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Presidential Candidates Speak On Native American Issues

Montana Governor Steve Bullock sits in front of campaign signs.
Four Directions
Montana Governor Steve Bullock fielded questions via video stream at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum August 19.

After missing the first Democratic presidential debate, Montana Governor Steve Bullock hopes to up his profile at the historic presidential forum for Native American issues this week.

Montana Governor Steve Bullock says his experience representing a state with a seven percent Native population has helped prepare him for his Monday appearance at the Native American presidential forum in Sioux City, Iowa.

From signing Hanna’s Act into law to launching the first apprenticeship program on tribal college campuses, Bullock says indigenous issues are, "something that I’ve done a lot of work on as governor, and I think it's important that we elevate that as we look at what we need to do going into 2020.”

He’s not the only one who thinks that. Bullock is one of nine confirmed candidates attending the">Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum, along with Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, among others.

Presidential Donald Trump was invited but is not listed as a confirmed candidate.

Participants will appear one-by-one, starting with self-help author Marianne Williamson at 9 A.M. Monday morning. Bullock is scheduled to speak at 3 P.M.

Three-person panels, composed of a male and female elected tribal leader and a youth, will take turns asking questions while Indian Country Today editor Mark Trahant will moderate.

Trahant says the forum is a departure from the past two Democratic debates.

“Oh, it won’t even be on the same planet. They’ll be talking about issues that, for many of these candidates, it’ll be the first time they’ve talked about it,” he says.

Trahant says their traditional talking points won’t work. Candidates will really have to think on their feet and navigate new territory.

But this forum is also about leaving them better informed than they entered. One of its stated goals is to help educate candidates on the issues.

“I think about the complexity of Indian affairs and how it really is part of the american story,” Trahant says.

He says he hopes to tell candidates about the treaties the federal government must uphold and their legal obligations to do so.

He hosted a similar forum in 2007 called “Prez on the Rez,” but major candidates didn’t show. Former U.S. Representative Dennis Kuccinich was the debate’s biggest name.

Now, Trahant says this forum will be much bigger. And that’s in no small part due to the battleground states that the Native vote could swing.

There are seven contested states with high Native populations: Arizona, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nevada and Colorado. That’s from research by Four Directions, the non-profit that’s hosting the forum.

Kevin Allis is the CEO of the National Congress of American Indians, which will help host the forum.

Allis says, in the past, the margins were too big for politicians to pay attention to Native American voters. But he adds things have changed.

“If you look at the 2016 elections margins, we matter. We make a difference,” he says.

He’s talking about states like Michigan, where President Donald Trump won by a hair last presidential election.

"There’s almost 110,000 Native American voters in the state of Michigan, and the margin was only 11,000 in 2016," Allis says.

And what about Montana?

“Montana’s a very important state for us. We have a very large native population for us there. And the issues in Montana that tribes face are very similar, the basis of everywhere else,” Allis says.

He says outdated infrastructure and poor rural broadband are issues that people face across Indian Country.

Dustin Monroe has his own questions he’d like to see candidates answer. He lives in Missoula and is Blackfeet and Assiniboine.

He used to run a non-profit that registered Native Americans to vote throughout the state.

He says he voted Bullock into the governor’s house twice, first in 2012, then again in 2016. But now, he says he and his friends will watch the forum with other candidates in mind.

“I think I really want to see the answers," Monroe says. "I really want to see how Elizabeth Warren differs from Bernie Sanders."

He’s eager to see how candidates address things like economic development on reservations. For Bullock, Monroe has a seperate set of Montana-specific questions.

“I would really ask him about housing in Montana, and why for reservations communities that has not improved,” he says.

Monroe says the fact that candidates will be pressed on issues like this is a historic moment that would make his ancestors proud.

“It makes my heart feel good because people are starting to realize the value...and our voices are starting to be heard,” Monroe says.

He says he can’t wait to turn on the forum livestream first thing Monday morning.

Olivia Reingold is Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report for America corps member.