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Bernie Sanders Courts Native American Voters

The commitments Sanders has made to “Indian Country” include expanding and protecting tribal rights to jurisdiction.

Democratic candidate for President Bernie Sanders achieved a historic upset at the New Hampshire primaries last week by winning 60 percent of the delegates. However, this margin is nothing compared to the margin he carried in one precinct in Iowa: the Meskwaki Indian Settlement precinct in Tama County. Here on the 8,000 acre homeland of the 1,400 member Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa he won 83.3 percent of the votes. Clinton only won 16.7 percent.

So it is no surprise when on Feb. 8 Bernie Sanders’ campaign announced at the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians meeting the creation of a Native American policy committee to develop and guide Sanders’ tribal policy platform. ATNI represents 57 Northwest tribes in a seven-state region. Founded in 1953, the organization provides an opportunity for tribal leaders to work together in the spirit of “inter-tribal unity and cooperation” and to jointly set policy and direction for member tribes. It is regarded as one of the strongest regional Native American organizations in the United States.

Nicole Willis, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, and the former deputy director of First Americans at Obama for America is the new Native American advisor to the campaign.

“In the area of policy, Native America deserves to be courted,” Willis told teleSUR.

She said that the Native American Policy Committee, unique on the campaign trail, will contain a mix of elected officials, experts in Indian policy development and implementation, and regional representatives who will be “delving into rapid, meaningful policy development.”

Masha Mendieta, a national strategist for the Sanders campaign who attended the ATNI meeting, was amazed at the speed at which Sanders acted to expand his message to include the Native American community more fully. “Within 24 hours,” she says, “I knew I was going to ATNI and had these commitments from him. Amazing.”

The main commitments Sanders made to “Indian Country” (as Native Americans often call it) include:

1. Within 100 days of his presidency Sanders has pledged to convene a climate change summit and to include Native American representation. One of primary issues endangering Native American cultural practices in the 21st century is climate change. For example: climate change greatly endangers the growing of first foods like corn, and the habitats of traditional food sources and the transmission of cultural practices built around them. Sander’s opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline will play well with Native voters to whom these projects represent a violation of tribal sovereignty and a grave danger to their homelands. Feelings are so strong on this matter that after the US House of Representatives passed legislation to force the Keystone XL pipeline to move forward in 2014, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe called it an “act of war” in a letter to Congress and said the US lawmakers had “signed our death warrants” and vowed to close their lands to the pipeline.

2. Affirm and expand Native American nations’ gains in the last couple of years. Not just supporting initiatives like Obama’s Generation Indigenous but to secure funding for this programs. “Gen-I” is a program for Native youth that Obama announced at the 2014 White House Tribal Nations Conference to “focus on improving the lives of Native youth by removing the barriers that stand between Native youth and their opportunity to succeed.” Key programs include: education, health and nutrition, juvenile justice, housing, and youth engagement.

3. Expanding and protecting tribal rights to jurisdiction. Sanders played a key role as the co-sponsor of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013. The bill was controversial and was bitterly opposed by Republicans because it expanded tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians. Due to a series of Supreme Court rulings, Tribes have been stripped of jurisdiction over non-Indians on their lands and this has created a gap in jurisdiction which has led to an epidemic of predation of Native women by non-Indian men. In 2010, the Justice Department released a report which found that Native women were 2 1/2 times more like to be victims of rape and murder than other American women. The report also found that over 70 percent of the perpetrators of these crimes against Native women were white men. In some counties in the United States, the murder rate for Native women was found to be 9 times that of other American women. Further compounding the lack of lack of protection for Native women, the FBI refused to prosecute in 70 percent of the cases. VAWA went into effect in 2015 with a few tribal pilot projects. Sanders plans to fight for further expansion of tribal jurisdiction in the next authorization of the bill. In the present version of the bill, tribal jurisdiction is limited to only Domestic Violence perpetrators.

4. Continue the White House Tribal Nations Conference (an annual conference Obama began shortly after he took office) and retain a Native American policy advisor as begun under Obama’s administration.

“I was given an opportunity to speak at the General Assembly,” Mendieta said, noting she hadn’t come to the ATNI meeting prepared to speak and found herself addressing the gathered leaders, deeply moved by the testimonials and speeches from tribal representatives she had heard. She says she urged them to take this opportunity to elect somebody “who fundamentally supported change” and to seize a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shift their relationship with the federal government.”

Sanders, himself, addressed via prerecorded message the National Congress of American Indians’ conference in November. NCAI is the largest and oldest organization representing over 200 tribes from across the country.

Willis says the campaign will be reaching further into urban American Indian communities where, according to US Census, 78 percent of the Native American population reside. However, she said reservation communities cannot be overlooked. These communities have the proven ability to swing the vote in their districts. In very red states, the reservation counties are often the only blue ones in the entire state.

“An example,” Willis says, “of this would be Senator Tim Johnson’s election in South Dakota. It was a profound operation in South Dakota that brought out the Indian vote and swayed the election. And again in Montana and in 2008. Where there is a large Indian population they can sway entire counties.” She notes that Native American voters have a higher than average voter turnout. In former Senator Johnson’s (D) election he won 94 percent of the vote on the Pine Ridge reservation, home of the state’s largest tribe, the Oglala Lakota Sioux in 2002.

Willis predicts even greater things for the 2016 election because “The field organization and get out the vote push is even more widely known and established on reservations than before 2008.”