His salt and pepper hair tied into a tsiiyéeł stood out to me before Mark Charles shook my hand. “Yá'át'ééh abiní,” he said with a smile.
We met at Union Market. It was a study in contrasts, much like Charles’ presidential campaign. Where we talked people spending $6 on a pour-over coffee. It bills itself as “a true gathering place that serves as an inviting melting pot of old world heritage and new world opportunities.”
Across the street, in an area that some see as more rundown, the ethnic markets sell lamb or mutton. It’s where an urban Navajo can buy the parts of a sheep for comfort food. A real world opportunity.
This dichotomy never escaped during the two-hour conversation. His reasons for running as an independent steer away from the binary system.
For starters, Charles is a Navajo citizen who prefers to refer to himself as the son of a Navajo man and a American-Dutch woman. Never half Navajo or half Dutch. (That just brings up the history of blood quantum in Native America. Keep reading for his perspective on this.)
“I fully identify with and embrace both of my parents and both communities,” he said who resides in Washington, D.C., with his family.
Second, he is a Navajo man with a Christian faith who criticizes the Doctrine of Discovery. However, he wants to share one message about this part of his identity.
“I’m being very clear with you. I am a candidate who is Christian. My goal is, I’m going to work very hard to not become the Christian candidate who’s going to make our nation Christian again,” he said. “No, that’s not the goal.”
“I believe there needs to be a separation of church and state,” he said.
Third, his idea for even running to be the 46th President of the United States began when he lived in a hogan on the Navajo Nation, six miles from the nearest paved road with no running water or electricity. The outhouse was 50 feet away from the hogan. The hogan was located on a sheep camp. He and his family lived here for three years.
“That experience motivates me the most and inspires me the most to do what I'm doing today,” he said.
Charles grew up in Gallup, New Mexico, a border-town of the Navajo Nation. He attended Rehoboth Christian School from first to 12th grade and that kept him from understanding how “traditional Navajos” lived. It starved him of a unique perspective that was the core of his identity.
A few years later while a pastor in Colorado at the Denver Indian Center, he asked this question: What does it mean to be Christian and Navajo?
Instead of exploring the question verbally, he and his family moved to a sheep camp on the “rez.” He wanted to live among his people.
“Sheep, cows and horses frequently grazed right outside our door, and we lived alongside and at the mercy of the elements (wind, cold, heat, rain, snow and mud),” he wrote in his blog, Wireless Hogan.
It’s a lifestyle many Navajos still embrace.
He used the three to four-hour battery life on his phone and laptop to do computer consulting from the hogan. He received internet from his phone.
His family prepared for the lifestyle change; the cooking over a campfire, hauling water, living by candlelight, a one-room hogan, dirt floor.
“What caught me off guard was how lonely and marginalized we felt living there,” he said. “One of the first lessons I learned when living back on the reservation was that by and large you have two groups of non-Natives who come to reservations. That’s those who come to give you charity and those who come to take your picture. There’s very little interest in getting to know you personally as a human. You’re a mission project. You’re something that’s interesting to study.”
This is when he began to understand the “very complex relationship between reservation life in Native America and the rest of the country.”
Russell Means, Oglala Lakota, was likely the first Native American to run for president. He made it a mission to tell Americans that “America is becoming one big Indian reservation,” according to The New York Times in 1987.
Means said he ran because all Americans’ rights were in danger.
''I challenge every American to make a list of what they feel their individual rights are, and then, item by item, find out how much government is interfering with those rights,” he said during his campaign to be the Libetarian nomination for the 1988 election.
Charles’ message is slightly different, even when similar.
His goal is to have the nation acknowledge that there are problems in the root of the system, which is America’s foundation.
That starts with the U.S. Constitution, “We the People.” It excludes Natives, African Americans, Latinos, women, women of color, and more marginalized communities. So he says it doesn’t mean “all the people.” It actually means “white, land-owning men.”
“That foundational level implicit bias has never fully been removed,” he said. “Like I said we never abolished slavery. We just redefined it and codified it under the criminal justice system.”
The same goes for voting rights. It never applied to women until the women’s suffrage movement. Those same voting rights didn’t come through for women of color, especially for Native people, Charles said.
“In my study, and my research, and my experience the United States of America is white supremist, racist, and sexist because of our foundations,” he said. Not “in spite of our foundations.”
