On Aug. 19 and 20, a group based on the Rosebud Sioux reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, sponsored the nation’s first major presidential forum focused on native American issues. The debate, named the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum, honors a local man who fought successfully to close down the liquor stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska that borders the reservation.
The ten Democratic presidential candidates who participated in the forum, included Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, Marianne Williamson, John Delaney, Steve Bullock, Joe Sestak, Julian Castro, Bill DeBlasio and Amy Klobuchar, in addition to Mark Charles, a member of the Navajo, or Dine, Nation running as an independent. Republican candidates were invited but did not attend. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Tulsi Gabbard sent regrets.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with O.J. Semans, co-director of Four Directions, the group sponsoring the forum. Here, he talks about the importance of indigenous votes in the battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – and described some of the salient issues the indigenous questioners at the forum asked candidates to address.
OJ SEMANS: In July, the middle part of July, we didn’t have one candidate. What are we going to do? So what we started doing is putting out there more and more that there are seven battleground states, and we checked the populations and in each instance we had a high population of Native Americans in each state that would actually equal or exceed the amount of votes that either candidate won. So we started emphasizing the importance of the native vote in those battleground states. What was so funny, we looked it up and we had 77 electoral votes [in those states]. That became our message: 7 states, 77 electoral votes. We kept pushing it, pushing it.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Who came up with the questions?
OJ SEMANS: Well, first of all what Four Directions did is we set the boundaries of what the questions would actually consist of. We made it so that the questions would all surround treaties and sovereignty. We were able to get a panel of other Native Americans to sit down and start writing down different questions. In order to get the candidates on board, we began working with the National Congress of American Indians. They have basically, throughout the years, developed Indian Country 101, that covers all issues that have been presented by tribes throughout the years that have always been problems they wanted answers on. We provided them [candidates] with the Indian Country 101 as a general learning curve for them to prepare for the questions that were going to be asked. There were only two questions that the candidates knew exactly what the questions were going to be. That was the Remove the Stain Act, which was the legislation we had passed to remove the medals from soldiers that committed murder at the Massacre of Wounded Knee. And the second question they knew that was going to be asked dealt with murdered and missing indigenous women and children.
BETWEEN THE LINES: I know there has been a lot of opposition to oil pipelines in Indian Country. Was there a question about that?
OJ SEMANS: Yeah, it was basically a general question about pipelines. But the ones that were key that are happening right now are the Keystone KXL pipeline, and the Sandstone pipeline going through Minnesota. So, although it was a general question about pipelines, it narrowed down to the ones we are fighting in federal court right now and in other ways.
BETWEEN THE LINES: What other questions were asked?
OJ SEMANS: Sure. A big one had to do with housing. The other one that was major was transportation, or infrastructure, because our roads have been washed out and we’ve had tribal members killed because of bad roads. We talked about the opioid crisis and what they plan on doing about it. Health care was another big one. Every year, we have to seek appropriations to keep our hospitals open, so we were pushing for a permanent funding source where we wouldn’t have to seek appropriations every year for the Indian Health Services.
BETWEEN THE LINES: OJ Semans, do you consider the forum a success?
OJ SEMANS: Oh, above and beyond. We got equality just like non-Indians get of having our voices and issues heard, and that was important because we have never been in the conversation with any candidate. We’ve watched the debates and then meeting with other organizations and stuff, and through all that not one question was asked about Native Americans. So I’m really curious to see, during the next debate, if they’re actually going to include a question on Native Americans. And if they do that, we’ve had better success than we thought.
For more information, visit Four Directions at fourdirectionsvote.com.