2020 Democrats step up their courtship of Native American voters. Here’s why.

Ledyard King and Shelby Fleig

Christina Blackcloud remembers a childhood of running freely between her home on Iowa’s Meskwaki settlement to annual harvest-time celebrations across the street. She joined other kids playing in the water of the Iowa River, a longtime source of fresh fish for the state’s only federally recognized tribe.

The same river today is brown, murky and fenced off, she said. Blackcloud’s children and grandchild aren’t making the same memories on the land, she lamented. 

"Fossil fuels, pipelines, water quality, air quality – it all affects tribal people first because everything we do and believe is centered around nature," she said. "Everything we’re surrounded by is politics, whether or not we see it every day." 

Blackcloud, vice chair of the Iowa Democratic Party’s Native American caucus, said she’s “hopeful for change.” Presidential candidates visiting the settlement she grew up on are “showing they have an interest in tribal people's priorities,” she said. 

Democrats seeking the White House are starting to focus on issues facing Native Americans.

Native American voter turnout has ticked upward in the past several elections, and though they make up a small slice of the electorate, they overwhelmingly support Democrats. 

An increase in Native American voters in battleground states could overcome the support President Donald Trump won in Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and North Carolina, native activists said.

“You might think, well, 2% of the population, that’s not going to make a whole big difference for the president,” said U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., one of the first Native American women to serve in Congress. “The Indian vote is going to make a difference for various congresspeople across the country, for House and Senate seats across the states, for county commissions."

Oliver “OJ” Semans, an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, said it's long past time for candidates to engage directly with Native American people.

With that in mind, Semans' nonprofit Four Directions organized the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum to take place in Sioux City on Monday and Tuesday. Eight Democratic candidates committed to attend

The two-day forum will be the first to question presidential candidates exclusively on issues facing Native Americans.

“This forum is not a gotcha moment," Semans said. "It’s more like an educational forum. You don’t have to know a lot about us coming in, but at the end, you are going to have more information than the majority of Americans."

Iowa politics delivered to your inboxSubscribe to our free newsletter

The Native American electorate

Native Americans make up a small portion of the electorate. According to the 2010 Census, 5.2 million people identified as American Indian and Alaska Native alone, or in combination with at least one other race.

The majority vote Democratic, except in states where energy is a large focus of the regional economy, such as Alaska, North Dakota or Oklahoma. Support in those states tends to be more bipartisan. Oklahoma's Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt is a member of the Cherokee tribe; two of that state's U.S. House members, Republicans Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin, are also enrolled members. 

On the eve of the November 2018 midterms, Native Americans said in a national poll by Latino Decisions they planned to vote 61%-33% for Democratic U.S. House candidates. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The Native American vote could be a factor that tips the outcome in six states next year: Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina and Wisconsin. 

In those states, the number of eligible native voters exceeds the margin won by the victor in 2016. (Trump won four; former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won two.)

In a seventh, Colorado, the estimated number of native voters (130,796) will come close to matching the 136,386-vote margin Clinton carried in 2016.

Native Americans' traditional support of Democrats doesn’t automatically mean the party wields an advantage, said Laura Evans, a University of Washington professor who studies the relationship between tribes and the federal government.

“Native American voters need to be convinced about whether either party is going to truly serve their interests,” Evans said. “I think either party has to get out there and communicate their message.”

Native turnout expected to increase

Indian Country Today editor Mark Trahant said Native Americans make up an important share of voters in primary states, including Arizona, Nevada and Iowa, which holds the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Trahant said the Democratic candidates who could benefit most by robust native turnout are those whose home states have significant native populations, such as Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado.

After visiting the Meskwaki settlement, Sen. Bernie Sanders won 83.3% of the votes in the Indian Settlement precinct in the 2016 Iowa caucuses; Clinton won the county that is home to the settlement. 

In 2018, Native Americans made important political gains. That election saw the first two Native American women elected to Congress: Haaland and Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas – as well as the election of the highest-ranking native woman in executive office in U.S. history – Peggy Flanagan. Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, was elected lieutenant governor of Minnesota.

“Indians tend to vote in higher number in presidential election years anyway, and I think with the enthusiasm built in 2018, it probably will build on that,” Trahant said.

We explain the complicated issues ahead of the Iowa caucuses. Support the reporters who follow your government.​​​​​​​

Trump's record differs from Obama's on native issues

The Latino Decisions poll that found 2-to-1 support for Democrats among Native American midterm voters also found widespread displeasure with Trump. Two of three native voters said Trump's rhetoric and policies “will cause a major setback to the progress” made in recent years. 

Trump's 2016 election was preceded by a president who paid particular attention to tribal issues.

President Barack Obama, who was adopted by the Crow Tribe in Montana during the 2008 campaign, directed his administration to actively consult with the nation’s 573 federally recognized tribes.

The Obama White House held an annual conference in Washington where Native American leaders could air their concerns to federal policymakers. Although his administration had a mixed policy record, Obama was warmly viewed by many tribal leaders. 

Since he took office in 2017, Trump has reversed Obama administration decisions by approving the Keystone pipeline and Dakota Access Pipeline over objections from nearby tribes citing environmental and treaty concerns.

