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Native Americans host Aug. 19-20 presidential forum

By Starla Muhammad -Managing Editor- | Last updated: Aug 14, 2019 - 10:25:57 AM

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When political candidates outline campaign strategies and determine what demographic they consider a key voting bloc, Native Americans are seemingly an afterthought. But that is no longer the case. As the country approaches next year’s 2020 presidential election, Native communities are pushing to make their voices heard and candidates are paying attention.

(L) Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, D.C., held January 19. (R) OJ Semans of Four Directions

The Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum is the first of its kind and will focus entirely on the concerns of Native Americans. The gathering, organized by Native American organizations and leaders, will be held over two days at the Orpheum Theatre in Sioux City, Iowa, on Aug. 19-20.

Oliver “O.J. “Semans, is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (Sicangu Oyate) and is co-executive director of Four Directions, a nonpartisan Native American voting advocacy group. Four Directions is among several organizers of the forum, and it has not been an easy journey getting to this point, he told The Final Call. Mr. Semans and other Native leaders and groups have diligently worked since the early 2000s to get to the point where they have communicated with presidential candidates to talk about Native issues.

“We’ve always been working on moving equality in Indian country and it’s always been an issue where people would say, ‘Well, you guys need to participate in the electoral process.’ Well, we would look into it and would find out that it’s pretty hard to participate when there’s barriers in the way and they give people advantages in being able to vote,” said Mr. Semans. For Natives that live on reservations, polling places in some instances could be upward to 100 miles from the reservation in states like South Dakota. Mr. Semans and his wife Barb, also of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, have fought for voting rights legislation for Natives on reservations in Montana, South Dakota and Nevada, including for the establishment of satellite voting locations—sometimes through litigation—to make it easier for people from the reservation to travel and cast their ballots.

“We maintained constant pressure and as of the 2018 election we established 13 satellite offices on all the reservations in Montana. Then we went to Nevada and we ended up suing the state of Nevada and the end result is that we were able to establish two satellite offices and of those two satellite offices we increased voter turnout by 200-400 percent,” he said. With increased voter participation by Native Americans, candidates are starting to pay attention. More Natives have been elected to state legislatures, county commissions, school boards and other councils as the result of being more actively involved and engaged in the voting process, said Mr. Semans.

It was only because of all of those steps that began nearly two decades ago that Native Americans are finally able to accumulate some political power, he added.

For the 2020 election Four Directions began researching which battleground states had the highest concentration of Native Americans (Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Minnesota, North Carolina, Nevada and Colorado) and began contacting tribes and tribal organizations in those states to discuss partnering and coming to Sioux City where candidates would talk about Native issues.

“Housing, healthcare, infrastructure with respect to the general public is not the same as in Indian Country. It’s the same as talking to tribes because our funding and how we deal with our housing, education, infrastructure and housing is through our treaties and so it’s not the same as when they talk about healthcare for all,” explained Mr. Semans. Presidential candidates need to understand how tribes function under sovereignty and these treaties.

“Many of the candidates did not understand the difference between funding for housing through Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and how that funding is given to tribes under certain treaties. What we thought we would do is get a forum together to have tribal leaders talk to presidential candidates. Not throwing, ‘I got you’ questions like ‘I got you on this one.’ What we wanted to do is give them questions that would educate them on our treaties, on our sovereignty and on issues surrounding those treaties and sovereignty which is housing, infrastructure, healthcare,” said Mr. Semans. After working with the tribes and tribal leaders they began sending invitations to candidates to participate.

At Final Call presstime, several Democratic candidates confirmed participation including: Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Senators Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, Representative John Delaney, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, Mayor Bill DeBlasio and author Marianne Williamson. Mark Charles, a member of the Navajo Nation and running as an Independent candidate is also participating.

With the 2018 election of the first two Native American women to the U.S. House of Representatives (Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo from New Mexico, and Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation from Kansas, both Democrats) and Mr. Castro’s introduction of his People First Indigenous Communities Policy, their communities can no longer be ignored.

Presidential candidates should recognize the importance of Native Americans and the issues that are important to them, said activist YoNasDa Lonewolf, daughter of the late Oglala Sioux activist Wauneta Lonewolf. As the daughter of a Black man and Native American mother, Ms. Lonewolf navigates both worlds fighting for justice for both people. Native issues must be addressed, she argued.

“We are a nation within a nation. We are represented at the UN as a sovereign nation among other international countries and so U.S. presidents and whatever candidates should also keep that in mind. We have constantly been pushed back to the backburner,” she said.

The Declaration of Independence refers to Native Americans as “merciless Indian savages” and so there has to be reparations for Black, Native and Indigenous communities, explained Ms. Lonewolf, an organizer with the Indigenous Peoples Movement which grew out of the Indigenous Peoples March held Jan. 19 in Washington, D.C. The march drew participants from various Indigenous and Native tribes who marched to call attention to the continued obstacles their communities face nationwide and abroad.

The Indigenous Peoples Movement is launching a “Vote Indigenous 2020” campaign, said Ms. Lonewolf. All the candidates should ensure that the civil, human and environmental rights of Black, Brown and Native people are at the forefront, she said.

“My advice to all of the presidential candidates is that every single one of them, White, Black, Jewish—whatever you are, if you are not for the freedom, justice and equality of the Indigenous Original people which are Black, Brown and Native people then you shall not get our vote.”

Contrary to some reports, Native Americans have not been paid or given reparations by the U.S. government, she said. “There have been certain tribes that have sued corporations or certain parts of the U.S. government but suing in a lawsuit is not reparations,” said Ms. Lonewolf.

Prior to 1492 and contact with and invasion of Europeans to the Americas which brought disease, genocide and broken treaties, the Native population was exponentially higher than it is today. Prior to that date the population of Native Americans was estimated by some to be as high as 112 million. By 1650 that number declined to less than six million.

Today Native Americans/Alaskan Natives number around 4.5 million or around 1.5 percent of the U.S. population. There are 573 federally recognized tribes in 35 states in the U.S. There are a myriad of challenges facing Native American communities and forum organizers hope to pose several questions to candidates to hear specific policies to address their plights. Poverty, missing and murdered Indigenous women/girls, health disparities, environmental problems and suicide are just a few of the pressing problems Native Americans face on and off reservations.

In addition to Four Directions and Native Organizers Alliance hosting the forum, other Native American organizations are co-hosts, including: National Congress of American Indians, Native American Rights Fund, Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, Coalition of Large Tribes, Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes, and United South and Eastern Tribes. The two-day forum will be streamed live on Facebook.

“What’s makes this so great is the fact that for the first time, the first Americans actually get to talk to presidential candidates and about specific issues that affect Indian country throughout the United States,” said Mr. Semans. For more information, visit