Brigid Bergin: I'm Brigid Bergin, in for Tanzina Vega, and you're listening to The Takeaway. This week during the roll call of the Democratic National Convention, a record number of Native Americans were featured. In the lead up to the November elections, we're looking at different aspects of Harris and Biden's records and plans. Today, we turn to their stances on tribal nations and ask how the campaign and the Democratic Party is working with tribal leaders. Rion Ramirez is chair of the Democratic National Committee's Native American Caucus and an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. I asked him about his work with the Obama administration.
Rion Ramirez: Under President Obama, I was in 2007 and 2008, part of a small group that helped write his platform for Indian country in terms of his policy piece for any country, and helped in that regard. That was the first time in history that we ever had a candidate really try to engage the Native American vote, and most, in particular, he was very, very thoughtful about including Indian country when he spoke. Just the fact of including us in his overall vision for the United States was something that we had never seen before. President Obama was by far the greatest president in the history of the United States in terms of his record in dealing with Indian country.
Brigid: Do you think his administration could have done a better job handling protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock?
Rion: Yes. Everybody would I think say yes in that regard. That is something that's incredibly important in terms of meaningful consultation in terms of Indian country. Ultimately, they got to the right point in terms of denying the permit for that. The Trump administration came in shortly thereafter, and reversed course in that regard. Yes, I would say they could have done a better job of engaging and consulting with the tribal government in terms of the impacts of the pipeline.
Brigid: We're living amid a global pandemic and we have to consider the impact of health disparities. I'm wondering if this has underscored the need for specific funding commitments from the federal government to tribal nations?
Rion: I would say 100%, yes. Everything associated with COVID is hitting extremely hard in terms of Indian country. In terms of the COVID-19 situation and the bills that are working their way through Congress, there is always more to be done. The more that they can do to live up to their treaty and trust responsibilities, the better off we're going to be.
Brigid: Rion, let's turn to this year's Democratic platform. Are there specific parts of it aimed at addressing the needs of tribal nations?
Rion: Yes, most definitely. I think one of the things I'm most proud of is the great work that Representative Deb Haaland did associated with the platform committee. She was our representative in terms of the Native American on the drafting committee. She led that work. Myself and others were serving on the platform committee. What's included in that platform I think is incredibly historic.
For the first time ever, it includes a land acknowledgment, recognizing and honoring the native communities on this continent, and recognizing the fact that our country was built on indigenous homelands, and goes through and respectfully acknowledges the tribes within Wisconsin, because that was the place we were going to host our Democratic convention. It also includes within the platform, a commitment to fully fund those treaty and trust obligations that I was talking about previously. Fully fund IHS, enact a clean Carcieri Fix. I think it's profoundly progressive and something I'm incredibly proud of as a Democrat.
Brigid: Rion Ramirez is chair of the Democratic National Committee's Native American Caucus and an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Thank you so much, Rion.
Rion: Thank you.
Brigid: We continue this conversation now with Nick Martin, staff writer for The New Republic and member of the Sappony tribe. I asked him for his take on the last administration.
Nick Martin: I think what you saw with the Obama administration was an administration in both terms that understood that its relationship with tribal nations is truly a nation-to-nation relationship. What you had was, the big part, especially for tribal leaders, was the annual summit the Obama administration would have in which they would bring in tribal leaders, as well as members of the Cabinet and the President himself. They would have a day or so of conversations and just discussing the most pressing issues in Indian country with the tribal leader.
On its own, in addition to all the other good work the Obama administration did, that was a departure from past administrations and honestly, from probably every administration ever, because what the United States has committed a longstanding failure of is to recognize tribal nations as sovereign entities.
Brigid: Were there some policy areas where President Obama was less well-received by native communities?
Nick: I think the big thing that's easiest to point to there would be the side effects of his ramping up of domestic energy production, because a lot of that runs into-- A lot of these oil and mining projects, they oftentimes run alongside or directly into tribal lands, or ancestral tribal lands. A lot of times, even though that consultation process is still in place, it's not necessarily adhered to. We've had lots of government accountability reports that showed that even under the Obama administration, and now, especially under the Trump administration, these kinds of extractive industries have just not really dealt with tribal nations as sovereign entities.
Standing Rock is the big flash point that shows that even under a president like Obama, who was, who had an open ear, who actively campaigned in Indian country, that there was still room to grow, just in terms of listening and respecting people's wishes, but also just tribal boundaries and things of that nature.
Brigid: What has been the Trump administration's communication with tribal nation leaders compared to what we saw under President Obama?
Nick: It's been little to none. Essentially, you still have operations like the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Interior you're trying to still work with tribal nations, but when you've also got the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management, trying to actively work against tribal nations in terms of protecting and stewarding their homelands, when you've got a border wall cutting through multiple tribal nations' sacred and ancestral burial grounds, you're just not fostering a positive relationship.
I think a lot of that has to just do with the fact that I think it's fair to question at this point, openly criticize the Trump administration for not having any desire to engage with Indian country, even close to the level that the Obama administration did. It's been a complete departure. Whenever I've spoken with tribal leaders, it's the night and day. I think that anything that gets them back to that status quo established under the Obama administration is obviously going to be a welcome change.
Brigid: Let's turn for a moment to the current Democratic ticket, starting with the vice-presidential nominee. As attorney-general of California, Kamala Harris, opposed a number of tribal land trust applications. What was her overall record with tribal nations as attorney-general?
Nick: Yes, the overall record, I think would probably lean towards somewhat negative, just because I think in total it was 15 blocked applications, and then she also tried to minimize or diminish tribal reservations in Southern California. All of that is a direct blow against what are the basic tenets of Indian law, and the pursuit of tribal sovereignty as I've been going on about here. I think as AG, I would say it's a fairly poor record, but she's obviously made, I think some strides since then, and trying to come around and work with tribal leaders, both as a presidential candidate and now as a vice presidential candidate, to try and maybe not exactly right those wrongs.
I wouldn't say she's been quite apologetic about that. She's mainly cited that she was doing the work of then California governor, Jerry Brown, which I think is open to debate, about whether, how one uses one's position of power and privilege, but I think in general, she has made a lot of strides and is actively trying to be a better partner.
Brigid: Compared to Harris, what has Joe Biden's campaign done in terms of policy and outreach to native communities?
Nick: The Biden campaign has, they've been hiring up a lot. They hired a tribal engagement director recently and have been staffing up as of late to make a push, and to show that they've had open arms for Indian country. Now, I'll balance that out by saying that they didn't go to the initial Native American Presidential Forum, that a lot of, that most of the major candidates went to last August. They were among the last of the major presidential Democratic candidates to release a policy plan for Indian country.
Now, in the time since he's-- I know he's promised mandatory funding for the Indian Health Service. He is obviously one of the original champions of the Violence Against Women Act, which as of 2013, has added measures to allow tribes to enforce some jurisdictional issues that had previously left victims of domestic abuse in a tough spot. I know that he has also pledged to create a veteran's affairs tribal advisory committee to help with the delivery of programs to native veterans. All of that, on its own, are good things.
I think that they're trying to maybe make up a little ground for being slow to the roll on this, but like I said, the same with Harris where it's they recognize that, not just like as a moral obligation that they should be reaching out to Indian country and including them in their tent, but also they recognize that in a lot of states, the native vote is fairly significant. If you want to energize those voters, you have to go beyond campaign promises to vaguely be good, and you have to show them actual concrete policies that they will enact if he's elected president, to really get these voters out in swing states where he's going to need them most.
Brigid: Nick Martin is a staff writer for The New Republic and member of the Sappony tribe. Thanks for joining us, Nick.
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