Trump offended Native Americans with his praise for Andrew Jackson, who led the slaughter of tribes as an American general and forcibly removed them from their lands as president, and with his “Pocahontas” nickname for 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who apologized this year after claiming Cherokee ancestry.

Haaland, who endorsed Warren, said tribal leaders she speaks to are “devastated” by the president’s behavior.

“They hate the rhetoric,” she said. “They are speaking up and saying, ‘We’re a community. We care about each other. We are not going to follow the example of our president.' ”

The fight for equal voting rights

Semans, the organizer of the Iowa forum, made it his mission to increase Native American participation in elections.

Twenty-two years ago, that meant meant paying counties to offer equal early voting for people living on South Dakota reservations. 

In 2000, South Dakotans living outside the Rosebud Indian or Pine Ridge reservations had 46 days to cast an early ballot, he explained. Those in majority-native counties had only one day. Four Directions raised $20,000 to pay Oglala Lakota County, then called Shannon County, to staff early voting sites in future elections.

OJ Semans, left, speaks with William Kindle about the Indian Health Service at the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Offices in South Dakota.

“And so we waited,” said Semans, who lives on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in Mission, South Dakota. “They did a little bit in 2002 ... 2004, they gave a few days; 2006 – nothing. We decided that enough's enough, and we filed a lawsuit against (Fall River County) and the (South Dakota) secretary of state.”

After settling out of court, the county set up a satellite office in the Pine Ridge reservation through an agreement that expired last year.

Semans’ daughter, Donna, said her parents roped her into the task of knocking on doors when she was a teenager in their effort to increase turnout, starting in 2000. 

“It’s been remarkable,” said Donna Semans, a grassroots organizer at Four Directions and enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, who lives in Provo, Utah. “I have to take a step back sometimes to process it all and how far we’ve come. Native voters never felt important enough, and now … the whole community has a different sense of being."

Unique challenges

As part of the forum, organizers hope presidential candidates will address issues specific to the native community, as well as issues that are dealt with more broadly as a society.

For instance, the U.S. opioid epidemic, caused in part by widespread increases in prescriptions of opioid medications, has taken a toll. The opioid-related overdose death rate among Native Americans slightly exceeds the national average, according to a report in 2016 from the Albuquerque Area Southwest Tribal Epidemiology Center

“The substance abuse crisis is a huge problem for Indian Country. Our area, without a doubt, is hit hard by it,” said W. Ron Allen, tribal chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe in Sequim, Washington, and former president of the National Congress of American Indians. 

Though issues related to substance abuse, health care, climate change and education are general, other crises uniquely affect indigenous communities.

The murder rate among native women in some counties comprised primarily of tribal lands is more than 10 times the national average, according to the Department of Justice. The DOJ's missing persons database includes only about 2% of the 5,712 reports of missing indigenous women and girls in 2016, according to a report this year by the Urban Indian Health Institute. 

Bullock brought up the epidemic of violence against native women in a short speech at the Meskwaki Powwow this month in Tama, Iowa. As governor of Montana, he signed a bipartisan bill this year to create a missing persons specialist role within the state DOJ. 

“No family should have to go for, at times, literally decades without justice being delivered," he said in Tama. 

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, right, speaks with Meskwaki tribal council chairman Anthony Waseskuk at the Meskwaki Powwow.

Meskwaki Tribal Chairman Anthony Waseskuk said Bullock's attention to the issue was a welcome departure from the numerous other visits by presidential hopefuls to the settlement. 

“(Candidates) seem to be more interested (in Native American issues) than they have been in the past, especially the issue of missing women, especially Native American women,” Waseskuk said. He noted a 41-year-old Meskwaki woman, Rita Papake, went missing in 2015. 

Some 2020 candidates have released proposals to combat some of these issues.

  • Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro unveiled a five-point plan to increase funding for the Indian Health Service and upgrade infrastructure on tribal lands, among other goals.
  • Author Marianne Williamson, attending the Meskwaki Powwow, said that if elected, she’d immediately remove the “insulting” portrait of Andrew Jackson from the Oval Office. 
  • Warren's plan, the longest of any she's released in her campaign, calls for economic development and improvements in access to health care.
  • Sanders, like Castro and Williamson, dedicates a section of his official website to Native American issues such as tribal sovereignty and historical racism.
Marianne Williamson speaks to the crowd at the Meskwaki Powwow near Tama, Iowa.

Semans hopes to highlight another subject uniquely damaging to the indigenous population: the 20 Medals of Honor awarded to the 7th Cavalry soldiers who killed more than 250 Native Americans, mostly women and children, at the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. Each candidate at the Iowa forum will be asked whether they would withdraw those medals, he said.

Blackcloud, the Meskwaki politician, said none of these issues would get national attention anytime soon if not for the forum. A fraction of the two dozen Democratic candidates committed to attend – though nearly all of them will attend a labor forum in central Iowa the following day. Despite that, she’s optimistic for what the forum means for the future.

“The forum could lead down the path where this is just a normal event you go to, that people will commit to in the future,” Blackcloud said. “I don't hold anything on any candidate not attending. But I would hope to expect that candidates start seeing this as important.”

Contributing: Ian Richardson, Des Moines Register


This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: 2020 Democrats: Native American voters wield increasing clout