Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

Clinton’s big night: Winning New Jersey, South Dakota, New Mexico, California, and most likely, the nomination. (Campaign photo by Elizabeth Chen.)


And one important lesson for Indian Country

Mark Trahant / TrahantReports
There are three lessons that the Hillary Clinton campaign could learn from team Bernie Sanders. And there is one critical lesson from Clinton that could help Indian Country win more elections. 

A little background first.

I have been writing about political campaigns for forty-plus years. I’ve seen an evolution in how presidential candidates reach out to Indian Country.

Early on the connection with Indian Country was mostly seen as a constituent service. Candidates visited. Showed their face. Even said vote for me. Many even published nifty policy papers written by folks who work every day on Native issues. But there was no real connection.

My first experience with that was in 1976 at a press conference with the new President-elect Jimmy Carter. At a press conference I asked him how reserved tribal water rights would fit into a Carter water policy? He looked at me and then said that was a question for the Interior Secretary. Next.

That started to change when Jesse Jackson ran for president. I remember him walking into the Navajo Nation Council and he wasn’t just there. He was present. The response from the tribal delegates was just as real and emotional. There was a connection.

Barack Obama did Jackson one better when he campaigned on the Crow Nation in May of 2008. And that connection paid off: Obama has had one of the most successful presidencies in history and that’s especially true when it measure what has occurred in the area of Native American policy. 

Has it been a perfect eight years? Of course not. But compared to other administrations — even good ones — this has been a remarkable ride. Obama delivered on his promises. Period.

So with that history fresh in my mind I think Bernie Sanders raised the level of expectation to an even higher standard.

What made the Sanders’ campaign so remarkable is that it took what had been a special event — a visit to Crow, for example — and it made it a routine part of the campaign. When a Sanders event was near Indian Country (or better within a tribal nation) everyone from the candidate to his staff knew what to do. 

This is how campaigns should be run. It conveys a level of respect to the first people of this continent in a way that defies history.

How would this have translated into policy? That we will never know. Unless. Unless Secretary Clinton picks up the best elements of the Sanders campaign and adds something more. This is entirely possible. She does have a history in Indian Country that goes back a long time, at least as far back as her legal services work, and with the right people to help her, she could find that next level.

So here are three things I’d like to see the Clinton campaign do.

First: When campaigning in or near Indian Country make sure the protocol is public. The fact is that Clinton met with tribal leaders in Nevada and Iowa long before this election became contested. But the meetings were private. I understand that it was a nod to tribal sovereignty — and that’s important — but it does not generate a broader base of support in Indian Country. In the general election it would be smart for Clinton to not only campaign in Indian Country but to make sure that tribal leadership is part of the dialogue. (To be fair: There was some of that, but it was not communicated well.)

Second: Hire Nicole Willis. Now. The great thing about her role with the Sanders’ campaign is that she had access and authority. It may not seem like Indian Country is a big enough constituent group for such a high level post, but it’s a powerful metaphor that goes beyond politics. 

Third: Identify Native American surrogates and let them talk. At various points the Sanders campaign did this with Deborah Parker and Tara Houska. This is important because there ought to be a face from Indian Country. This has started unofficially, especially on Facebook and within tribal communities, but it ought to be a larger part of the campaign apparatus. I’d love to see Native voices arguing with a Trump surrogate on MSNBC or even Fox. Clinton has a fabulous team of advisers, but they are not public. They should be.

And finally the Clinton campaign did something last night that Indian Country should make our election cornerstone, early voting. As Harry Enten wrote for fivethirtyeight.com: “Clinton built a tremendous lead in the state from early mail-in votes, and she never relinquished it. Just after midnight, Clinton was up by 26 percentage points with over a million votes counted. By the time all the early vote was in, she was able to take that advantage up to about 400,000. That margin stayed remarkably consistent as more and more of the in-person vote was tabulated. In other words, Sanders fought Clinton to a draw among voters who cast their ballot at the polls yesterday, but the damage had been done by early voters …”

Imagine if Indian Country voters did that. No forgetting to get the polls. No last minute snags. Just votes that are banked in advance. (This can’t be done everywhere, but where it can, it’s a powerful tool.) We can do damage.

We’re going to hear a lot in the next few days about the “lesser of two evils.” I don’t like that phrase. It reminds me of a truth about writing: perfect is the enemy of good. I have disagreements with every candidate, even some passionate splits, but I also look for areas where we agree. 

