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Democratic presidential hopefuls tackle Native American issues at UNLV

Updated January 15, 2020 - 8:57 pm

Several Democratic presidential hopefuls pledged to support tribal sovereignty, fight disproportionate violence against women and address other concerns from Native American communities at a forum Wednesday at UNLV.

The Native American Presidential Forum was organized by Nevada tribes and the voting rights group Four Directions. It featured prerecorded, remote and in-person interviews with a handful of candidates: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, businessman Tom Steyer, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Each candidate promised to strengthen tribal sovereignty and increase government recognition of existing treaties. Each also pledged to address the disproportionate number of Native American women and girls killed or kidnapped, often by non-Native American attackers.

Some promised to establish a new Cabinet-level position for Native American affairs and pushed for more Native American federal judges. Others took it to a local level by voicing opposition to U.S. military installation expansion in Nevada.


Steyer was the only candidate to appear in person at the forum, where he spent nearly an hour answering questions from a panel of tribal leaders from across the country.

He kept most of his answers relatively broad, relating many responses back to his core talking points: The government has stopped working for the people because of corporate greed; climate change must be a priority; and health care and voting access must improve.

Steyer noted that he had been working toward Native American interests in Nevada by pouring support into Question 6, the state’s clean energy initiative on the 2018 ballot, and registering and turning out Native American voters through his grassroots organization, NextGen America.

He said he would oppose the expansion of Naval Air Station Fallon and Nellis Air Force Base and any dumping of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. He said he would increase economic development in Native American lands by creating “more than a million” good jobs in clean energy and related fields.


Warren answered questions for about 30 minutes through a livestream, before deferring to surrogates Amber Torres, chair of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, and Rion Ramirez, chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Native American Council.

Unlike other candidates, Warren went into detail on the specifics of her plans and her record on Native American affairs, citing some 55 bills she has authored or co-sponsored with a significant effect on tribal communities. They include suicide prevention, child abuse treatment and housing legislation.

Warren promised to halt the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines. She also voiced her opposition to proposed military expansions in Nevada, adding that all further government expansion onto public and tribal lands would require “free prior and informed consent” from local tribes.

She said she would create a Cabinet-level position for Native American affairs, boost Native American judge numbers and congressional staffing and appoint a Native American to serve in the U.S. Office of Management and Budget to ensure all appropriations reach the appropriate tribe. She would also appoint Native American deputy Cabinet secretaries for the same purpose.


A pretaped interview with Buttigieg was played for the audience before his surrogate, former U.S. Ambassador Keith Harper, answered questions.

Buttigieg said he planned to lift Native American communities through his education plan, which would invest in tribal colleges, and his infrastructure plan, which calls for cleaning up water supplies and expanded access to broadband internet.

He said he would redesignate much of the funding sources to Native American peoples from discretionary to mandatory, as many communities have not received even the help they were promised from the government.


Gabbard appeared briefly through a livestream that focused on tribal sovereignty and violence against Native American women.

She also applauded efforts to protect Native American language and culture.

Gabbard, a major in the Army National Guard, and Buttigieg, a Navy veteran, also praised Native American communities’ considerable contributions through military and other forms of public service.


In a brief video statement, Biden promised to strengthen tribal nations if elected, as he said the Obama administration did.

Contact Rory Appleton at rappleton@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0276. Follow @RoryDoesPhonics on Twitter.

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