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2020 Candidates Address Missing Indigenous Women at Native American Forum

A panel of Indigenous leaders responds to the 2020 candidates’ proposals to tackle issues affecting their communities.

Following this week’s historic Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa, we speak with Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today and moderator of the Native American voter forum; Christine Nobiss, director of Seeding Sovereignty’s SHIFT project; and Mark Charles, independent candidate for president, Native American activist and writer. They respond to the candidates’ proposals to tackle issues affecting the Native American community, including the chronic murder and disappearance of Native American girls and women, land sovereignty, and generational trauma caused by colonialism.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our coverage of the first-ever Native American Presidential Forum. On Monday and Tuesday, 10 candidates traveled to Sioux City, Iowa, to take part in the forum, another through video.

We’re joined by three guests. Mark Charles is a Native American activist of the Navajo Nation. He’s running for president as an independent. He’s joining us from Washington, D.C.

In Des Moines, Iowa, Christine Nobiss is with us, director of Seeding Sovereignty’s SHIFT project. She’s a member of the Plains Cree-Saulteaux of the George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan.

And in Lincoln, Nebraska, Mark Trahant, editor of the online publication Indian Country Today. He’s a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, and he was moderator of the two-day presidential forum.

Mark, let’s begin with you. Talk about how this forum came into being. It is an absolute first. And it wasn’t just a Democratic presidential forum, Mark Trahant. It was inviting people from — it invited President Trump — is that right? — as well as William Weld. Tell us more about it.

MARK TRAHANT: Sure, Amy. The idea was to bring the issues that affect Indian country, to make them front and center rather than the candidates. It technically is not the first. Twelve years ago, there was a presidential forum, and I actually moderated that, as well. That one, though, never got the major candidates involved. Governor Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel were the only ones that agreed to participate. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both passed on it. But this one raised the level to [inaudible] unheard of.

The ability to talk about treaty rights in a presidential context, I think, is essential. One of the, I guess, things that would be great to see come out of this down the road is: What if this country started with the primary season in Indian Country instead of in Iowa, and these issues that are so fundamental to the country and what this country’s story is all about started with the Native American perspective?

AMY GOODMAN: Christine Nobiss, you were one of the organizers of this two days. Talk about how you did it. And it was called the Frank LaMere Native Presidential Forum. Can you explain who Frank LaMere was?

CHRISTINE NOBISS: Yes. Well, first of all, I have to give credit to Four Directions for spearheading this event and for allowing Seeding Sovereignty to be part of such a historical event. It was an absolute honor to take part in this as an organizer, also because Frank LaMere was a dear friend and a mentor to me. And I’m close with his son Manape LaMere.

Frank was a really special person. He was an activist his whole life, and he took part in the AIM movement. One of his biggest achievements, though, was when he was able to shut down liquor sales in White Clay, Nebraska, which is this tiny little town with a very minimal population, that was selling millions of cans of beer and hard liquor to people living in the Pine Ridge Reservation for a very long time. And he never gave up. He was the chair of the Native American Democratic Caucus. He was tireless in his community. He helped organize the first-ever March to Honor Lost Children, which recognizes the many Native American children that are lost to the Child Welfare Act. And he helped found — or, worked with Four Directions in Sioux City. He was very well known in Sioux City. Before he passed away, one of his biggest projects was working on getting Indian Health Services in Sioux City itself, because there is no Indian Health Services in the state of Iowa, and it is very badly needed in Sioux City, with such a high population of indigenous people.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Shannon Holsey of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, who asked Senator Warren about what she’ll do to confront the crisis facing Native women and girls.

SHANNON HOLSEY: My question is about criminal justice and policing. And you spoke a bit earlier in your recognition of missing and murdered indigenous —


SHANNON HOLSEY: — people, women. And I don’t want to sort of belabor over it, but some of the statistics, according to the United States Department of Justice, are that an American Indian women are 10 times more likely to be murdered than the national average, and also four in five American Indian women will experience violence in her lifetimes. And homicide is the third leading cause of death for American Indian girls between the ages of 10 and 24. … As the president of the United States, how would you enjoin not only yourself, but your administration and your authority, to address the missing and murdered indigenous women crisis in Indian country?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: So, thank you for the question. This comes on a day that is two years to the day, I believe, that Savanna was taken. And when I first got to Congress, the Violence Against Women Act was up for reauthorization, and I was one of the strong supporters of expanding VAWA to include indigenous women, and specific provisions and specific resources for that. As you know, though, that bill has now been allowed to lapse. This is something we’ve got to be pushing back on and make sure that it has adequate and expanded protection, over where we got it the last time.

