Long ignored, Native Americans will get their first presidential candidate forum

"We've made great strides ... to get to this point," one Native voting rights activist said.

People stand in line to vote at the Fort Yates polling location on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota during the November 6, 2018 midterm elections. PHOTO CREDIT: Danielle McLean for ThinkProgress
People stand in line to vote at the Fort Yates polling location on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota during the November 6, 2018 midterm elections. PHOTO CREDIT: Danielle McLean for ThinkProgress

Native American issues are rarely discussed on the presidential campaign trail, but for the first time this year, a candidates’ forum entirely on Native concerns will be held next month in Sioux City, Iowa.

So far, five Democratic candidates have confirmed they will attend the August 19 and 20 discussion about the sovereign rights of tribes, housing, and the protection of Native land, among other issues.

So far, the candidates who have confirmed that they plan to attend the forum are Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT), author Marianne Williamson, U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D-MD), and President Barack Obama’s former Housing Secretary Julian Castro.

The fact that candidates are actually discussing indigenous peoples’ rights at a forum specifically dedicated for the issue is a huge milestone, said O.J. Semans, co-executive director of the Native American voting rights group Four Directions, which is hosting the event. 


“The people they are going to be talking to are going to be representing Natives in the seven battleground states where a few thousand votes or few hundred votes are going to be the factor,” Semans said. “We’ve made great strides in the past 19 years to get to this point.”

The discussion inevitably will cast a light on the decades-long fight against state laws designed to prevent Native Americans from voting and other barriers to the ballot box.

Last year for example, Native Americans in North Dakota showed up to the polls in record numbers during the 2018 midterm elections to cast a ballot in favor of former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) in protest of restrictive voter ID laws imposed by the state.

Native American reservations are considered sovereign nations within the United States, but face a number of issues that are often ignored by lawmakers in Washington D.C.


Native communities, which are often located in remote areas, face high rates of poverty, lower life expectancy, low high school graduation rates, and high rates of domestic violence. A large number of indigenous women have also gone missing or been found murdered.

Roads and bridges on Native land are deteriorating because of  insufficient funding from the federal government and there is a severe shortage of housing.

Native land has been threatened by large scale oil pipeline projects as well. Members of the community staged protests against the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline at the Standing Rock reservation in 2016, because it threatened Sioux tribal land. President Trump ordered the expedited completion of the project in 2017.

Many of those issues will be discussed during the candidate forum that is expected to sell-out the 2,600 seat Sioux City Orpheum Theatre, said Semans. A number of tribal schools have discussed sending students to the event to ask questions to candidates who will be standing in front of the American and P.O.W. flags as well as the flags of tribal nations.

Four Directions sent out invitations to all of the presidential campaigns back in April and May, including to all the independent and Republican candidates, Semans said. Sanders, so far is the only frontrunner in the Democratic race to confirm that he’ll be at the forum.

“Native Americans deserve a fair, and true, commitment from the U.S. government. As Bernie has said time and time again, our Native American brothers and sisters have seen the federal government break solemn promises, and huge corporations exploit the sovereign rights of Native communities,” Josh Miller-Lewis, a Sanders campaign spokesperson told ThinkProgress.


ThinkProgress reached out to all of the Democratic presidential candidates to ask whether they plan on attending, but at the time this piece was published, only a handful had responded.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign told ThinkProgress that it is “exploring whether it will be possible for her to attend the forum.” Warren’s presence would be notable, since she was drawn into months of controversy for having claimed Native ancestry years ago.

A spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan’s campaign, meanwhile, said late last week that they “haven’t quite hammered out the details” for the campaign’s August schedule.

Billionaire Tom Steyer campaign, who only recently entered the race, issued a statement last week that appeared supportive of the event.

“Too often indigenous people have been an invisible part of our communities. Having a special forum concerning the issues indigenous people face is an important and necessary discussion to have,” the campaign told ThinkProgress in a statement.

“Hopefully, it will lead to our country honoring the commitments we have made to Native Americans that are too often ignored,” a Steyer campaign spokesperson said.

Semans told ThinkProgress that Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and South Bend and Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg also have been discussing the possibility of attending.

Independent Candidate Mark Charles, a member of the Navajo Nation, will also attend, while Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Trump’s Republican challenger and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, have both declined, said Semans.

But several of the Democratic candidates who are attending have issued detailed policy proposals and plans to help Native Americans on their campaign websites, including Sanders, Williamson, and Castro.

Those plans address a range of issues including giving Native American tribes more sovereign control over their lands, expanding healthcare to Native American communities, protecting women, providing more funds for housing, protecting native land, and providing better access to healthcare.

Warren’s campaign also said she planned to protect tribal sovereignty, make new investments in Indian Country, and working with Native people on issues such as housing, the opioid epidemic, and violence against women.

Semans said policy proposals are good but don’t really give candidates a chance to meet the people that would be affected.

“That’s why we have this forum. So they can see who they are talking about, who they are talking to, and see the real issues from the people that have to live them,” he said. 

And focusing on the needs and priorities of the community is long overdue, said Semans, adding that it also gives Native Americans a chance to show that their vote can have an impact.

“Basically through our efforts in getting equality at the ballot box for Natives, we have been able to put a little more power behind our voice,” he said.

“The only way I would be surprised by any of this,” Semans said, “is if the candidates didn’t show up.”