Boozhoo! This past month, something very historic happened in Indian Country, which I want to focus on for this column. On August 19-20, the first-ever forum was held for Presidential candidates to focus exclusively on American Indian issues. The forum was held in Sioux City, Iowa, and named after Frank LaMere, a prominent Winnebago activist from Sioux City, Nebraska, which is just across the river from where the Forum was held. Frank LaMere passed away in June after a lifetime spent advancing American Indian causes, and he was active in elevating Indian issues within the Democratic Party.
Eleven candidates attended, including: Amy Klobuchar, our U.S. Senator from Minnesota; Independent Candidate Mark Charles, a citizen of the Navajo Nation; Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts; Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City; Bernie Sanders, U.S. Senator from Vermont; Kamala Harris, U.S. Senator from California; Joe Sestak, former U.S. Congressman from Pennsylvania; author Marianne Williamson; Steve Bullock, Governor of Montana; Julián Castro, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; John Delaney, a former U.S. Congressman from Maryland.
This was an amazing event. It was structured to provide each candidate with an hour of time to share their views on issues that impact Indian tribes and people. After each candidate provided a brief summary of their platform for how they would address Indian issues as President, a panel of tribal representatives asked questions which the candidate would then answer.
Several of the candidates did an outstanding job of addressing our issues. I was very impressed with how knowledgeable some of them were about topics in Indian Country that can be very complex. Matters such as dual taxation and jurisdictional disputes can be very difficult to understand, because they require knowledge of Supreme Court cases, Executive Orders, and legislation sometimes going back centuries. Several candidates demonstrated a strong grasp of federal-Indian law, which is good news.
I was honored to have the opportunity to introduce our own Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and serve on the panel which asked her questions. There is not enough space in this column to highlight all 11 candidates who spoke, but I do want to at least summarize Senator Klobuchar's comments since she is our sitting U.S. Senator from Minnesota, and she shared information about her positions on several critical issues that matter to tribes in Minnesota.
Senator Klobuchar provided an opening statement about her work championing key legislation such as Savanna's Act, which is a new law that requires the federal government to review, revise, and develop law enforcement and justice protocols to address missing and murdered Indigenous women. She also talked about the need for more support to construct new tribal schools, improve health care, and fight the opioid epidemic. She talked about the Violence Against Women Act and the need for more federal prosecution of violent crimes committed in Indian country. She also committed to upholding the government-to-government relationship and protecting treaty rights.
During her question and answer portion, Senator Klobuchar did a very good job addressing some complicated topics. She brought up the topic of wanting to undo, through legislation, the Supreme Court's decision in Carcieri v. Salazar, which was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States reversed federal policy regarding taking land into trust for Indian tribes. This was a terrible Supreme Court decision that has potential to cause a lot of damage. She also pledged to change taxation laws that harm tribal economic development, such as dual taxation, another complicated topic.
The biggest takeaway, from my perspective, is that there are numerous outstanding candidates running for President, and they very much want and need our vote. Thirty years ago, when I first became the Commissioner of Administration for the Mille Lacs Band, I don't recall any state or federal candidate courting the Indian vote. We were considered too small of a population with too little resources to make an impact. Things have dramatically changed over 30 years. We are now a force to be reckoned with, which is why 11 candidates running for President took time to participate in this forum to court the Native vote for the first time in history.
While the election is just over one year away, it is important for every Band member and Indian person in Minnesota to know right now how powerful your vote is for the 2020 election. The State of Minnesota is considered a "swing state”; although Hillary Clinton won Minnesota, the final vote tallies were exceptionally close. Hillary Clinton won 46.99 percent of the vote in Minnesota, and Donald Trump won 45.4 percent of the vote — a difference of only 1.5 percent. But as Indian people – we were 3.2 percent of the total vote in Minnesota in 2016.
The Indian vote in our state has the potential to make the difference between who wins Minnesota in 2020. There are seven swing states in total — Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and North Carolina — all of which have significant Indian voters who can make the difference in those states. If a candidate has a meaningful platform that respects tribal sovereignty and honors the treaty and trust responsibility for what we pre-paid, they could win each of these swing states and win the election.
I encourage all Band Members to start learning right now how the candidates stand on the issues, especially the candidates you are most attracted to. Study their Indian platform before you commit to supporting someone — several have come out with platforms and are available on-line. Once you have selected a candidate to get behind, try to get involved with the process, because as Indian people we do have a very important voice in the 2020 elections.
I want to extend my appreciation to all the Band members who traveled to Iowa to attend this event. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe was one of many sponsors for this Forum, and my office was able to sponsor a few youth to attend as well. As a final note, it is especially important that we hold whomever wins accountable for making good on their promises to Indian Country, if those promises would create positive change for our people. We have the power to make a difference in 2020! Miigwech!