The other part, though, that I very much hear you talking about is the invisibility of the problem, that, over and over, I’m struck by women who go missing and it doesn’t make a headline for a week, for a month, women who are murdered, Native women, and it never makes a headline. A problem that is not seen is a problem that is not fixed. So, I think of this in two ways. One is the importance of the federal government getting serious about collecting data and making those data publicly available. People need to know the scope of this problem.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Senator Elizabeth Warren at the first-ever major presidential candidate forum. It was held in Sioux City. And we’re still speaking to Christine Nobiss, director of Seeding Sovereignty’s SHIFT project, Plains Cree-Saulteaux of the George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan. Christine, you went to the University of Iowa, but you were born in Canada. And if you can talk about Canada’s response to missing and murdered women, and the whole issue and the recent report that just came out, versus the United States and what you want to see here?

CHRISTINE NOBISS: The acronym MMIW is something that started in Canada quite a few years ago. A lot of people actually use the term MMIWG, missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. There was a task force put in place many years ago, where the RCMP started to investigate the high levels of missing and murdered women occurring across the country. We have a highway in British Columbia called the Highway of Tears, where apparently over 40 women have gone missing; however, grassroots activists will tell you that number is much higher. Right now, as we speak, there are around 1,000 people said to be missing. But again, grassroots people will say that that number is much higher. It can be as high as 4,000 to 5,000. That number is always skewed because there are people that might not identify as Native American or be known as Native American in the circles that they’re in, when they’re not within their communities. And there’s a lot of people that are not identified. And then, of course, there are people that are missing and never found.

In the United States, as of 2016, there was 5,716 women in the missing persons database in the United States. And, of course, that number is said to be much higher, as well. We have the highest rates of rape and sexual assault in the United States, as well as in Canada. In the United States, the Department of Justice tells us that 56% of Native American women and Alaska Native women will experience rape or sexual assault in their lifetime. Again, I have to revert back to what people say on our reservations and in our indigenous communities, that that number has been said, in some cases, to be as high as 80 or 90%.

The issue has nothing to do with the border. A border that has been placed upon Native nations is what I call border imperialism. And this issue is the same in Canada as it is in the United States, as it is in Mexico. Indigenous people are still considered, in my opinion, by certain segments of society, not quite as human as others and are something that can be seen as an object, and they are targeted by, I would say, certain populations of this country with a white supremacist mentality.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does the Violence Against Women Act have to do with, or how does the Violence Against Women Act address, this crisis of the Native American community and the greater American community?

CHRISTINE NOBISS: VAWA is very important. It took 25 years to get where it is right now. In 2013, an amendment was made to it to ensure more rights and safeties for indigenous women, for our Native American communities, for immigrant communities and for LGBTQ communities, because we face higher rates of violence. The Violence Against Women Act is an absolute necessity for all women in this country, but, like I said, it’s important that we single out some populations that are targeted.

And what’s disturbing to me, what’s upsetting to me, is right now it’s still waiting to be reinstated, like it is every year. It’s still waiting on a budget, and it’s still sitting on the table. And that’s not OK. The Violence Against Women Act should always be in place. There should never be any nail biting of whether or not there’s going to be funding for these programs again the next year.

And Trump quietly, this past April, rolled back the definition of what domestic violence is. It took us a very long time to move away from the judicial definition of domestic violence, towards the much more comprehensive view of what domestic violence means, you know, talking about emotional abuse and verbal abuse and so much more. It was a very long, comprehensive list of what that is, and it took years to get there. And as of April, it was rolled back to just one sentence.

And so, the Violence Against Women Act provides funding for indigenous communities so that they can continue to educate and work with people, with victims of all sorts of crimes — sexual assault, rape, domestic violence. And it’s a much-needed act that is used to help keep our people safe.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Mark Charles. Mark Charles is the first Diné, the first Navajo presidential candidate in the United States. You participated in this forum along with a number of other, the majority of the Democratic, or most — many of the Democratic presidential candidates. On what platform are you running? And talk about the significance of this Native American forum for you.

