fb-pixel Skip to main content

It may have taken a couple of hundred years, but at long last some presidential contenders have “discovered” the potential political power of Native Americans — and the issues they want addressed. And no, it’s not just because of the brouhaha over Elizabeth Warren’s DNA.

Nearly a dozen Democratic presidential contenders showed up in Sioux City, Iowa, this week for a first-ever forum sponsored by the Native American Rights Fund (all candidates were invited, but there were no Republican takers).

Now, the fact that the forum was in the first presidential caucus state didn’t hurt attendance. But neither did the fact that this small part of the population (2 percent) could wield some influence in such key battleground states as Arizona, Minnesota, Nevada, and Wisconsin.


That President Trump repeatedly disparages Warren as “Pocahontas” has ironically succeeded in making Native American issues more visible — and that’s not a bad thing either.

Warren’s relationship with Native Americans — to whom she has apologized for overstating her Cherokee heritage — remains contentious. She apologized one more time at the forum Monday saying, “I know that I have made mistakes. I am sorry for harm I have caused. I have listened, and I have learned, a lot.”

And to get beyond DNA, the Massachusetts senator, whose 2020 presidential campaign has focused on dozens of detailed policy plans rolled out on a weekly basis, first announced her plan for improving the lives of Native Americans in a 9,000 word posting on Medium in advance of her Monday speech.

She proposed increased funding for Urban Indian Health Programs, targeted affordable housing programs, and a grant program to bring wider broadband access to tribal lands.

A number of her proposals are aimed at addressing the virtual epidemic in missing and murdered indigenous women. The murder rate among Native American women in some counties made up largely of tribal lands is more than 10 times the national average, according to the Department of Justice. The Urban Indian Health Institute issued a report earlier this year that found DOJ’s missing persons database includes only about 2 percent of the 5,712 reports of missing indigenous women and girls in 2016.


Warren’s multi-pronged solution includes a special alert system, modeled on Amber Alert, to be funded by DOJ, a single database to include women categorized as “missing,” and the appointment of a special cold-case task force for serious crimes committed on tribal lands.

Among other Democratic contenders with detailed policy proposals on Native American issues is Julián Castro, whose website details a five-point plan that includes a number of proposals on self-governance for tribal lands, along with housing, education, and medical programs. His is the only other program that would rival Warren’s on addressing the issue of missing and murdered women, including support for three already filed bills aimed at combatting domestic abuse, trafficking, and the missing.

Governor Steve Bullock of Montana this week received the endorsement the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, representing tribes in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, in large part because of his work with those tribal governments. He has also signed a bill creating a missing persons specialist within the state’s Department of Justice aimed at addressing the problem on tribal lands.


Senator Bernie Sanders, who did well in the 2016 Iowa caucuses (just a fraction behind Hillary Clinton), spent some time that year visiting the Meskwaki settlement and won 83 percent of their votes for his efforts. He did put in an appearance at the Sioux City event Tuesday, but his website devotes scant attention to Native American affairs apart from a pledge to “protect their treaty and sovereign rights,” and to reauthorize and expand the Violence Against Women Act.

Of course, when it comes to policy wonkiness, it’s hard to beat Warren — and Sanders doesn’t come close to her level of detail. But it’s actually Castro, who introduced his policy a month ago, who shines on addressing the needs of Native Americans. He deserves credit not simply for being first, but in many instances for zeroing in on the art of the possible — bills already on the congressional radar screen.

The key questions on this, as on most issues that will surface during this campaign, is who will remember their promises? And who will be willing to expend political capital to keep them? There’s no policy paper or website that can tell us that.