He feels that using the Constitution, a document referenced by all Americans, will be a way for everyone to get on board with him. Non-Natives and non-Christians alike.
Part of his message includes criticizing the Doctrine of Discovery. The document, or some say international law, was created by Pope Nicholas V in 1452. For several years Charles has done public speaking events at churches and with religious organizations explaining how this document justifies the ethnic cleansing of Indigenous peoples and the slavery of Africans.
It’s a document that justified western expansion in the U.S. It’s been referred to in four U.S. Supreme Court cases, Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823, the 1955 case Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States, County of Oneida v. Oneida Indian Nation in 1985, and in the 2005 case City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York.
Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote and delivered the opinion for the 2005 case, which went against the Oneida Nation.
The infamous Ruth Bader Ginsburg may be a winner for women’s rights and Democrats, but to Charles, she’s an example of the implicit bias in this country.
This is where the 48-year-old presidential candidate “wants to change the paradigm” in this country. Like Bernie Sanders did in his 2016 run for president.
“He didn’t get elected but he definitely started a movement” by talking about systemic, economic inequality, Charles said.
Charles just doesn’t want to do it as a Democrat or Republican. He doesn’t want to be party of the two-party system.
He believes his message “has the best chance of being brought to the forefront by running as an independent.”
He admits it is “probably one of the more difficult paths to establish a voice” but it has a chance at “changing the system.”
“I think it would actually be muted by the money that’s deeply invested in both the Democratic and Republican parties,” he said. “There’s a growing acknowledgement that we have some serious problems and it’s bipartisan. It’s not one party is going to fix it and the other party isn’t going to fix it.”
He knew that the Democractic Party wasn’t going to nominate him. Many Republicans are “feeling burned by Donald Trump where he kind of hijacked their party” so that isn’t going to work either.
“By running as an independent my hope is that we can actually critique both sides. We can actually begin to critique parts of the Republican platform and critique parts of the Democratic platform,” he said.
Mark Trahant previously reported, “The world has changed. Independents outnumber Democrats or Republicans.” He pointed out a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center that found “38 percent of those surveyed describe themselves as Independents, up from 32 percent in 2008 and 30 percent in 2004. The big picture, Pew found, is that ‘Independents today are more numerous that at any point in the last 70 years.’”
Charles says the two-party system “makes almost every dialogue binary” when it’s not.
“So many of our problems are so deep and so complex that if we’re not able to talk about solutions in a nuanced, bipartisan way and understanding, we’re never going to solve that,” Charles said.
One of those critiques, that is inevitable for mainstream media to bring up to a Native presidential candidate, is Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is running for the Democratic nomination, and her discovery of Native American ancestry via a DNA test.
Charles has met many people like her. (Indian Country knows that blood quantum is a colonial tool, he said.)
Non-Natives have approached him during one of his public speaking events about family stories claiming to have a Native American ancestor in the lineage.
“What do I do with that story?” they asked. They don’t want to claim something that they don’t have a right to.
His answer: “Yes, initially, don’t claim it. If that’s not your experience, if that’s not your identity, if that’s not how people see you, then don't claim it.”
“If you want to understand more about that, research that history, research that relative, research that answer. Find out what community, what tribe, what part of the country they came from and then go back to that area and begin to try to establish relationship with that group of people,” he said.
Establishing a relationship with Native voters in the country is on Charles’ to-do campaign list.
Charles witnessed the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections during his 11-year residency on the Navajo Nation, three years on the sheep camp and eight years in Fort Defiance, Arizona.
For both election cycles, not one candidate visited the Navajo Nation, which is the largest reservation in the country and the second largest tribe with more than 300,000 tribal citizens.
“I think one of the candidates might have taken the train from Flagstaff to Albuquerque and I think he talked with our Navajo Nation President on the train as they went south of our reservation. But again, nobody came to our reservation.”
The Navajo Nation is 27,425 square miles stretching across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It is larger than 10 states: Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland, and West Virginia.
“Because of the electoral college, because of the way our people have been decimated and spread out throughout the country, we don’t have a big impact on the electoral college,” he said but that shouldn’t affect presidential candidates not campaigning to Native communities.
Those candidates don’t have to talk about treaty issues and can pass those off to the Bureau of Indian Affairs after they get elected.
With the history of the country and significance of protocol in Indian Country, he said, “it makes sense to me from a relational and Native worldview that if you want to run for president you talk to the host people of the land.”