MARK CHARLES: Well, thank you, Amy. It’s great to be with you. And before I go any further, I’m here in Washington, D.C., and I just want to acknowledge that I am on the land of the Piscataway and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. These are the nations who lived here, long before the District of Columbia, the state of Maryland or the state of Virginia were created. And it’s important to remember that these lands were not discovered.

AMY GOODMAN: And you were the first — you were the only presidential candidate to acknowledge the land where you were in Sioux City. If you can talk about that, in Iowa?

MARK CHARLES: Well, yes. Wherever I travel, I work very hard to research and find out what Native nation, what tribes were living on these lands before they were colonized. And I do my best to acknowledge them and honor them wherever I go. Julián Castro also did a very good job of acknowledging the people of the land in his presentation, so I was very impressed with how he conducted himself on stage.

One of the things at the heart of my campaign, and, as a nation, we really have a struggle with, what Georges Erasmus would call “common memory.” When he was talking and writing a letter about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission up in Canada — he’s from the Diné Nation up there, and he’s a leader among the people. And he said, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community.” If you want to build community, he said, you have to start by creating common memory.

I think that quote is genius, and it gets to the heart of our nation’s problem with race, because, as a country, the United States of America does not have a common memory. We have a white majority that remembers a mythological history of discovery, expansion, opportunity and exceptionalism. And we have communities of color and women and other marginalized communities that have the lived experience of stolen lands, broken treaties, slavery, Jim Crow laws, boarding schools, massacres, internment camps, mass incarceration, families separated at our borders. And there’s no common memory.

You know, people are acting like this crisis at the border right now is the first time we’ve seen this. But the United States of America has been very effective at separating children from their families throughout its entire existence, whether it’s through the slave trade or through the boarding schools or through the massacres. What President Trump doing is not unique. It’s not new. This is what our nation does. This is our history and the fact that we don’t have this common memory.

And so, many candidates and many Americans would like to believe that the United States of America struggles with issues like racism and sexism and white supremacy in spite of our foundations. In other words, there’s this belief that we have these great foundations, and we’re just not living up to them. But the truth of the matter is, if you read our Declaration of Independence, which 30 lines after the statement “All men are created equal” calls Natives “merciless Indian savages”; when we have a Constitution that begins with “We the people,” and Article 1, Section 2 never mentions women, specifically excludes Natives and counts Africans as three-fifths of a person; when we have a 13th Amendment, that most people think abolishes slavery, but actually just redefines and codifies it under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system — when we have these systemic, foundational issues of racism, sexism and white supremacy, we have to acknowledge the United States of America is racist, sexist and white supremacist, not in spite of our foundations, but because of them.

And these are the dialogues we need to have. These are the conversations we need to have. As I said at the forum, we don’t need a new particular law protecting this vulnerable community or that vulnerable demographic. We need a new basis for our laws, which is where, at the center of my platform, one of the key questions I’m asking is: Let’s build a nation where, for the very first time, “we the people” truly means all the people.

And to get there, I’m proposing that the United States of America needs a national dialogue on race, gender and class, a conversation I would put on par with the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that happened in South Africa and Rwanda and in Canada. I would call ours Truth and Conciliation, though, because “reconciliation” implies there was a previous harmony, which is not accurate. And I think we need one sooner rather than later, which is why this is one of the center planks of my platform, is we need to have this dialogue. We need to create this common memory. We need to acknowledge our past and ask the question: Do we want to move forward? Do we really want to be a nation where “we the people” means all the people? And if we do, we have some foundational-level changes that we need to make.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Charles, Mark Trahant and Christine Nobiss, we’re going to be back with our discussion in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Music from the second day of the Native American Presidential Forum held in Sioux City, Iowa. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to cover the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum, the first Native American forum for major presidential candidates, held in Sioux City, Iowa, Monday and Tuesday. Let’s turn to Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Lewis questioning Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development.

GOV. STEPHEN LEWIS: The sovereignty of Indian tribes has increasingly come under attack. Most notably, the non-Indian adoption industry has continued to attack the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act and spread misinformation about ICWA by perpetuating negative and racist stereotypes of Indian families and tribal communities. … As president, what would you propose as the potential solution to not only protect ICWA, but to broadly preserve and strengthen tribal sovereignty?

