By Michael Kickingbear
As we move through the 2016 political season, a central question I have had is. Why haven't these candidates for President of the United States approached native people to solicit our vote? Yes, we know the usual answers. "We are an invisible people", and "they are ignoring us." In the past eight years, Native people have really worked to make our voices heard through activism and other movements such as, Not My Mascot, and Idle No More. Native people have been collectively organizing and speaking with one voice around a variety of subjects.
So, when, Senator Bernie Sanders a Democratic candidate for, President recently visited his second reservation in North Minneapolis, MN, my ears perked up a bit. I was encouraged by the fact that out of the six to eight remaining candidates running for the highest position in America, Bernie Sanders has started to reach out to Indian country. Sure, another question naturally rises. "What took so long?" We can think of a million reasons the candidates would give for not reaching out to Natives, and most would not hold water.
I believe it is important that a dialog be initiated, or maintained. If a candidate takes it upon himself, or herself to open a dialogue with tribal leaders around the country, how can we fault him, or her for that? To have a chance to speak directly with someone who is a sitting United States Senator, and (potentially) a future President, and talk about concerns, issues, or problems, this is something you would want to take advantage of, Correct? That is an opportunity that was afforded to Clyde Bellecourt at a black caucus meeting being hosted on a Minnesota reservation on February 12th, 2016.
Mr. Sander’s time was limited because he was scheduled to appear at an event in St. Paul, Minnesota. The moderator (all though rather rude, was also a guest on the reservation), did explain to, Clyde Bellecourt, the Senator had time for one question. The moderator then asked Mr. Bellecourt to come forward, to ask his question. Unfortunately, Mr. Bellcourt chose to use his time to scream at the, Senator, bringing up past issues that (while still relevant to Indian Country) really were not the type of things to try to bring up in the amount of time he had available to him.
Bellcourt instead, ranted largely about HIS career with the American Indian Movement, history relevant to the work done by AIM, and other things. While it is not my intent to diminish his, or the organizations past efforts, the way he went about attacking, Senator Sanders was not helpful to Indian Country.
On our show, Native Opinion, we try to present Native American perspectives and points of view that are constructive. In my opinion, Mr Bellcourt's rant did nothing to elevate Indian Country. All, Mr. Bellcourt did was obtain a sound bite. There is an old saying. "Know when to pick your fights." In this instance, Mr. Bellcourt did not exercise good judgement. He took an old school approach that may have worked in the 70's and 80's, the tactic of disrupting a conference when there are cameras present, to try to get your agenda out. I can virtually guarantee that, Mr. Sanders walked away knowing nothing more about Indian Country, or our needs, and absolutely no solutions. A completely missed opportunity.
The things I believe should be acknowledged are the needs, and problems in Indian country. Every time an approach is taken like that of Mr Bellcourt’s, how much more difficult do you think it will be to get, Mr. Sanders, or any politician to visit other reservations after an experience like that? All this does is feed an already pre-existing problem of ignorance by United States government officials. Fortunately, in Iowa, Mr. Sanders had a more positive experience at the Meskwaki Nation. The questions presented by some of the tribal youth were very well thought out, and I believe the questions impressed the, Senator. They did us all proud! The town hall meeting on the reservation in Iowa, and the participants approach to discussions should be a good example around Indian country. Those types of discussions are much more proactive.
Each year, the National Congress of American Indians presents "The State of Indian Nations" address. It is presented by NCAI President Brian Cladoosby. It is a good summary of a broad range of progress that Indian Country has made. It's important to really know what has actually been worked on to help native people. To understand what has actually been accomplished, and what still needs to be worked on.
Here is that address:
If we took an approach to create a town hall meeting with a distinct focus on American Indian issues, with well constructed questions, and invited any presidential candidate that truly wishes to engage with Indian County, which method do you think a candidate would walk away with having learned something? The Town Hall Approach, or the one that Clyde Bellcourt took In Minnesota?. The answer should be obvious. I personally do acknowledge and thank the American Indian Movement for the work that they have done in the past, and continue to do. But I encourage Clyde Bellcourt and other activist leaders to please take a step back and think about your approach. Thank you for what you do.