In this July 21, 2015, file photo, Carolyn Yazzie fills in her ballot at the Shiprock Chapter House in Shiprock, N.M., during the Navajo Nation's referendum election.
( Jon Austria/The Daily Times via AP, File
Tanzina Vega: It's The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega. This election, President-elect Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state of Arizona in 24 years. One group who played a major role in flipping the state for Biden was Arizona's Native American population. According to High Country News counties that included the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, and Tohono O'odham Nation were some of the key areas that helped the president-elect carry the state.
In the swing state of Wisconsin native voters also appeared to have been part of turning that state blue. Now as President-Elect Biden prepares to take office, native organizers and tribal leaders want to make sure he doesn't take their votes for granted.
Leonard Forsman: My name is Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe and president of Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.
Tanzina: Under President Obama, Chairman Forsman was appointed as vice-chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and last month he endorsed the Biden-Harris ticket along with more than 200 other American Indian leaders. As Biden begins to assemble his cabinet Chairman Forsman has a specific request, appoint a Native American official as the next Secretary of the Interior.
He and Shannon Hosey, President of the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe, made their case in a recent opinion piece for Reuters. When I spoke to the Chairman, I asked him to explain why the Department of the Interior is so important to Native communities.
Leonard: Many of our Indian programs, of course, are housed in the Department of Interior. Of course, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and many other agencies that affect Indian country, including the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service. A lot of this has to do with our trust resources, which are land and water, and cultural resources, sacred places. It's very important that we have a secretary of interior that has a good understanding of Indian country and our values and traditions.
Tanzina: What are some of the main environmental issues that are most important to Indian country and that you think the next Secretary of the Interior should focus on?
Leonard: Well, in the Pacific Northwest here, we really rely on our treaty resources, as we call them, or our natural resources, wildlife, salmon, traditional plants, clean water, not only for food but also for medicine and also for our spiritual life and ceremonial life.
We feel that a change in leadership with interior will bring us back from the last four years of focus on deregulation and profits seem to have come over the importance of protecting habitat and sacred places. That's been demonstrated in a lot of the activities the administration's engaged in and have ignored tribal needs and priorities in many parts of the West.
Tanzina: One of the people that you suggest could hold the Secretary of Interior role is Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico, who we've had on the show before, and who is a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. Why do you think Representative Haaland would be good for the role?
Leonard: Well, we've known Deb Haaland as a Congresswoman now for at least one term or more, and she's demonstrated her commitment to Indian country, obviously, being a member of Laguna Pueblo and very close to their traditions and values, which are very similar to many tribes across the nation. The importance of place, and landscape, the cultural landscape, the importance of our traditions, our stories, our way of life. It's all connected strongly to respecting and holding our lands and waters sacred to our survival. As Indian people is something that's very important to us.
We really believe that coming from New Mexico, Deb has an understanding of energy policy and also has an understanding of the importance of environmental and natural resource protection. I think she'll be a good candidate for trying to balance those two things in her leadership of the department.
Tanzina: We've been making a lot about the historic turnout this year for the presidential election and also some of the experiences that people had while trying to cast their vote, in mail-in ballots, the early voting, long lines, et cetera. Native American voters have played an important role in this year's election that has potentially been not as talked about, but they did play a big role in battleground states like Arizona. What did that look like this year? What did it look like to get Native voters out to the polls, and also to ensure that Joe Biden doesn't take those votes for granted?
Leonard: Well, the turnout that came through, especially in some of the battleground states, of course, but these votes are important in all the states, especially in Arizona, Wisconsin, where a statement of the importance of a leader that shows respect for the presidential office, and the sacred duty that leadership has when they're elected by people to hold the tradition of that office important.
I feel that our people understand that our leaders have a great responsibility to build upon their ancestors and build for the future generations. We just felt like this current administration was not respectful of the protocol of being a leader of our country and so among other things that were troubling to us. I feel that a lot of the turnout was based upon the need for a better and stronger commitment to the numerous priorities that Indian country has.
I think that for the Democratic Party to honor those votes that came out, especially a lot of the new voters, I think, is to build upon some of that actions that the Obama administration, that Joe Biden was part of, and growing those, and that's getting more land into trust to rebuild our homelands, investing in medical facilities to take care of our medical needs that are guaranteed under the trust responsibility, invest in a sustainable economic development, protecting our natural resources, all those things that he did, including a really strong Tribal Consultation effort, will be important for the Democratic Party to continue doing as they did in the Obama administration, who I believe is the best president for Indian country that we've had.