JULIÁN CASTRO: I know that there’s a very shameful history behind why ICWAwas necessary in the first place, that we never want to go back to. In fact, as you pointed out in your question, we only want to strengthen ICWA. So, here’s what I would do. Number one, I would make sure that folks know that I support the Indian Child Welfare Act as president, and go out there and campaign on how important it is to preserve it, and why it was necessary in the first place. And as you say, even today, these stereotypes, these caricatures, the disregard for Native peoples is still too prevalent in many quarters. Let me just also say that one of the things I believe is that in our textbooks in every single classroom in America, we need to be teaching about Native history and doing it from a perspective that is truthful and accurate and does justice to the contributions of Native peoples in this land.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro. Mark Trahant, you’re the editor of Indian Country Today, and you were the moderator of this whole two-day forum. As we watch and listen to the candidates being questioned, describe the format. It’s one we haven’t seen before.

MARK TRAHANT: You’re right. And thank you for your comprehensive view of this whole thing. Most of the media, the stories have been about one candidate, and they were gone, so [inaudible] this broad look at the conversation. The format was really unique, because it allowed tribal leaders to be the primary [inaudible] asking questions. And it just produced a whole different tone. Folks added context to their questions. They added real policy, so it wasn’t as much about personality. And it became, I think, a better conversation for that.

AMY GOODMAN: And, well, describe. Each candidate came out, and there was a group of Native American leaders, different for each of the candidates — is that right? — questioning them. People had traveled from all over the country to question these candidates.

MARK TRAHANT: That’s correct. There were panels of tribal leaders and also a youth from — representing youth voices. And then, each panel began with Marcella LeBeau and asking about the Wounded Knee Stain Act.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the Stain Act further.

MARK TRAHANT: That’s congressional legislation to remove the Medals of Honor related to the 7th Cavalry at Wounded Knee. And I think it’s a really — it was a powerful moment, because she talked about how it personally affected her life with what she called the sorrow that she lives with every day. Mark Charles also pointed out that that doesn’t even go far enough, because there are some 450 Medals of Honor that were given to U.S. military during the so-called Indian Wars.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Senator Kamala Harris. She didn’t attend the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in person, but she spoke via video stream.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: There is unequivocal support and respect that I have for the sovereignty of Native tribes, and that this is a lifelong commitment. I was raised and grew up always knowing about and feeling very strongly about what we need to do to speak truth about the generations of violence and oppression that have occurred against our Native Americans at the hands of the American government, the United States government. And there is work we need to do, and continue to do, that is about not only restoring tribal land, but also acknowledging the historical trauma that has resulted from those many years of violence and, frankly, crimes that were committed. These were crimes that ranged from murder and rape to theft in profound proportions.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Charles, you’re right now in competition with Senator Harris and others, as you, too, are running as an independent for president of the United States. Your response and what you feel needs to be done about this historical trauma?

MARK CHARLES: Thank you. Well, in all honesty, I’m not in competition against Kamala Harris. I am running as an independent. And right now the Democrats are in a primary to choose one nominee from the Democratic Party. So, I am not running against each of the candidates right now; I’m running against the party, if you may.

Again, this is the challenge, where we have — where you’ll have a lot of leaders who will talk about what they want to do and some of the injustice against the past, but when you have a system that is based on the dehumanization of indigenous peoples, when you have a Declaration of Independence that calls us “savages” — you know, there’s been a lot of critique of Senator Harris for her actions against the indigenous communities in California when she was the attorney general there. You know, this is the challenge, is when you serve a government that has, in its foundation, the dehumanization of your community, at some point you’re going to have to make a stand of: Do you align with that, or do you oppose it?

And this is most clear even when we have the Supreme Court case precedents. The Supreme Court, as recently as 2005, references the doctrine of discovery and determines that the embers of sovereignty that long ago grew cold cannot be rekindled by the United Indian Nation. And that opinion was written by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. See, the challenge is, when you have a dehumanizing doctrine of discovery that props up your land titles, it makes white supremacy a bipartisan value.

