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Commentary Human Rights

Native Americans Want More Than Empty Promises From 2020 Democrats

Mary Annette Pember

At this week’s Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum, Democratic presidential candidates have a precious opportunity to elevate Indian Country and Native Americans' concerns within the national political discourse.

Treaties made between Native Americans and the federal government are part of a distant, hazy past to most people in the United States. Although the federal government signed about 374 treaties with tribes, today’s public discourse seldom mentions the subjects of these agreements. These contracts made with sovereign tribal nations in exchange for vast expanses of Native lands include promises for health care, education, goods, and tools, as well as fishing and hunting rights in ceded territories.

The U.S. government has broken or only partially lived up to many of its treaty agreements. The standout failure has been its chronic underfunding of the Indian Health Service. As I wrote in a 2017 article for Rewire.News, the government has never fully funded the Indian Health Service despite treaty agreements dating back to 1787 promising health care for tribes.

It is these types of broken federal government promises that should lead the discussion during the Native presidential forum Monday and Tuesday at the Orpheum Theatre in Sioux City, Iowa.

Four Directions, a Native voting rights nonprofit organization, organized the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum. LaMere of the Winnebago tribe died earlier this year; he was a longtime and well-known activist in Indian Country and was chairman of the Native American Caucus of the Democratic Party.

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Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Julian Castro, and Bernie Sanders; author Marianne Williamson; New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; and former Reps. John Delaney and Joe Sestak have agreed to participate in the forum. Navajo Nation’s Mark Charles, who is running as an independent, will also participate, as well as Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, who will be joining via video livestream.

The Native American Rights Fund is set to provide livestreaming of the event on its Facebook page, while over 30 media outlets have signed on to cover the event. Indian Country Today will offer extensive coverage as its editor, Mark Trahant, moderates the two-day event. The candidates will face questions from a panel of three Native people, as well as questions from the audience.

Castro and Warren have the most specific and informed policy proposals regarding Native people. Released in July, Castro’s Peoples First Indigenous Communities Policy shows a genuine depth of understanding of the history and needs in Indian Country. For instance, he describes the need to implement the Carcieri fix, an amendment to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Carcieri v. Salazar that reaffirms the authority of the U.S. secretary of the interior to take land into trust for tribes. He also promises to fully fund the Indian Health Service; work with tribes to ensure they are consulted in federal land-use projects involving Native lands; and repeal the Hyde Amendment, which restricts access to abortion for Native people.

Warren released on Friday an extensive proposal, Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act, based on recommendations from the 2018 U.S. Commission on Human Rights report. Democratic Rep. Deb Haaland of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, who’s one of the first two Native American women to be elected to Congress, helped Warren create the proposal. As Indian Country Today reported, Warren and Haaland’s plan would take federal support for agencies serving Indian Country out of the appropriations process and guarantee ongoing funding.

Both Warren and Castro, like their opponents, have prioritized the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW). To that end, both have promised to pass Savanna’s Act, legislation that would improve federal crime data collection regarding MMIW.

Support for Savanna’s Act and MMIW have become popular bully pulpits for politicians in recent years. Not surprisingly, all the other Democratic presidential candidates have made similar statements expressing outrage over the issue and promised to enact legislation. But their support should not be without scrutiny.

As I wrote last year for Rewire.News, Savanna’s Act as introduced by former Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and co-sponsored by Warren, has little accountability or detailed action items for the federal government, nor does it contain a funding allocation plan. Until a congressional bill funds actual solutions to the issue, nothing will change.

As most Native people know, it’s been a consequence-free open season on our women in this country for a long time. “The MMIW issue is older than America, but 243 years after the colonists’ Declaration of Independence we’re still waiting for the United States Government to address the epidemic,” Lynnette Grey Bull, senior vice president of the Global Indigenous Council, said in a recent press release for Four Directions.

The reality is that, for political candidates, denouncing violence against Native women is a convenient and easy way to take a stand. Indian Country and our collective plights of poverty and other ills are easy pickings for politicians looking for audience roars of support. Real solutions, however, lie a few giant steps upstream from our latest media-hyped “epidemic.”

“Let’s be honest, if the United States had honored their treaties as they were written years ago, we wouldn’t need their assistance,” OJ Semans of the Rosebud Sioux and co-executive director of Four Directions told Indian Country Today.

Article VI of the U.S. Constitution classifies treaties as the supreme law of the land. For Native peoples, this is no idle declaration.

Treaties obligate the United States to fund health care, education, and critical infrastructure in Indian Country; had these obligations been met adequately, it’s possible that issues such as entrenched poverty, high rates of violence against women, and other ills would not have grown to the terrible proportions we see now.

The U.S. Constitution also includes language recognizing the sovereign status of Native peoples. Article 1, section 8 vests the U.S. Congress with the authority to engage in agreements with tribes. And yet few people in the United States understand the relationship between the federal government and tribes is that of sovereign to sovereign nations.

An elder on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota once described to me his reaction to a non-Native co-worker who complained that treaty rights represented special rights. “I told him if your relatives had negotiated an agreement in which you and your family were promised things like health care, you’d have that document laminated and carry it around in your back pocket in case anyone questioned you,” he said.

“I told him treaties are legally binding agreements negotiated by my relatives,” he added.

Trahant of the Shoshone Bannock Nation and a longtime political wonk noted to me that political grandstanding aside, the presidential forum offers a precious opportunity to elevate Indian Country and our concerns within the national political discourse.

The U.S. people will be reminded that treaties aren’t ancient history, according to Trahant, who during our interview quoted the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black: “Great nations, like great men, should keep their word.”

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