In order to keep that vote and for the future, I think that we need to continue to do those things and also let people know about them. Because I think a lot of people don't know enough about what the past administration, the Obama administration did, settling a lot of lawsuits that have been languishing like the Cobell and a contract support lawsuit, and a lot of things that were very major and influential, I think that we need to make sure that people are aware of those things and the future things that the Biden-Harris administration, hopefully, has in their transition plan as well.
Tanzina: You mentioned the Obama administration, and you were appointed vice-chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation under that administration. How would you assess the relationship between the Department of the Interior and tribal nations under the Obama administration?
Leonard: Well, one of the things that was very important was the establishment of the White House Council on Native American Affairs. That was headed up and administered primarily by the Secretary Interior Jewell, and also Secretary Salazar. That council brought the Cabinet leaders, Cabinet members into the same room just to discuss inter-agency-wide tribal issues. [unintelligible 00:08:45] would be there and OMB and Defense and all the different agencies would be there, Agriculture, to talk about things that they were doing in each of the agencies that all affect Indian country because it's not just Interior that affects Indian country.
Just to get that started up again, it's barely alive right now, and getting it where the other agencies are engaged as well, makes it much more efficient for us to get Indian country policy and priorities introduced to the numerous agencies, especially like HHS, Health and Human Services, the Indian Health Service. That has an opportunity for doing that. The Advisory Council of Historic Preservation provided a big role of being a facilitator of that meeting. I hope that, look forward to them being involved as well in the future administration.
Tanzina: On the week of the election, CNN got a lot of criticism for at one point putting Native American voters in a category labeled something else when they were talking about voter demographics. What do you think that incident revealed about media coverage of Native voters more broadly?
Leonard: Well, I think there's just a lack of recognition of the modern present importance of Indian nations in the United States, and there's just a feeling that we're not relevant in some ways. I don't think that's 100% pervasive, but I think it still exists to the grade of a quantity to be acceptable. First people have a lot to offer here as individuals, and also as members of sovereign nations. Indian country is so vital to our identity as a nation and truly authentic way of life connected to our traditional cultural landscapes for thousands of years, and very diverse in itself.
I think it's important to remember that there are members of Indian country that are independents, and some are Republicans as well, and Indian country has been able to have a bipartisan approach to many issues. The Trump administration did have some Indian policies. I think they were too small a number, but some of them were positive in that respect.
e also relied a lot on Congress, and members of Congress in a bipartisan manner to work with us on our budget for Indian country. It's so important to our health safety and welfare, and feel that American Indian presence in the voting demographics is very important and it's key to us having leadership that's accountable to I think both sides of the arguments that we hear in our electorate today.
Tanzina: Finally, just curious about the state of COVID-19. We know that it has disproportionately affected communities of color, including many Native communities. What has the pandemic look like among the Suquamish tribe?
Leonard: Well, here at Suquamish, we've had some small outbreaks but for the most part we've been able to isolate and manage the virus for the most part, and that's through a ton of work and commitment from our staff. Our Emergency Operations Center, which is headed by one of our tribal members, and our medical staff, our community nurses, and also our administration and our tribal council.
One of the reasons that I think that we've shown, obviously, is that we've shown to discipline is because of our history with pandemics. The Captain George Vancouver of the British Navy was our first contact with the outside world in 1792 was the first explorer to come to Puget Sound. He saw the impacts of smallpox on our people. Some had survived smallpox and had the scars to prove it. Our people have had long generational experience with the impacts of communicable diseases.
We've been able to work with the federal government, the state government, or local government and follow the rules because we know how important it is to follow the science. That's been one of the things we hope that the Biden administration will do is really implement those strong restrictions so that we can get through this and get our economy. Our way of life has been put on hold, a lot of the ceremonies and activities that nourish us culturally and spiritually, have been put on hold. That's been a real challenge for all of us, so we hope to see more progress in national guidance and leadership on addressing COVID-19.
Tanzina: Chairman Leonard Forsman is the Tribal Chairman of the Suquamish tribe. Thanks so much for joining us.
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