During the 2008 presidential election, I was excited to have a sticker that read “First Americans for Obama”—just happy to have been remembered enough for such a sticker to exist. In 2015, we had another political milestone: Bernie Sanders’ campaign released an online ad directed at Native people. But 2019 brought unparalleled recognition of Indigenous voters, via the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum.
Held in Sioux City, Iowa, on August 19 and 20, the forum boasted an opportunity for presidential candidates to answer questions about their experience working with Native people and propose policies for Indian Country. Most democratic candidates were in attendance. (The current frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden, chose not to attend—clearly signaling his priorities.) Bernie Sanders, who has been popular with Indigenous voters since 2016, received a standing ovation upon his introduction. But Elizabeth Warren seemed to draw the most attention; her controversial history involving Native people had many watching how she would be received.
Warren opened her time slot of the forum with an apology, recognizing that she had caused harm, and promised to continue learning. After making claims of Cherokee ancestry early in her career, Warren faced criticism from Republicans and Native people. Then, rather than recognizing that her family's stories were part of a common trope, she instead doubled down and took a DNA test, conflating having a distant ancestor with Indigenous citizenship.
Despite her past hiccups and poor attempts to defend them, Warren emerged as a favorite among Native voters at the forum.That’s because her policies are actually good. After her endorsement from Native Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D, New Mexico), Warren teamed up with Haaland to release a bold multi-point plan on August 16 called Honoring Promises, which proposes ways to significantly improve criminal justice, public safety, education, healthcare, housing, and economic development in Indian Country. For the Native community, it feels like a dream: Many of the proposals in the sweeping plan would have been considered hopelessly idealistic only a few years ago.
Given the chronic underfunding of the Indian Health Service (IHS) and resulting health outcomes for Native people, it’s apt that healthcare makes up a significant portion of the platform. Warren’s plan is to make funding for tribal programs and healthcare mandatory, saving it from future political quarrels. “It is required in order to fulfill the United States’ trust and treaty obligations,” the plan reads. Acknowledging the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution and the responsibilities of the federal government should not be considered remarkable or controversial. But the reality is that, having a president who recognizes the rent that the U.S. must pay to occupy these lands would be a big deal—and a huge win for Native people.
Warren has also highlighted that some of her broader policy proposals could be particularly beneficial for Native people—especially Medicare for All. Natives can currently access affordable healthcare at IHS facilities, but the services and quality are limited. For the 20 percent of Indian people navigating health conditions without insurance, moving away from reservations can mean choosing between bankruptcy and death. Given that healthcare is a treaty right, it should not be dependent on staying on reservations. Warren’s plan points this out, noting that Medicare for All would allow all Native people to seek care outside of IHS.
Warren's plan also outlines planks to solve the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) crisis. Given the growing awareness, policymakers at the state and national level are advocating for Amber Alert-style alarms and databases that would track missing persons cases. Those important components are included in Warren’s proposal, but she also goes further, promising to fix critical jurisdictional limitations as well. The case of Oliphant v. Suquamish ruled that tribal nations had no authority to prosecute non-Natives who commit crimes within their boundaries. Warren’s plan notes that this ruling “has created an atmosphere of impunity that feeds our missing and murdered indigenous women crisis” because “State and federal authorities often decline to prosecute crimes committed by non-Native people on Tribal lands, allowing potential perpetrators to escape accountability.”
While the latest implemented version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) expanded tribal jurisdiction, it still contains loopholes. Warren supports a full reversal of the Oliphant decision, allowing tribal nations to charge criminals on their land. In practice, this would reduce dangerous offenders and send the signal that those who target Native women will be brought to justice.
Warren’s team knows their candidate excels at policy and emphasizes it at every chance. And the strategy appears to be helping her reach Native communities. But many are still disappointed with how she chose to address her claims of Cherokee heritage—and the fact that she claimed it in the first place. As many, including myself, have pointed out, Indigenous identity cannot be measured by a DNA test.
While Senator Warren admitted that doubling down on her ancestry claims was wrong, both her opponents and supporters continue to use it as fodder. The president and his supporters taunt her with the name “Pocahontas,” a slur based on the nickname of a teenaged rape victim. Then her supporters retaliate by calling the president “Brokeahontas” and attacking Native people who challenge Warren’s claims. Hearing such slurs and ignorant puns does little to harm Warren, and instead perpetuates stereotypes and detracts from the real issues that Native people face. The current election cycle forces us to consider how a particular candidacy could subject us to racism every time we turn on the news.
Now, Native people have to choose whether Warren’s policies are worth the racist jabs that follow her candidacy. Though it’s unlikely that it will stop, I hope the rhetoric slows enough to allow Native voters to make a primary choice based on policy proposals instead of heightened emotions.
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