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Democrat Elizabeth Warren Woos Native American Voters

Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks at the Frank LaMere Native American Forum while campaigning in Sioux City, Iowa, Aug. 19, 2019.

Addressing Native American tribal leaders and citizens Monday, Senator Elizabeth Warren pledged to rescind permits for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

"Tribal governments are the ones who should control what happens on tribal lands," she said, speaking at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum being held this week in Sioux City, Iowa.

Warren said the pipeline permits should not have been granted in the first place. Tribes have long complained, saying the U.S. government has ignored historical treaty boundaries and failed to give tribes a voice in how land is used.

"We need a true resetting of the relationship [between the U.S. government and tribes]," Warren told the Iowa audience. "It is there in words, but not in action. We need to change the rules to make sure it is there in action, as well."

If elected president, Warren pledged to ensure that tribes would not only be consulted about planned projects but can make informed decisions about whether they should proceed.

Inadequate funding

Last week, New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland, who has endorsed Warren for president, announced the two would co-sponsor the Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act, legislation that would address funding shortfalls outlined in a December 2018 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights titled "Broken Promises."

FILE - Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., one of the first Native American woman elected to Congress, is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 3, 2019.
FILE - Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., one of the first Native American woman elected to Congress, is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 3, 2019.

The report noted the U.S. has a historic trust responsibility to tribes, negotiated in exchange for the surrender of billions of hectares of land and the removal and resettlement of tribes from their ancestral homelands.

The new legislation would guarantee direct, long-term funding for criminal justice and law enforcement in Indian Country, as well as support for infrastructure, housing, education, health care and economic development initiatives, as well as, perhaps most important of all, self-governance.

The act would also ensure funding levels are adjusted to accommodate inflation. They have invited tribal leaders and citizens to comment.

Poor federal funding, Warren said, is also to blame for barriers to voting that are endemic to many reservations. Strict voter ID laws, the removal of voters' names from rolls, and inaccessible voter registration and polling sites are some of the factors holding Native Americans back from participating in local, state and national elections.

"Voter suppression is democracy suppression, and it must stop," Warren said. "The idea that one of the major parties intends to retain power by keeping American citizens from voting is appalling, and we need to be able to fight back against that in all places where it shows up."

If elected, Warren said she would create federal standards for access to voting, making sure these meet regional needs.

She added that she would make sure "there is real money to back it up."

Cherokee controversy

Whether Native American voters put their support behind Warren remains to be seen. For years, she claimed Cherokee and Delaware Indian heritage, provoking outrage among many in Indian Country who argue that only tribes, not individuals, should decide who is Indian and who is not.

Monday, Warren apologized for her past "mistakes."

"I am sorry for harm I have caused," she said. "I have listened, and I have learned a lot ... and it is a great honor to partner with Indian Country."

Nine U.S. presidential candidates — seven Democrats and two independent candidates — are participating in this week's Iowa forum, a sign that politicians are recognizing the power of the Native vote, particularly in western states.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 5.2 million people identify as American Indian and Alaska Native, either alone or in combination with one or more other races.

This is a small fraction of the total U.S. population of nearly 309 million, but significant enough, say analysts, to make a difference in some states.

The 2018 midterm elections saw nearly 50 Native Americans elected to state legislatures; Native American governors elected in two states, Oklahoma and Minnesota; and two Native women, Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas, take seats in Congress.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is scheduled to address forum participants Tuesday.