“If you want to govern this country, you talk to the people who are Indigenous to the land you want to govern. And I wasn’t seeing anyone doing that,” he said. “It felt wrong to me that you can become president of the United States of America without talking to Native America.”
He plans to change that by having his first campaign event on the Navajo Nation.
From there he wants to visit states with a high population of Native people.
“You will hear candidates say, ‘I’m going here to get the white vote,’ ‘I’m going here to get the African American vote,’ ‘I’m going here to get the Latino-Hispanic vote.’” he said. “You never hear candidates say, ‘I’m going here to get the Native vote.’”
If the state doesn’t have a huge Native communities, he’ll visit the marginalized communities who don’t get campaigned to, he said.
He doesn’t think his lack of experience in politics will stop him either. He said he will reveal his policies during his campaign tour. He has lived in Washington for four years and made a living from public speaking.
“I observed that the longer people are in the system, the less they believe they can change it,” he said. Charles holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of California in Los Angeles.
Mellor Willie, Navajo, has lived in the District of Columbia for 14 years and works as a government and public affairs advisor for Chee Consulting, has never heard of him. But he wishes luck to Charles.
“There are some changes that need to happen that most politicians don’t have the courage to even talk about,” Charles said. “And this is why I truly believe why running as an independent as much as the system is structured in a way to disadvantage independent candidates, but if I actually want to change the system I have to establish a voice that isn’t controlled by that system.”
Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, D-New Mexico, one of the two Native women elected to Congress, shook the system as intended and looks forward to Charles’s campaign.
“I appreciate Mark Charles' passion and courage to foster an important dialogue on the issues facing the American people during this critical time in our country. His candidacy will bring a unique voice to the 2020 presidential campaign and raise awareness for the issues facing indigenous people, people of color, and our historical challenges and future,” she said. “We have so many amazing candidates running for president. I'm looking forward to a robust primary, and choosing our Democratic nominee.”
Others on social media responded positively to the campaign announcement. They finally have someone to relate to.
Some are optimistic and glad he’s running, despite an independent candidate never winning and never even getting to the national debate stage with other candidates.
For the last 500 years, non-Natives framed Native people as the noble Indian, the spiritual Indian and as exotic creatures.
Native people are referred to as “merciless Indian savages” in the Declaration of Independence. The incumbent Donald J. Trump constantly calls Sen. Warren “Pocahontas.”
So is Charles worried about being labeled as the “angry Indian” with his campaign message?
He paused to look out the window at Union Market for several seconds.
“Trying to think how to best answer that question,” he said following with a few sips of coffee from his silver coffee mug.
Thirty seconds passed and he said, “Let me tell you a little story.”
He got angrier when he learned more about the “deep dysfunction of this nation and Indigenous peoples.” He couldn’t talk to friends from the hogan about it without hanging up the phone or disengaging from the conversation.
When he tried to emotionally detach from it, it didn’t satisfy him. He could have a longer conversation with non-Natives about the history but their defenses would come up and they would say it wasn’t them, it was their ancestors or communities who treated Native people badly.
He was finally able to articulate how it felt to be a Native person in America.
“It feels like our Native peoples is this old grandmother who has a very large and beautiful house, and years ago some people came into our house and locked us upstairs in the bedroom,” he said. “Today our house is full of people. They’re sitting on our furniture, they’re eating our food. They’re having a party inside our house.”
“Now they’ve since come upstairs and they’ve unlocked the door to our bedroom but it’s much later. We’re tired, we’re old, we’re weak, we’re sick so we can’t, we don’t come out,” he said. “But the thing that is the most hurtful, that causes the most pain is that nobody from this party comes upstairs seeks out the grandmother in the bedroom, sits down next to her on the bed, takes her hand and simply just says, ‘Thank you. Thank you for letting us be in your house.’”
That story, to Charles, brings up two questions: What does it mean to say thank you? How does my family, community and nation express gratitude?
That “thank you requires a shift in the paradigm,” he said. There are more than 300 million “almost undocumented immigrants mostly from Europe who are living here acting they own the place.”
“We have 6 million Indigenous people who are treated as unwanted guests in someone else’s house. Saying thank you requires a reversal of that role,” he said. “It requires the majority population to acknowledge in many practical ways they are guests in someone else’s house. They need to be acting that way.”