And we have very few candidates who are willing to address the foundational problems. They may want to change this policy or address that law, but there is very little energy to actually address the foundations. And that is what I’m trying to do with my campaign, to bring the discussion down to the foundations. If you have a house that’s built on a bad foundation, you’re going to get cracks in the walls and cracks in your windowsills and a crooked floor. And you can scream about what color to paint the walls or what kind of caulking to use on your windows, but until you go into the basement and address your broken foundation, you’re never going to fix the house.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to —

MARK CHARLES: And this campaign is about fixing the house.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Senator Sanders once again, but this time talking about the fight to protect sacred lands and connecting it to the fight against the climate crisis.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Our job is also — and I know how important it is — to protect the sacred lands of the Native American people. I was proud to have been there, not physically, but in every other way, standing with the Native American people at Standing Rock. And I do that — I do that, A, because it is imperative that we respect the sovereignty and the land that is sacred to the Native American people. But in addition to that, for your children and your grandchildren and mine, as well, we must do everything we can to address the existential crisis facing this planet in terms of climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Bernie Sanders. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe asked a federal court in Washington, D.C., just last Friday, to halt operations of the Dakota Access pipeline until a full environmental assessment is completed. The Army Corps of Engineers issued an easement in 2017 allowing for the construction of DAPL despite widespread protest that garnered international support. A court later found the easement violated the law, and remanded the issue back to the Army Corps, which, the Sioux Tribe says, conducted a sham process in order to go ahead with the construction. And now the Dakota Access pipeline, run by Energy Transfer Partners, is asking to double its output through the Dakota Access pipeline, which it succeeded in building. Mark Charles, if you can talk about your stand on DAPL and, as well as — well, start there.

MARK CHARLES: Yes. Well, a lot of what this case centers around is consent, and was there communication, proper communication, between the government and the tribes. And again, this goes down to a foundational-level issue. When you have a precedent of treating your Native nations as domestic dependents, when your Native nations are not sovereign over their own lands, but they are still federal trust lands, held in trust by the government for the tribes, you’re never going to have true sovereignty. You’re never going to have a government-to-government relationship.

And so, this is where we need to, again, talk about the foundations of the country. We need to remove this influence of the doctrine of discovery so that we can have real government-to-government dialogue. The Constitution guarantees — it says that the treaties of this land are the supreme law of this land. And we have hundreds of treaties with Native nations, and yet these Native nations were considered to be domestic dependents. I tell people tribal sovereignty is, in some ways, a sham. We’re sovereign over our lands like your teenage child is sovereign over their bedroom. Yes, you can put a sign on the door, and you can lock it if you want, but it’s ultimately in your parents’ house.

We need to change the basis of the dialogue. We need to change the relationship in order to have a true government-to-government dialogue and relationship. And then we can talk about consent. Then we can talk about what does it mean for this other government and these other entities to come into these lands, which are under the jurisdiction of the tribes and are considered sacred to them, and not there for exploitation and profit, but there for sustainability and for life. You know, this is — then we can have a real dialogue about what does it mean to work together to try and figure out how do we — can we use the resources, can we transport the resources over these lands, or what do we need to do about that. But first we have to change the foundation of the relationship.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland, who introduced Senator Elizabeth Warren at the Native American Presidential Forum. Haaland is one of the first two Native American women in Congress.

REP. DEB HAALAND: Some media folks have asked me whether the president’s criticisms of her regarding her ancestral background will hamper her ability to convey a clear campaign message. I say that every time they ask about Elizabeth’s family instead of the issues of vital importance to Indian Country, they feed the president’s racism. Elizabeth knows she will be attacked, but she’s here to be an unwavering partner in our struggle, because that is what a leader does.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahead of the Native American forum, Senator Warner unveiled her Honoring and Empowering Tribal Nations and Indigenous Peoples plan. The plan includes expanding affordable housing and locally administered healthcare in indigenous communities, expanding broadband access, strengthening voting rights, restoring tribal jurisdiction over crimes committed on Native land, and a pledge to revoke the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline permits. Christine Nobiss, we’re going to end with you. If you can talk about the significance of Senator Warren’s presence, her apology and her plan?

CHRISTINE NOBISS: I am impressed with Warren’s policy. It came after Castro’s policy. And I was really hoping that Castro would incite more these candidates to get on the ball in this capacity. I am not necessarily impressed with her apology. I’m very happy she apologized. However, what was missing was the reason she needed to apologize for. It’s not OK, at this level, to just say sorry. There needs to be an understanding that she did something that took away —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

CHRISTINE NOBISS: — opportunities from other indigenous people. And I do hope that she does continue to speak on this topic, because it will bring up many issues that haven’t been spoken about, such as tokenization and the misuse of Native American heritage and lineage.

AMY GOODMAN: Christine, we’re going to have to leave it there, but I thank you so much for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Christine Nobiss of Seeding Sovereignty, Mark Trahant of Indian Country Today, and independent presidential candidate Mark Charles. I’m Amy Goodman.