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.
Sanders’s early efforts to court Native American voters weren’t always effective. After his narrow loss in the Nevada caucuses in February, some Indigenous activists criticized the campaign’s late start in tribal outreach. Myron Dewey, a Sanders volunteer from the Walker River Paiute Reservation in western Nevada, claimed they could’ve secured an additional three delegates had only 13 more supporters shown up for the tribe’s caucus. “Due to his tight schedule, [Sanders] missed his meeting with tribal leaders who awaited his arrival,” Dewey wrote on Facebook, perhaps explaining the lack of enthusiasm.
A turning point in the visibility of Indigenous issues on the trail came in Flagstaff, Arizona, on March 17. Scrapping his usual stump speech, Sanders delivered an impassioned call for Indigenous justice. “From the first day that settlers came to this country, the Native American people have been lied to, they have been cheated, and negotiated treaties have been broken,” Sanders said. “We owe the Native American people so, so much.”
Since then, Willis says, “we’ve we’ve had 17 meetings in a dozen states. He will sit down and he will ask [tribal leaders], what are the most important issues to you, and he will listen and then he will say, tell me about your healthcare, tell me your experience with the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, are you having problems with sacred places and corporations or other governments trying to develop those places? He is informed enough now that he can ask questions.”
What’s striking is how consistently Sanders has incorporated Native issues into his regular stump speech since March, even in states without a significant Indigenous population. According to the 2010 census, Native Americans make up only about 1.7 percent of the population, and more than 10 percent in only a handful of states, most of which have already voted in the primary content. “He doesn’t care that if there are Native Americans in the audience or not,” Willis says. “He wants to educate people.”
Still, skepticism about any candidate’s commitment to sovereignty and self-determination once they reach office remains strong among many Native people. “I’m always hesitant because I feel like we get burned a lot. I don’t want to be used,” says Chelsea Sunday, a citizen of the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne and a student at SUNY-Potsdam. “So many people claim to be allies but never fully understand or respect our way of life or our history.”
“I am cynical,” admits Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes), a columnist for Indian Country Media Network. “Not just skeptical, but cynical.” For her, inclusion in a stump speech is the least a candidate can do. “You can talk about how shameful it is that all the treaties have been broken and we owe Indians a debt of gratitude, but it doesn’t take a lot of knowledge to say those kinds of things. Because it’s something we all know, at least all progressives and liberals.” The question is whether Indigenous peoples, who Gilio-Whitaker says regularly experience “invisiblization” in national politics, will still be heard at the White House.
While Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’s Native American policy platforms include some similarities, Sanders’s goes significantly further in several key areas. Since the 1978 Supreme Court decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, Native nations have lacked inherent jurisdiction over non-Natives who commit crimes against tribal members on their land. Clinton supports the reestablishment of such prosecutorial power only in cases of domestic abuse; Sanders calls for the restoration of jurisdiction over all crimes on tribal land. And while Clinton promises to “build on President Obama’s effort to engage in productive dialogue with Tribal officials,” Sanders has committed to naming “senior level tribal appointees with access to executive agency leaders to promote meaningful consultation with Native Americans.”
For Haudenosaunee people, however, the central issue remains the land. “We think we know what progress is,” explains Hode’nhyahä•dye’ Hugh Burnam, a Haudenosaunee Mohawk and PhD student at Syracuse University. “It would be allowing us to have our land back in our government control for our people so that we could protect our Mother.” That land includes significant portions of New York State that Haudenosaunee nations insist were illegally seized in violation of international treaties between the Confederacy and the United States. While Burnam prefers Sanders over the other candidates, he still won’t vote on Tuesday. “If we call ourselves sovereign, if we call our nations nations, how does it make any sense to support a government that isn’t yours?” This evening, Burnam is joining protesters outside a Donald Trump rally in Buffalo, New York.
Nevertheless, Sanders’s meeting with Haudenosaunee leaders contrasts sharply with other Democratic figures. In his nearly six years as governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo has consistently refused to sit down with the traditional leadership of the Confederacy, even as he repeatedly attempts to tax their sovereign national land.
As the former senator of a state with 10 recognized Indigenous territories, Clinton also receives mixed reviews. “She did write a letter to our leadership, specifically the clan mothers who pick the leadership,” recalls Burnam. “My great-grandmother was a clan mother, and I remember seeing that on her bookshelf in a case, that signed letter from Hillary Clinton, which I thought was pretty cool.” But Oren Lyons says she never responded to calls for an in-person meeting. “We wanted to meet with her on the issues,” says Lyons. “We never did have a sit down with her directly.”
Lyons remains open to any candidate who wants to meet with the Confederacy on equal terms, as one sovereign to another. “We haven’t got an invitation from Mrs. Clinton yet, but if she does, we’ll respond. We’re open to all discussions.”
But he isn’t optimistic. “Looking into the future is pretty murky out there,” Lyons says. “People have to put down their arms and deal with the issue of survival of people as a species. The value of everything is being driven by the economy. Moral structure is pretty much out the door.”