Above photo: Four Native American delegates present their state delegate totals at the Democratic National Convention on August 18, 2020. Clockwise from top left: Chuck Degnan, Derrick Lente, Kellen Returns From Scout and Cesar Alvarez. DNC / INDIANZ.COM VIA YOUTUBE.
This year’s Democratic National Convention (DNC) has had more Native representation than any other in the party’s history.
Native delegates were included in the opening roll call, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez was one of 17 opening keynote speakers, and two Native American Caucus meetings held on August 18 and 20 featured rising stars in the party, like Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan (White Earth Ojibwe), the first ever Native woman elected to the House of Representatives, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) and Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk), who has also been celebrated as the first openly LGBTQ woman elected to Congress from Kansas.
“There are so many times I’ve been the only Native American in the room, but not this time,” Haaland said during Tuesday’s caucus meeting.
The Democratic Party may be beginning to accept that it resides on Native land and can no longer ignore the original peoples. “Just seeing our Native folks stepping up … I’m looking forward to when we have more Native women serving in the House and the Senate…. We’re happy to be the first, but we won’t be the last,” said Davids.
“Native women have been leaders since time immemorial and it’s just the rest of the country catching up to us,” said Flanagan. Despite these advances, she also said, “When I walk into the capitol in Minnesota, I take two breaths. The first breath is a deep breath to acknowledge the responsibility of being in this role. The second breath is a breath of protection, knowing that I’m walking into a building and an institution that wasn’t created by us or for us, but in many ways was created to eliminate us.”
While American Indian and Alaskan Natives represent less than 2 percent of the total U.S. population, the community is a strong voting base that could determine elections. “Arizona, Florida and Minnesota are going to come down to just a couple hundred votes,” said Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, chairman of the Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples. “Our tribal leaders will make a difference.”
Empowering Native voters and ending their disenfranchisement appears to be more of a priority for the caucus and Democratic Party than it has been in previous election cycles. A panel featuring Indigenous youth, moderated by Idaho senatorial candidate Paulette Jordan (Coeur d’Alene), centered on getting out the Native youth vote, which is of particular importance as approximately 42 percent of the American Indian and Alaskan Native community is age 24 or younger.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday that the “Native American vote will make the difference, especially the Native American youth vote.”
Sam Lopez (Tohono O’odham) affirmed that Native youth have a significant role to play in helping to decide the election, but many need resources like education on the voting process and transportation to the polls.
One of the most controversial participants was Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who spoke during the caucus despite her years of unfounded appropriation of the Cherokee and Delaware nations. Caucus Chair Rion Ramirez (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians) introduced Warren as a “champion for Indian Country,” despite the fact that Warren has yet to right the wrongs she committed by falsely claiming Cherokee and Delaware ancestry.
Given many Native grassroots activists’ continued frustration with Warren over this issue, her inclusion on Tuesday shows an insensitivity within the party to ongoing critiques of Warren and how her ways of talking about Native identity have been “highly destructive to Native people.”
It remains to be seen whether the Democratic Party is ready to take substantive steps — steps that go beyond embracing more Native representation — in order to confront its racist and colonizing history and present.
The various caucus meeting speakers repeatedly stated that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be good for Indian Country. Some Native people are skeptical, though. Harris has a record of going against the sovereign interests of California tribal nations. Many Native people haven’t forgotten the broken promises made by the Obama-Biden administration. Not only did the administration advance the Keystone XL Pipeline, but it also sat silently for months as Native people, accomplices and media were arrested, brutalized, and physically and sexually assaulted while trying to defeat the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). There are still Native people, such as Red Fawn Fallis, who are serving time for resisting DAPL. Tuesday’s caucus meeting even included the song “Stand Up/Stand N Rock” in a get-out-the vote video, as if to erase the Democratic Party’s significant role in DAPL.
Tuesday’s meeting also included former Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault, who served during the NoDAPL resistance, on a panel for environmental justice in Indian Country. All the panelists claimed Biden is good for the environment and Indian Country. However, in the past, Biden has supported fracking and the use of gas as a clean-burning fuel, a fact that scientists and environmental organizers have repeatedly disputed. The Democratic Party also dropped from its platform the proposal to end tax incentives for fossil fuels.
However, Thursday’s caucus meeting did address a number of issues important to Native communities. The meeting featured a number of non-Native speakers, such as Van Jones, Mark Ruffalo, California Rep. Barbara Lee and Dr. Jill Biden. This suggests the party has realized the importance of not only the Native vote but also coalition work.
The devastating impact COVID-19 has had on American Indian and Alaskan Native communities was a topic of discussion, as was funding for Indian Health Services and infrastructure to ensure access to clean water and high-speed broadband. The devastating impact of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls was also discussed, with Nevada Sen. Catherine Marie Cortez Masto saying, “Too many of our Indigenous women and girls are murdered and missing and we don’t have the data or the resources.”
There is a dire lack of data on how many Indigenous women and girls, Two Spirits included, are missing and murdered. The resources to tackle this problem have been greatly denied to Indian Country. Indigenous women are being murdered and going missing for many reasons, including a complex rubric of policy and Supreme Court case law that has effectively tied the hands of tribal government to protect their people while the U.S. has essentially given a free for all to all non-Natives to commit violence on our lands.
Masto continued that she was pleased to partner with former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Savanna’s Act, which would give resources to law enforcement and tribal nations to combat this violence. However, those in Indian Country know that the man camps that resource extraction brings to our lands play a large role in this crisis. These projects bring a transient workforce of overwhelmingly non-Native cisgender men to Native lands who then often take part in the sex trafficking and violence against Native womxn and people. The rates of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls are higher near the man camps. Both Heitkamp and Murkowski support resource extraction. Heitkamp even supported DAPL. This suggests that the party still hasn’t come to terms with the role it has played in this genocide.
Many of the caucus speakers urged watchers to vote for Biden because he’ll stand with Indigenous communities in the fight to end the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. (Accusations of sexually predatory behavior against Biden, including sexual assault, went unaddressed.)
Missing from the caucus meetings, and the convention as a whole, was the topic of police violence against American Indian and Alaskan Native people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that American Indian and Alaskan Native people suffer the highest rates per capita of police violence.
Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer directly responsible for George Floyd’s murder, was also one of five officers placed on a three-day leave after having been involved in an incident in which another officer shot an Alaskan Native man.
The American Indian Movement, an influential grassroots organization founded in 1968, was created in response to the police violence that American Indian and Alaskan Native Minneapolis residents suffered. Ignoring Biden and Harris’s stance on law enforcement is a move that could hurt the party with further left and frontline Indigenous voters who are all too familiar with the other end of a police baton or the feeling of gas hitting their lungs.
The Democratic Party appears to be amping up its efforts to get the Native vote. Whether it will be able to persuade Native people to turn out en masse for Biden and Harris remains to be seen.
Jen Deerinwater is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, bisexual, Two Spirit, multiply-disabled journalist, speaker and organizer who covers the issues hir communities face with an intersectional lens. She’s a contributor at Truthout and founding executive director of Crushing Colonialism. Jen is the co-editor of Sacred and Subversive and hir work is included in the anthologies Disability Visibility and Two-Spirits Belong Here. Jen has been interviewed for numerous outlets on hir work and The Advocate named hir a 2019 Champion of Pride. Follow Jen’s musings and soapbox rants on Facebook, Twitter and Insta