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Why Native populations are attracting new attention in 2020 presidential race

Native Americans received more attention from presidential candidates this week than in previous years. Nine 2020 Democratic hopefuls attended a forum in Sioux City, Iowa, to discuss U.S. treaty obligations to Native people, the epidemic of violence against Native women, health care and more. Lisa Desjardins reports and talks to Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today and the event moderator.

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  • William Brangham:

    This week, Native American voters got more attention from political candidates than they have in years.

    Our Lisa Desjardins has more on the presidential forum which drew those candidates and the issues that matter most to Native voters.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    First, a reminder about this country's Native population. As many know, it is most concentrated in Western areas, but is present in every part of the country, including large cities.

    Less well-known the fact that Indian reservations and Alaska Native villages make up more than 100 million acres across the country. On its own, that would be the fourth largest state.

    At the same time, Native Americans also face the highest poverty rate in this country, more than 20 percent.

    So there was much to discuss when nine Democrats vying to be president spoke at this week's forum on Native American issues in Sioux City, Iowa, from the candidates and rising Native American leaders.

  • Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M.:

    The epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women has been a silent crisis for far too long.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    We need to honor our trust and treaty obligations to the Native tribes.

  • Julian Castro:

    In every single classroom in America, we need to be teaching about Native history.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I'm joined now by Mark Trahant. He moderated that presidential forum and is the editor of Indian Country Today, a newspaper that is now owned by the National Congress of American Indians.

    Mark, you were the emcee. From where you sat, what stood out at this forum?

  • Mark Trahant:

    I think the main takeaway is that there are so many issues that just don't get into the public discourse that really ought to.

    These are stories that would benefit all Americans to be able to understand and appreciate not just the history, but the context of today.

    One example would be, one of the issues that all of the candidates addressed was that of honors of medal given to those massacred people at Wounded Knee. Every candidate said they would like to have those medals revoked.

    But that's not a story that is often out there in the public discourse.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I know there is actually legislation in Congress about that as well that just a few representatives have entered.

    I'm wondering, what issues do you think matter most to Native Americans right now?

  • Mark Trahant:

    The very first one that came up again every time is treaty rights.

    Under the Constitution, treaties are the supreme law of the land. Yet, often, those treaties aren't funded, they're not executed the way that tribes would like to see it. One part, for example, would be every — nearly every treaty talks about health care. And yet the Indian Health Service, and — the system is completely underfunded.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And this leaves, I know, large gaps every year for I think it's something like the 40 to 50 percent of Natives who depend on that system.

    Another issue that I know we mentioned, of course, is violence, and that the rates of violence for Native people is much higher than the rest of Americans, especially indigenous women. Part of that issue is the bureaucracy, the fact that federal prosecutors oversee most major crime in Indian country, yet they don't really spend time in Indian country.

    How do you think — or what proposals are out there to try and fix that incredibly high violence rate?

  • Mark Trahant:

    One of the candidates, Elizabeth Warren, came straight out and said that the Oliphant decision, which was a Supreme Court decision that said tribes could not prosecute non-Indians, should be reversed legislatively.

    And that would give tribes the right to prosecute for all crimes on reservations. In fact, another candidate said that it's the same when you're traveling throughout Europe. Each government has jurisdiction. And he said it should be the same for tribal governments.

    So that'd be a very simple fix, to let tribes do that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Something else to ask you about is the courts that you raised.

    How important are federal courts right now in terms of rights and also regulation affecting Indian country?

  • Mark Trahant:

    Well, the federal court system has an enormous amount of influence in Indian country, because so many of the laws are federal laws.

    And yet, out of 3,600 Article III judges, there's only one Native American district court judge, Diane Humetewa in Arizona. And one out of 3,600 seems a little bit absurd in a country like this.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I'm curious. This forum represented also something significant. Tell me about how many candidates have shown up in the past.

    And what other bright spots do you see for our indigenous population politically?

  • Mark Trahant:

    There's only been one other presidential forum like this. It was 12 years ago. And I actually was the moderator of that one as well.

    And that one only had three candidates, Governor Bill Richardson, Representative Dennis Kucinich, and Senator — former Senator Mike Gravel.

    And this one is elevated substantially with major candidates being involved. And I think what's important about that is, it brings life to these issues that just don't get the attention normally in the media.

    One of the funny things about the change with the election last time of Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids to the Congress is that Congress now has a better record than media in terms of representation, actually by about double.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But it's still not proportional, right? There are now, I think, four Native Americans in Congress?

  • Mark Trahant:

    Right. Proportional would be at least seven in the House and two in the Senate. So there remains a long way to go.

    There's actually a really interesting development just this week on that. And this goes back to the idea of treaty rights.

    Several treaties actually have a delegate to Congress as part of the provision. And the Cherokee Nation has appointed a delegate and said it would like to exercise that treaty right and send a delegate to the Congress.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I'm going to be watching that, as will we all.

    Mark Trahant from Indian Country Today, thank you so much for joining us.

  • Mark Trahant:

    Thank you, Lisa.

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