. The median age in the United States is 37.9 years and getting older with smaller family sizes. Indian Country’s median age is 31.2 years. But even those numbers don’t reflect the true nature of the divide. Iowa’s median age is 38 and New Hampshire’s median age is 41.4 years old.

There are 2.1 million American Indians and Alaska Natives under the age of 24 years old. That is a constituency deserving a voice in picking the next president. (New Hampshire’s population is 1.3 million.)

Or a presidential candidate could pledge to make sure that the next White House will use its resources to protect and improve the Indian Child Welfare Act. That law has 40-year history of keeping native families together that’s now under attack as unconstitutional. The lawsuit, Brackeen v. Bernhardt, was brought by Texas, Indiana, Louisiana, and individual plaintiffs, claim the act is race based. How big an issue is this in Indian Country? Amicus briefs were filed in support of the act by 325 tribal nations, 21 states, several members of Congress, and dozens of Native organizations, child welfare organizations, and other allies.

That would seem to rise to the level of an issue for presidential candidates. (Warren did express her support for the law at a tribal women’s honoring ceremony.)

Previous story: Women honor each other with hugs, selfies, and advice for the future.

The list of issues is long. Presidential candidates should be asked about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and a federal response.

Or how to fix the convoluted legal mess of the 2009 Supreme Court Carceri decision that makes a mess of tribal authority and lands. As Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said in his 2019 State of Indian Nations a couple of weeks ago, the Trump administration is using the Carceri framework to “undercut” tribes.

“The Department of the Interior cannot be allowed to simply ‘make it up as it goes along’ when deciding whether to take land into trust for tribal nations, ignoring decades of established precedents in the process. The department’s recent “about-face” in rejecting the Mashpee Wampanoag’s placement of traditional homelands into trust is especially troubling. If left to stand, it threatens to create a class system of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ among tribal nations,” he said. “Some tribal nations will be able to take newly acquired land into trust to protect sacred places; others will not. Some will be able to regrow their land bases to empower economic growth; others will not. They will be subject to the whim and conflicted interests of whoever is running Interior at the moment. This not only ignores the Indian Reorganization Act’s mandate of tribal self-determination, it is patently and arbitrarily unfair.”

You would think presidential candidates would be eager to talk about a process that unfair But why would they in Iowa? Or New Hampshire? The problem is not the candidates; it’s the process itself. In the small meetings in small states these issues are not likely to surface.

But what if there was an Indian Country primary? Call it an experiment. Let’s do it once and see if it can be done because it would require candidates to talk about the issues impacting American Indians and Alaska Natives in a new way. (I’ve written before, wouldn’t it be cool to have the first national primary take place among the first nations?)

How would this primary work? Every tribe has an election process of some kind. The Democratic and Republican parties could work with the tribes that choose to participate to come up with a voter list (imagine how potent that data would be) and to manage how the results are calculated.

Perhaps even mobile phones and other digital tools could be a part of the experiment. Indian Country has a young, mobile population. The cell phone is secure enough (unlike personal computers) to conduct an election. There would also have to be polling places.

What a great statement a primary election could be. This would be the America of its own aspirations. Especially if the election could be organized in a way to bring out every voter, showing that inclusion really was the overriding goal. And if the experiment works? Perhap a generation from now, some writer will dismiss a call for change, and say, we have always done it that way.

ICT Smartphone Logo

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports

The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.