Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders addressing Native Americans in Sioux City, Iowa, Aug. 21, 2019.
Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders addressing Native Americans in Sioux City, Iowa, Aug. 21, 2019. Courtesy: Cante Heart.

WASHINGTON - Sen. Bernie Sanders was the last of nine presidential candidates to take the stage Tuesday in Iowa on Day Two of the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum. His message could be summed by a single word: inclusion.

“At best, you get a seat at the table, but your words and concerns have not been heard,” Sanders said.

Tribes have long complained the federal government has failed to honor the government-to-government relationship guaranteed by laws and treaties, denying tribes the right to meaningful consultation on projects that have an impact on tribal land, resources and sacred sites.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, for example, has fought for several years to block construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, fearing it could threaten the  water supply. The tribe says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has ignored its concerns, in violation of federal environmental law.

Veterans join activists in a march just outside the Oceti Sakowin camp during a snow fall as "water protectors" continue to demonstrate against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline adjacent to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

“If it is not you that should be involved in determining Native American policy in the United States, then I don’t know who should be involved,” said Sanders. “Certainly not a bunch of bureaucrats in Washington.”

Sanders also urged tribes to become more involved in fighting the “existential crisis” of climate change, which he blamed on corporations that “come in and rape the land that belongs to Native American people.”

And he invited tribes to share traditional “wisdom” about the ways humans and the environment can continue to coexist.

This Sept. 23, 2012, file photo shows buffalo in Custer State Park in western South Dakota.

“The Native American people didn’t kill thousands of buffalo, because they understood the buffalo gave them life.”

Sanders also vowed to “take on” the fossil fuel industry.

“Their short-term profits are not more important than the future of this planet, than the way people live in the sanctity of our land,” he said.

Voter suppression

As the 2020 presidential election draws closer, Native American concerns about access to the ballot box have heightened — particularly in North Dakota, where an appeals court this month upheld a strict voter ID law that prevents many tribal citizens from voting.

Courtesy graphic from the National Congress of American Indians, whose #NativeVote campaign seeks to improve Native American and Alaska Native access to the ballot box.

That law requires voters to present identification showing a current residential street address. Many tribal citizens lack a street address, relying instead on post office boxes, which state law does not recognize.  Additionally, owing to poverty and housing shortages, many tribal citizens are altogether homeless.

Proponents of the law say it is designed to prevent voter fraud.  But many North Dakota tribe members, who largely vote for Democrats, believe the Republican Party is working to deny them a voice. 

“We have a corrupt political system designed to protect the wealthy and the powerful,” Sanders told the forum audience. “Billionaires do not have the right to buy elections.”

Sanders called for reversing the controversial 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which struck down limits on corporate and union campaign spending.

‘We will take care of your knee’

Panelist Faith Spotted Eagle, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe and chairperson of the Brave Heart Society, a traditional cultural society for women, cited the poor quality of health care provided by the Indian Health Service (IHS), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In this April 18, 2013, file photo, Faith Spotted Eagle speaks in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.

“I’m sitting here with a knee that needs to be replaced, and it’s going on 15 years,” Spotted Eagle said. “And because my limb is not destroyed enough, I’m not dying, that Indian Health Service will not honor my treaty right.”

Sanders acknowledged that the IHS is not living up to its mandate.

“As somebody who believes, absolutely, that health care is a human right for the Native American people and for everybody else, we will reform, fundamentally, the Indian Health Service, so that it will take care of your knee and the needs of the Native American people,” Sanders said, adding that in the context of a “multitrillion-dollar government,” this would not be an “expensive proposition.”

FILE - Randy Ortiz wears a shirt with the names of missing and murdered indigenous women as he searches for Ashley HeavyRunner Loring in the mountains of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Babb, Mont., July 12, 2018.

Sanders also promised to make the “epidemic” of violence against Native American women a priority in his administration.

He also pledged to rescind Medals of Honor given to 20 members of the U.S. 7th Cavalry, who on Dec. 29, 1890, massacred hundreds of unarmed Lakota men, women and children in what came to be known as the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

“Medals of Honor are given rarely, and they are given to people who show great, great bravery,” he said. “Massacring women and children is not an act of great bravery; it is an act of depravity.”

Nine U.S. presidential candidates participated in this week’s two-day forum, which honored Frank LaMere, a citizen of the Winnebago Tribe in northeast Nebraska who, until his death last June, spent decades advocating on behalf of Native concerns.