It’s true that politics is about choices, but it’s also about the team of people that come together to make a candidate successful. Look at those who are hired by Clinton from Indian Country and you’ll see a wealth of talented people who are ready to govern. Especially if given the chance.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

One thought on “#NativeVote16 – Three lessons Clinton could learn from Sanders

  1. Yvette Joseph says:

    Excellent points Mark. I’ve been attending Ready for Hillary events for more than 2 years, with Native Americans for Hillary and with Spokane for Hillary Grassroots here in Spokane, WA. It’s tough to get the leading Hillary teams, Policy and Outreach, to meet and even know who they are. While each of the co-Chairs are fine individuals, they are each busy trying to meet their client needs and remain active in their own communities. Thankfully, Rion Ramirez responds promptly which is much appreciated.
    Going back to President Bill Clinton’s campaign, we worked in Washington, DC, among the National Indian Democrats, to elect prominent Tribal Leaders (Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller and Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah) as co-Chairs to the Native Americans for Bill Clinton campaign. We also had 2 prominent Indian Democrats (Congressman Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Idaho Attorney General Larry Echohawk) serving to help open doors to the DNC. These 4 leaders helped to rally a growing group of Democratic activists who numbered 54 to meet in New York City, NY during the 1992 Democratic Convention. Much was done to support these delegates, so they could share platform concerns on tribal sovereignty and learn best practices in helping to Get-Out-the-Vote under the Coordinated Campaign with both U.S. Senators, Congressmen and in local political races.
    Private sessions were non-existent, as everyone was working to be transparent and open in all campaign activity. It wasn’t easy, but we worked extensively to ensure as many people as possible were involved. Thankfully, Reverend Jesse Jackson and his supporters from Nebraska, Montana and Minnesota were instrumental in calling upon DNC Chairman Ron Brown to help with the hiring of native staff in the DNC and with the campaign to assist the Indian delegates and tribal staff assigned to get out the native vote. Lee Ann Tall Bear (Sisseton Sioux) served in this capacity for the DNC.
    There has been so much growth within the Democratic Party to help expand the Native vote. My mentor on all things Democratic was Joe Delacruz, Quinault Nation Chair. He told many of us back in 1988 that we need to work on doubling the number of Native American delegates and party leaders. So that has been a personal goal to help build the party, along with serving as a Precinct Committee Officer. Joe said to read the rules closely, as there are several ways that anyone with an interest can be involved. These rules have helped me to serve as a Congressional District delegate, as a National Page, and volunteer handling VIP Credentials. Chairman Delacruz learned how to work in the Party as a Union Representative, as a Party Leader/Elected Official in his role as Chairman of his tribe and even a Press person, when all other credentials were not available. So I’m very pleased that you and hopefully other native journalists will attend the Democratic National Convention.
    From one Presidential candidate to another, the dynamics change and yet we can be proud there are so many more American Indians and Alaska Natives serving in elected office in 2016. Frank LaMere (Winnebago) formerly served as Nebraska State Party Chair and Janice Cohen Chilton (Colville) served as Arizona Democratic Vice-Chairman back in the 80s and 90s. Now we have Debra Haaland (San Felipe Pueblo) serving as the current New Mexico Party Chair and Paawee Rivera (Pojoaque Pueblo) serving as Director of Native American Engagement at the DNC. Each of these native leaders are opening the way for even greater numbers to join the Democratic Party, who will likely help ensure tribal rights will be upheld in the next Administration.
    Finally, I agree with the need to hire excellent staff who are native and gifted at tribal outreach. Your suggestion to hire Nicole Willis (Cayuse/Nez Perce/Yakama/Lakota) is spot-on, as she is skilled, swift and a seasoned campaign staffer. Nicole is one of the best things that happened to the Sander’s Campaign and I want to be bold and say, she is much of the reason for Montana’s Sanders win last night. Along with Brooke Swaney, who helped create Bernie’s native campaign video, they did a great job. And then on Hillary’s side, we have to give recognition to Arizona for their creative Peterson Zah video and to Alray Nelson (Navajo) and the excellent staff with the New Mexico for Hillary campaign. If all goes forward as planned, I believe these folks will set the stage for some very early voting and extensive campaign work, if they are given the green light to remain working as campaign staff within Hillary for America. Working together and with the Native Vote campaigns of the National Congress of American Indians, I truly hope all of Indian Country will join together to help elect the first Woman to the White House. A woman who has been working with Tribes for several decades and will be open to embracing the ideals that both she and Bernie Sanders seek to uphold.

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