Sanders a hit at the Native Presidential Candidate forum
Sen. Bernie Sanders at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Candidates Forum in Sioux City, Iowa, Aug. 20. | Al Neal / PW

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — The Sioux City Orpheum Theater was packed. Anticipation hung heavy in the air. O.J. Semans, co-founder and co-director of Four Nations, announced to those in attendance they would have to wait for 15 minutes before being able to “feel the Bern”—the campaign was running behind schedule.

At 6:15 p.m., Sen. Bernie Sanders walked across the stage with fiery determination in each step, as cheers, hoots, hollers, and applause greeted him.

“Thank you all very much for allowing me to be with you,” said Sanders. “It is an honor, and I will tell you that the American people, especially the young people, understand very profoundly the struggles Native American people have gone through in the history of this country, and are appreciative of the incredible legacy the Native American people have given us—your culture, your respect for the environment, and your willingness to plan for future generations, rather than short term profits.”

Sanders continued his impassioned introduction by acknowledging Native Americans’ dark history with the U.S., the lies told, the broken promises and treaties, and the destruction of Native land by the oil and gas industry.

“I want to say that during the last campaign we had the opportunity to intentionally visit Native reservations and communities because we thought it was extremely important that the plight and suffering of the Native American people needed to be made public,” he continued.

“I will never forget going to Pine Ridge and learning life expectancy was lower than many third-world countries…I believe in Medicare for All, and in the middle of that we will make sure Native American people have comprehensive healthcare, a human right.”

Sanders addressed the issues of universal healthcare for all, the complete restructuring of Indian Health Services, and of respecting tribal land and the environment. He recalled his time spent on the front lines of Standing Rock and reiterated his commitment to respecting the land and tribal sovereignty.

“We can provide quality healthcare for all Native people and all Americans, and I can tell you it will cost much less than one new weapons system for the Pentagon,” Sanders said.

Other issues highlighted by Sanders were:

1) Support of the “Remove the Stain Act” which would strip 20 Medals of Honor given to soldiers who took part in the Wounded Knee Massacre, saying “Medals of Honor are given to people who do very important things — massacring women and children is not bravery, it is an act of depravity.”

2) Tackling the epidemic of violence against indigenous women, and ensuring cooperation between tribal governments and the federal government to address the issues.

3) Ensuring Native Americans are properly represented in the federal government and are consulted, and “listened to,” on all matters about tribal lands. “If it’s not you who are determining Native American policies, then I don’t know who should—certainly not Washington bureaucrats.”

4) Ending tax breaks for the wealthy, and better funding for healthcare, Social Security, education, and immigration reform.

Of all the candidates present at the forum, Sanders was the only one to say his administration would cancel all student debt, and confront the climate crisis by “taking on corporations destroying the planet, and working with other nations to tackle the issue.”

“Climate change is threatening not only your way of life, us, but the entire planet, and it pains me very much that we have a president that believes climate change is a hoax. It is not a hoax, it is a threat to this country and every country on earth,” said Sanders.

Sen. Bernie Sanders listens to a question from the audience at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Candidates Forum. | Al Neal / PW

As time ran down, Janet Davis from the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe asked: “Senator, what will you do to ensure Native Americans’ right to vote is protected, because our vote is our voice?”

During the 2016 election, members of the Paiute tribe were forced to sue the state of Nevada to prevent voter suppression. The Pyramid Lake Paiutes and the Walker River Paiutes argue that a lack of access to voter registration and polling places on the reservation, due to distance, hampered Native American turnout.

“May I be blunt and straightforward,” began Sanders. “We have a corrupt political system designed to protect the wealthy and the powerful. What happened to your people is just one example of the voter suppression taking place across the country.

“Politicians should be saying ‘we need to get more people involved in the voting process to get the highest voter turnout possible because we believe in democracy.’ Instead with have a political party whose policies most Americans don’t support, meaning they can’t win, so what do they do—throw out obstacles and buy elections.”

Sanders continued: “I believe in one person, one vote, and we need to overturn the disastrous Supreme Court decision called Citizens United—billionaires will no longer be able to buy elections by contributing hundreds and hundreds of dollars.”

Sanders ended his visit to Sioux City with a small meet and greet with tribal leaders, before heading down three blocks from the theater for another rally with local campaign supporters.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.