U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders (l) and Elizabeth Warren speak on the first night of the second 2020 Democratic presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan, July 30, 2019.
U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders (l) and Elizabeth Warren speak on the first night of the second 2020 Democratic presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan, July 30, 2019.

WASHINGTON - For the first time in more than a decade, Native Americans have the opportunity to question presidential candidates on issues of importance to Indian Country.

“This is our chance to tell candidates that they can earn our votes,” said organizer O.J. Semans, co-executive director of the national Native American voting rights organization Four Directions.

FILE - O.J. Semans, of Rosebud, S.D., executive director of the voting advocacy group Four Directions, At a South Dakota Election Board hearing, July 31, 2013.

Nine presidential hopefuls, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, former U.S. secretary of housing and urban development Julian Castro, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Montana Gov., Democrat Steve Bullock, Navajo pastor Mark Charles and author Marianne Williamson say they will participate in the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum.

The two-day event opens Monday in Sioux City, Iowa. Organizers say invitations were extended to candidates from all major political parties, although so far only these nine candidates hoping to unseat President Donald Trump in the 2020 election have confirmed their attendance. The organizers also say talks are continuing with several other campaigns.

Mark Trahant, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe and editor of Indian Country Today, will moderate a series of panels, giving tribal leaders and Native American youth a chance to air concerns and ask candidates questions on matters of particular importance to Native voters. 

‘We are here’

Semans expressed delight that many major news organizations will be covering the event.

"For two days, all of the United States is going to know we’re here,” Semans said. “We didn’t get wiped out, we are not extinct, and we have a political voice in which issues that until now have been set on the back burner are now going to be able to be discussed."

Four Directions co-founder O.J. Semans, right, and Marcella LeBeau, whose ancestor died at Wounded Knee, June 25, 2019,

Of the hundreds of issues of importance to Native American voters, panelists will focus on two in particular, said Semans:

The Remove the Stain Act, which Washington Rep. Denny Heck introduced in the House in June as H.R. 3467. If enacted, the bill would rescind the 20 Medals of Honor awarded to members of the 7th Cavalry who on December 29, 1890, murdered nearly 150 Lakota in the Wounded Knee Massacre. The Medal of Honor is America’s highest military honor, given out to members of the armed services who demonstrate outstanding bravery and valor.

“Our second priority issue for the forum is missing and murdered indigenous women and children,” said Semans. “Women and children are sacred to our societies, and in order for us to maintain our societies and cultures, we must do what we were taught, which is to protect women and children, who we are losing in outrageous numbers.”

According to the U.S. Justice Department, Native women are 10 times as likely to be murdered as the national average, falling victim to domestic or drug-related violence, sexual assault or sex trafficking.

The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center has called on lawmakers to expand tribal jurisdiction over cases of missing and murdered women and children; allocate more resources for victim services; improve data collection and expand tribal access to federal criminal databases, among other measures.

Earth Feather Sovereign, left, of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, playing drums and signing in the Capitol Rotunda after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill into law, Wednesday, April 24, 2019, in Olympia, Wash.

“Actually, underfunding is the fundamental to all these issues,” said Semans. “We wouldn’t have to be discussing funding for our transportation or infrastructure, we wouldn’t have to have discussions on housing and health care and law enforcement if the federal government fully honored the treaties.”

In a related development, Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced Friday she will work with New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland (Pueblo of Laguna) on legislative proposals addressing chronic federal underfunding of tribes, as well as barriers to tribal sovereignty.

The last time Native Americans had a chance to speak directly to presidential candidates was in August 2007 at the “Prez on the Rez” forum on the Morongo Reservation in California. Only three candidates, all Democrats for the 2008 race, participated. Then-New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, former Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel took part.

This week’s forum is named for civil rights leader Frank LaMere, a citizen of the Winnebago tribe in Nebraska. He died in June.

Co-sponsors include the Native Organizers Alliance, the National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Fund.