Last Tuesday, just a week before the hotly contested New York Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders took time off the campaign trail to meet with people who have pledged not to vote for anyone.
For many members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a league of six confederated Indigenous nations whose traditional territory stretches across upstate New York and southeastern Canada, the United States is a foreign government. “We are not subjects. We are allies,” explains Oren Lyons, the 86-year-old Faithkeeper of the Confederacy’s Turtle Clan and a longtime environmental activist. “In order to protect the integrity of our treaties, we’ve maintained our independence very carefully.” That includes refusing to participate in what they consider colonial elections.
But that didn’t stop Sanders from meeting with some Haudenosaunee leaders, including Lyons, en route to rally in Syracuse, New York last Tuesday. For Sanders, it was only the most recent effort in a growing campaign to link his “political revolution” with the concerns of Indigenous peoples.
There are 567 federally recognized tribal nations in the United States—none of which are in Vermont, the state Sanders has represented in Congress since 1990. But his early opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and vocal support for renewal of the Violence Against Women Act made him familiar to some Indigenous activists long before he launched his outsider bid for the Democratic nomination last year.
One such advocate is Nicole Willis (Umatilla), who coordinated outreach to American Indian voters for Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. “I had made the decision last year that I was going to stay out of this election cycle,” she said. “I had a few colleagues who became Clinton advisers, but I grew very frustrated with the lack of action. So I reached out to the Sanders campaign and asked them what their plan was. And they said, ‘Well, why don’t you help us?’” She now serves as a top Native policy adviser.
Tara Houska (Couchiching First Nation) tells a similar story. An attorney for Honor the Earth, a Native-led environmental organization, Houska first connected with Sanders last fall when he co-authored the Keep It In the Ground Act, a bill that would prevent offshore oil drilling and coal leasing on federal lands. “At that time, his campaign was really starting to ramp up and they had questions about Native American issues because it’s something their office had not really dealt with,” Houska recalls. “They kept asking me questions and I kept helping out as much as I could in my free time.” She eventually joined the campaign as an official advisor in February.