Warren Vows Focus on Native Peoples at Forum

The flags of various Native American tribes flank the stage at the Frank LeMere Native American Presidential Forum, being held at the Orpheum Theater in Sioux City, Iowa. (Ted Wheeler / CNS)

SIOUX CITY, Iowa (CN) – Senator Elizabeth Warren was greeted with a standing ovation Monday as she addressed controversy over her past ancestry claims at a presidential forum about issues facing Native Americans, and was lauded for her advocacy by several tribal leaders who shared the stage with her.

“It’s a special day,” remarked an optimistic Frank White, chairman of the Winnebago tribe of Nebraska. “I just got a hug from the next president of the United States.”

For her part, Warren opened her remarks at the Orpheum Theater on a contrite note.

“I know I have made mistakes. I am sorry for harm I have caused. I have listened and learned a lot. It is a great honor to be able to partner with Indian Country,” Warren said.

Warren focused on respecting the sovereignty of tribal nations and increasing federal funding for programs to meet the obligations of past treaties. She also offered ideas on how to protect Native women from violence and respect the integrity of sacred tribal land.

“I will revoke the permit for the pipelines,” Warren pledged, referring to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines. “But the hard part is to think about structural changes. It’s much better to not make mistakes to begin with.”

If elected president, she promised to empower tribal leaders to be decision-makers before the federal government moves forward with an oil pipeline permit.

Billed as the first presidential forum dedicated entirely to issues facing indigenous peoples, the Frank LeMere Native American Presidential Forum will feature nine Democratic hopefuls over the course of two days. Every major presidential candidate, including President Donald Trump and his sole Republican challenger William Weld, were invited to participate.

“This forum isn’t about ‘gotcha’ moments. It’s about ‘get it’ moments. We want candidates to grasp the challenges and aspirations of Indian Country,” said OJ Semans in a statement. Semans is co-executive director of Four Directions, a national Native American voting rights organization that helped sponsor the event.

Semans noted there were no questions or comments about Native American issues during the recent Democratic debates.

“Our populations have been largely ignored in federal elections and federal process,” Winnebago leader Frank White said while welcoming the candidates. “We are still here. We are looking for a candidate who will recognize our legal status and work with us to address our obstacles.”

While the forum addressed sovereignty of tribal land, reparations and voter suppression, the disappearance and murder of indigenous women – which often go unreported and uninvestigated – received particular attention. Throughout the event the names of missing and murdered tribal women were read from the stage, along with the circumstances of their disappearance.

Native Americans are most vulnerable to police brutality, domestic violence and sexual assault of homeless women, according to Judith LeBlanc, a tribal leader from Oklahoma.

“This is a crisis,” Warren agreed. She has proposed a nationwide “Missing Indigenous Woman Alert System” that would be modeled after the Amber Alert System.

Warrant was introduced by Rep. Deb Haaland, a Democrat from New Mexico and a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe and, along with Rep. Sharice Davids, was the first Native American woman elected to Congress. Warren and Haaland are working together on a bill called “Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act” that would address numerous issues that face indigenous peoples.

“Last Friday was a monumental day,” Haaland said, referencing the public release of her and Warren’s proposals. “This is the most just legislation yet to address the promises that have been broken and the need in our communities.”

In addition to her willingness to work through the details of legislation, Warren was praised for her willingness to take on political damage by working for Native populations. The candidate’s history of feuds with President Trump came up on several occasions, along with the importance of next year’s elections.

“I know a winning candidate when I see one,” Halaand said. “I say that every time [Republicans] ask about Elizabeth’s family instead of asking about issues facing American families. Elizabeth knows she will be attacked, but she’s here to be a partner in our unwavering struggle. The president is no match for a woman with a plan.”

Named after Frank LeMere, a prominent civil rights activist who died in June, the forum features candidates one at a time as they respond to questions from a panel of tribal leaders and Native American youth.

Author Marianne Williamson opened the forum Monday morning, with Senator Amy Klobuchar scheduled for the afternoon. Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Mark Charles, John Delaney, Julian Castro and Bill de Blasio are slated for Tuesday. Mark Trahant, a journalist and editor of Indian Country Today, is moderating.

The forum is being live-streamed on the Facebook page of the Native American Rights Fund.

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