Democratic candidates care about the Native vote now. But will they go back to ignoring us later?

Politicians before them have come to Indian country, taken what they wanted and then left. Let's not repeat that history.
Image: Democratic Presidential Candidates Attend Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum In Iowa
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum on Tuesday in Sioux City, Iowa.Stephen Maturen / Getty Images
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By Simon Moya-Smith

The Native American vote has never been particularly important to aspiring presidents or their big-time campaign runners — but of course they’ll never openly admit to this. Natives are, of course, the smallest racial minority in the United States; we account for a mere 1.3 percent of the entire American population. So the truth of the matter is that the Native vote isn’t as important electorally as, say, the African American vote or the Latino vote or the LGBTQ vote or the veterans vote, based on the numbers.

And that is not a sexy stat for voter-hungry campaign managers who need to maintain their reputation as political wizards who can drum up votes. So, naturally, it is extremely rare that Native Americans are included in big-time politics like a presidential election. (Though Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. — the leader of the pack of novel approaches — brought on two Native advisors in 2016 to court the Native vote and his wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, visited with Native communities fighting to keep oil and gas companies out of their sacred sites.)

Still, it would injure any politician in almost any race (outside of South Dakota) to admit that courting the Native vote is way down on their list of things to do, but the injury would be more like stubbing a toe than losing both legs. Presidential front-runners like Joe Biden, Sanders and even Sen, Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., (despite her awkward fumbles about her own claims of Native ancestry) can afford to stub a toe, but legs are imperative in any race, especially for underdogs like Beto O’Rourke, Julián Castro and Andrew Yang.

And so, suddenly, we Natives have some importance.

The Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa, this week was the first time there been a space and platform specifically made for presidential candidates to solely address Indian country — our concerns, our fights, our plight — and maybe even just look us in the eye for once.

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Politicians are seldom seen on reservations or in Native-dense neighborhoods anytime of the year, but here they were, ready to kiss Native babies for the cameras and dip donuts at the local eatery with the elders.

The roster of candidates at the forum included many of the faces vying for the Democratic nomination: In addition to Sanders, Castro and Warren, there was author and activist Marianne Williamson; former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kamala Harris of California; and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. It also included Mark Charles, a member of the Navajo Nation who announced on Memorial Day that he is running as an independent.

Castro, a first-time presidential candidate and former Housing and Urban Development secretary under President Barack Obama, told me during a phone interview Sunday that he doesn’t plan to make the same mistake as candidates of races past by ignoring Indian country.

“Native communities can make a difference in this election,” he said, “and we would be stupid to overlook that.”

Castro, who said he has a track record of working with Native communities as HUD secretary, added that, if elected president, he will work with all Natives and not just those who live on reservations, given that more than 70 percent of Natives today live in urban or suburban areas.

“Too often in our nation’s history, Native communities were treated as second-class or worse than that,” he said. “I want to make sure that when it comes to Native Americans that we don’t make the same mistakes that we have in the past, that we listen, we come with respect, we recognize the needs of the community and we actually act.”

And yet, despite promises like these from politicians, Natives are more likely to die at the hands of police than any other demographic. Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women of any other demographic. We are incarcerated 38 percent more than the national average. And, although Natives are routinely among the least healthy, with the least access to education and among the lowest life expectancies, at least until now, the issues that eat at our communities have largely gone ignored by the masses.

Still, make no mistake: Each of the non-Native candidates are courting the Native vote because of the stakes in the primary race and in the general election, not necessarily because of a genuine interest. These are desperate times and we, apparently, are among their desperate measures.

We can see this because Natives weren’t once mentioned during the last two Democratic primary debates. In fact, presidential candidates seldom include us in their talking points against racism and discrimination at all — but maybe after this forum, that will all change. Maybe every candidate (even the ones who decided not to attend the forum) will update the script about “diversity” that politicians and business types use when referring to people of color, and that routinely fails to name Natives as a minority but relegates us to the category of “other.”

Imagine that: Human history began on this continent with us, with this land’s indigenous peoples, and we’re still just the “other.”

It’s not the only way that Natives are rhetorically erased. Politicians like to say that we are a nation of immigrants, which is absolutely false. We are a nation of immigrants and indigenous peoples and people who were brought here against their will. To say otherwise is fiction, a convenient one that scrubs America’s story clean of its forefathers’ sins.

So now that the Democrats care enough to talk to us, one thing is clear: It took the threat of this petulant president being re-elected for them to come. We just hope that they will do the opposite of what politicians have done before them — which was to come to Indian country, take what they wanted and then leave. There is no need for Democrats to repeat history when the president is making sure there’s enough of that going on already.