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A young person holds a sign that says “Natives 4 Bernie” at a campaign rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders in Phoenix, Arizona, on March 5, 2020.
Caitlin O’Hara/Getty Images

The 5 million Americans that 2020 candidates refuse to talk about

Once again, Native Americans are left out of the election conversation.

This Sunday, Democratic candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders will duke it out on the debate stage, likely over the differences in their health care plans, economic strategies, and the proper response to Covid-19.

But there is one thing we won’t hear about — the 5 million people whose ancestors called this land home before there was a president of the United States. We won’t hear about the 574 federally recognized tribal nations and their citizens. Nor will we hear about the plague of missing and murdered indigenous women. When candidates list out other minorities, like Black or Latino voters, my people won’t be mentioned.

As a Schitsu’umsh woman, I know why no one is talking about us. Most people think Native Americans only existed in the 1800s on the back of a horse trotting across the prairie. The image of Native people is frozen there forever. More than any other race, ethnicity, or nationality in America, we suffer from invisibility. No one knows we still exist.

And yet in the heat of the 2020 race, the Native vote matters. With 5.1 million Native Americans in the US, Native people are a critical voting bloc in swing states, rural states, and pretty much any state west of the Mississippi — and they tend to lean Democrat. The Native American population, according to the 2010 census, totals more than Iowa (3.1 million) and New Hampshire (1.3 million) combined.

Native Americans are often left out of the election conversation, though, because many of us are rural. Accessing tribal communities in the remote mesas of Arizona or hills of North Carolina is too far of a stretch for these campaigns. Rural tribal areas often lack internet access and paved roads.

For a campaign to reach these remote places, it would take a canvasser days to contact just a handful of prospective voters. It would resemble more of a backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon or the Smoky Mountains than the typical door-knocking event in the suburbs with coffee and doughnuts. Having worked as a field organizer on a congressional campaign before, I can hear the voice of the field director in my head: “It’s not worth the effort.”

But campaigns don’t reach out to urban Native voters, either. Sixty-seven percent of all Native Americans live in urban areas. The 1950s policy of relocation incentivized Native people living on reservations to move to places like Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle, or San Jose, like my mother’s family did. Urban Natives, like me, have jobs, friends, and social lives in the city while maintaining connections to their tribal communities back home. And I have never once seen a political campaign directing outreach to urban Native voters.

Without outreach, it’s hard for campaigns to understand not only the diverse needs of Native Americans, but also where they stand with voters. If the federal government isn’t reporting data on tribal communities, a swanky Washington, DC, polling firm definitely is not. Polling in Indian country for the 2020 election simply is not happening. This means that campaigns don’t see how they are trending with critical Native voters, reinforcing the perpetual cycle of ignoring the Native vote.

Understanding the Native vote at this point in the 2020 race means looking at upcoming primary states with large Native constituencies. If candidates were serious about Native Americans, they would court voters in Arizona, Alaska, Hawaii, Wisconsin, and New York as the race continues this spring. Alaska Natives account for 15 percent of the population in the state and have supported both Democrats and Republicans in the past, swinging statewide elections. Just ask Lisa Murkowski, the moderate Republican senator from Alaska, who owes her write-in electoral victory in 2010 in part to the state’s Native population.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump shocked everyone in 2016 by winning Wisconsin by 22,748 votes. What the pundits were not talking about is that the Native American population in Wisconsin totals more than 31,000. If any Democrat aims to win Wisconsin in the general election, mobilizing the Native vote in this swing state is necessary.

While Native American issues are complex and vary by region, tribe, community, and culture, there are key points many Native voters agree on — supporting tribal sovereignty and self-determination is the foundation of any tribal policy platform. Tribal nations are governments and want to operate as the sovereign nations they are and always have been. They want the federal government to hold up their end of the bargain on treaties, and that means paying for health care, education, and food. After all, tribal nations have kept up their end of the bargain and haven’t taken back all the land in America.

Independent presidential candidate Mark Charles speaks at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa, on August 20, 2019.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Native voters are also everyday Americans who have bills to pay and kids to feed. Our issues are rural issues, brown people issues, women’s issues, and heritage issues. We care about rural economic development, agricultural tariffs, and keeping our brown boys out of prison. Native voters exercise their ancestral hunting rights and their Second Amendment rights to feed their families deer, elk, and moose. We practice our freedom of religion in places now called national parks or public lands. A Native American platform does not easily split down party lines and can vary drastically based on region and culture.

The only candidate to take on tribal policy in a serious way, other than Julián Castro, was Elizabeth Warren. Native people across the country had issues with Warren’s DNA test and her claims of Cherokee ancestry when she was not recognized by the Cherokee Nation as a citizen. However, having worked in tribal policy in Washington for three years, in the Senate and for the National Congress of American Indians, I can confidently tell you that Warren’s platform on tribal issues was the most comprehensive, pro-tribal sovereignty platform any candidate for president has ever produced. It was basically like candy for tribal policy nerds.

But now that she is out of the race, the remaining Democratic candidates stand about where you’d expect on the issues that matter to Native American voters. Both campaigns are rhetorically very supportive of tribal self-governance, self-determination, and upholding the nation-to-nation relationship between the federal government and tribal nations. This is expected for any Democrat in 2020.

The Biden campaign released a statement last week that expressed his intent to build on the tribal policy progress of the Obama administration. Jamal Brown, the national press secretary for the Biden campaign, told Vox the campaign has contacted Native voters at events and the candidate has recorded video messages for tribal events like the Four Directions Forum in Las Vegas prior to the Nevada caucuses. It remains to be seen if the former vice president’s outreach strategy will ramp up as the campaign continues.

The Sanders campaign does not have a comprehensive written policy statement for tribal nations aside from a short page on his website, but Sanders has made in-person efforts to address Native communities. And it has worked — he won North Dakota, where tribal nations make up a large part of the state’s Democratic Party. Similar to Biden, Sanders includes tribal nations in his major priorities like the Green New Deal. He has also supported the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and a 10-20-30 funding allocation to aid low-income communities. However, Sanders’s tribal policy is far from the revolution he promises in other arenas. (The Sanders campaign did not respond to Vox’s request to explain its policies in time for publication.)

On Sunday, Biden and Sanders will stand on a less crowded debate stage in an attempt to reach voters who have not yet made up their minds. Will they speak to undecided Native American voters? Probably not.

Maria Givens is an enrolled member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe (Schitsu’umsh) in northern Idaho and resides on Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Ute homelands in Boulder, Colorado. She has a master’s degree in environmental issues from the University of Colorado and has worked for the National Congress of American Indians and in the US Senate. She is passionate about tribal food sovereignty and shares pictures of Native food on her Instagram.

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