The Democratic Party has been slowly building a base to woo the “Indian vote” by appearing to care about the issues and concerns of Native People and Indian Country. President Obama has been the most pro-Native president in U.S. history. Sadly though, that doesn’t mean much when one takes into account the United States government’s treatment of Native People. This year’s Democratic National Convention had a relatively large Native presence: two Native Caucuses, Delegates, participants, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma’s hospitality tent, and only one Native speaker on the main stage — Minnesota State Representative Peggy Flanagan of the White Earth Nation. This year has also brought the strongest party platform so far on Indigenous concerns. The 2012 party platform did address Native People, but it only had two short paragraphs. With the exception of the last sentence, the entire section spoke about what had been previously been accomplished rather than what the party’s goals were for advancing Native rights and tribal sovereignty. Given that the purpose of a party platform is to outline the objectives of the next four years, should the party win the Presidential election, the fact that the 2012 platform consisted almost entirely of what had been accomplished rather than what they hoped to accomplish spoke volumes. The 2016 platform is the first that was drafted by a Native Person, and the first to ever address the current issues we’re facing and some of the practical solutions that the party could take in order to mitigate those issues. However, the truth is that the Democratic Presidential Nominee, Hillary Clinton, isn’t supportive of Native communities, and neither is the party’s platform.
The 2016 Democratic Party Platform is a national document that is intended to guide the party, its members, elected officials, and hopefully the next Democratic President’s administration for the upcoming four years. While on the surface, the 2016 platform inspires hope in many Native People, there is a great deal of work to be done in order to get both the party and Secretary Clinton and her potential administration to even acknowledge the concerns of Indian Country.
The two-page Honoring Indigenous Tribal Nations section was written by Deborah Parker of the Tulalip Tribes. Ms. Parker served as the Legislative Policy Analyst in the U.S. Office of Governmental Affairs for the Tulalip Tribes from 2005-2012, was a Vice Chairwoman for Tulalip Tribes, and the only person in the U.S. who was a drafter on the party platform, voted on the platform, and elected as national delegate. She was also the only Indigenous person on the platform committee and was appointed by then-Democratic Presidential Candidate, Senator Sanders.
Ms. Parker described in an interview with me the tumultuous relationship she had with the committee members from the DNC and Secretary Clinton platform committee representatives, as well as the difficulties she experienced in trying to add any language surrounding the rights of Native People. The DNC rewrote Ms. Parker’s original words because “there was too much language in it on sovereignty.” “I was really upset with the rewrite,” Ms. Parker told me. “I submitted a full two-pager because I was really disappointed with the lack of wanting to work on the tribal nations section. I was told by the Hillary campaign (representative) that ‘I just doesn’t understand sovereignty so we’ll come back to it… There were a couple of days of hard feelings.”
At one point the DNC and Clinton representatives, which Ms. Parker refers to as “one in the same,” weren’t going to include anything in regards to Native People in the party platform. “I was angry. I was just devastated… No you’re not, no you’re not going to do this to Native Americans. You’re not going to further marginalize my people any longer,” Ms. Parker said to me.
It was Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) that tipped the scales and voted for the tribal nations language. With the DNC platform committee members voting for this language, the Hillary team had to follow suit.
While Ms. Parker’s work on behalf of Indigenous People in the U.S. and across the globe is admirable, there is language in the platform that non-Native Democrats can use to their nefarious advantage. Particularly troubling is specific wording in the the pledge to “fulfill, honor, and strengthen to the highest extent possible in the United States’ fundamental trust responsibility, grounded in the Constitution, treaties, and case law to American Indian and Alaska Native tribes.” As Native Nations have seen throughout history, including right now with the Dakota Access Pipeline, the U.S. government has repeatedly not honored the treaties. The courts have repeatedly ruled against Native People and Nations since the creation of America. Once again, this can be seen throughout the many judicial rulings in the DAPL case. The United States’ Constitution was created with the express purpose of building an empire on our land by any means necessary, including theft, trickery, slavery, war, rape, and genocide. The “highest extent possible” is an easy out for a political party and a candidate who have shown little interest in advancing the rights of Native People. For Clinton and other settlers, the “highest extent possible” will most likely mean “when it suits us.”
In fact, Secretary Clinton has remained publicly silent on the issue of the DAPL and other pipelines. However, Democracy Now is reporting that she said in 2015 that anti-fracking and Keystone XL pipeline environmentalists “should get a life.” Ms. Parker told me in regards to stronger environmental protections in the platform that the Bernie representatives wanted a ban on fracking, but the DNC and Hillary reps wouldn’t support it. “They cited that there were corporations that could lose out on this… We wanted to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline and all the other pipelines, but again that was difficult to pass through the Hillary team and the Democratic Party.”
So what would a stronger platform look like? Chase Iron Eyes, Democratic Congressional Candidate in North Dakota and from the Standing Rock Reservation told me that “we should honor the tribal nations’ right to free, prior, and informed consent. But most importantly we should be trying to figure out a different land ownership solution, because right now the federal government owns the land and holds it in trust on behalf of tribal nations so tribal nations are economically hindered from providing for themselves and from pulling themselves out of poverty.” By doing this it would allow “tribal nations to own titles in their own names… so they could establish free trade zones, or benefit from taxation incentives, and just control their own destiny.”
Missing from the platform section on sexual assault was the devastatingly high rates of sexual assault, kidnapping, sexual trafficking, and murder that Native Women suffer, and how tribal nations’ lack of jurisdiction over the perpetrators. More than four in five (84.3%) of Native Women have been abused in our lifetimes. On some reservations, the murder rate of Native Women is 10 times the national average. Meanwhile, 96% of the predators that prey upon us are non-Native. The party and its leaders have finally begun to address campus sexual assault, but when we consider that only 18.5% of Native people even have a Bachelor’s Degree — another issue that needs to be addressed — sexual assault on college campuses isn’t our community’s primary concern. Our women are trying to just make it through each day alive. It’s time for a widespread national conversation and movement to end violence against Native Woman.
In order to advance the rights of Indigenous People, Natives need to take an active leadership role at all levels of U.S. government. The party must commit to supporting and increasing the numbers of Native Women, People, and LGTBT/Two Spirit identified Natives in leadership roles within the party as well as those that are appointed to and running for elected office, including judicial appointments. This can occur with a commitment to increase the number of Native People in party committee seats, leadership roles, and as Delegates for both the Democratic State Parties and National Conventions. Every Democratic State Committee should also have a fully funded and operated Native Affairs Committee, which many do not currently have. The state committees need to draft and pass a pro-Native platform led by local Native leadership. The party also needs to fiscally support its Native members. Because the poverty rate for Native People is 80% higher than the general population, it is much more difficult for us to take part in political activities, such as conventions where delegates must usually pay a delegate fee and their travel accommodations. In order to have political parity, there must be financial equity so that Native People may participate in party activities.
Simply vocalizing our concerns to non-Native politicians in a system that wasn’t created for us isn’t enough for us to be heard. We must be more than disgruntled voters or happy with the few meager crumbs that the powers that be deign to throw our way. This year’s Democratic National Convention, Platform, and candidate Hillary Clinton are proof of that. This land is ours and it’s our right to self-govern and determine our destiny. The Democratic Party owes us a great deal more than to have those that speak for the candidate for the highest position in the land tell us that they don’t understand sovereignty and they’ll get back to us. All that the Democrats and Secretary Clinton has came at our expense, and it’s time to demand what’s rightfully ours. If the Democratic Party wants this Tsalagi Woman, and once-faithful Democrat, to come back into the fold then they have a lot of work to do.