For 48 hours on Monday and Tuesday, the Orpheum Theater in Sioux City, Iowa, became the center and focus of the Indian Country world. Over the two days, 11 democratic candidates addressed Native Americans in a forum that has been long overdue.
Last, but certainly not least, to take the stage at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum was Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Besides Sen. Elizabeth Warren, it was clear the audience came to see Sanders, giving him a standing ovation and loud chorus of applause upon his introduction.
Sanders was escorted onto the stage by an elder and 16 year old, Avari Fernandez, Menominee, who described the experience as “life-changing.”
“I don’t know how else to describe it, being next to a god,” Fernandez said. “Over-exaggeration or not, I’m serious.”
In his opening statement, the Vermont senator said Americans across the country are becoming more and more aware of the history and contributions to today’s society Native Americans make.
“Your culture, your respect for the environment, your willingness to think generations in front rather than focusing on short term profits has had a profound impact upon millions and millions of people in this country,” Sanders said, “and I thank you very much for that.”
Throughout his opening remarks and in his answers to questions from the panel, the packed crowd erupted in applause when he spoke on issues pertaining to health care, protecting sacred sites, climate change, missing and murdered indigenous women and more.
Panelist Faith Spotted Eagle, Yankton Sioux, posed a question her in traditional Dakota language that Sanders joked he couldn’t understand a word but that it touched him deeply.
“It speaks to me the importance of us knowing where we came from if we’re going to know where we’re going forward,” Sanders said. “The need to preserve as much as we can, the culture and the history of the United States, which among other things means language. To make sure that our kids, Native American kids and kids all over this country, understand the history of their country, their real history and the languages that those who came before them spoke.”
Sanders added that Indian Country can count him as an ally on their issues.
In regards to consultation, Sanders said as president he would do more than that and that the federal government would sit down at the table with tribal nations as equals. He also said that he would bring tribes more into the fold because Natives have so much knowledge to share, especially when it comes to the environment and sustainability.
“If there’s any people in this country today, who knows what that is about, it is you,” Sanders said. “We need you to help explain that, not only to our country but to the world. You have a history which is rich and important and at this moment of environmental crises, this is the time for the Native American people, working with an administration that respects the Native American people, to help us to transform our entire economy to one which is not at war with nature but is part of nature.”
Sanders understand that Indian Country has long felt neglected and left behind. If elected president, he intends to change that narrative.
“I know that many people in the Native American community feel that the federal government, for years, has turned their backs on your issues and your concerns,” Sanders said. “At best, you have been able to get a seat at the table but as often as that has taken place your words and concerns have not been heard. You can talk, but nobody listens and we intend to change that.”
Kolby KickingWoman is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is Blackfeet/Gros Ventre from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org