Should We Trust Presidential Candidates Who Promise to Honor Native Treaties?

Our government has a history of colonizing our land and erasing our history, so I have my doubts

Attendees listen to the Democratic presidential candidates speak at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum. Credit: Stephen Maturen/Getty

TThis election cycle, we are seeing an unprecedented push by Democratic presidential candidates to appeal to Native American voters, whose votes have proved crucial in some predominantly red states like Iowa, North Dakota, Alaska, and Montana, and have won congressional elections for Dems. Bernie Sanders, Julian Castro, and Elizabeth Warren all announced their plans for tribes before the first Native American Presidential Forum that took place in August. Amy Klobuchar has a list of policy priorities for Indian country on her website and Cory Booker included Indigenous people in his climate and economic justice plan. Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris announced their own fairly thorough plans for Native communities over the past few weeks.

As a tribal attorney and former judge with expertise in federal Indian law, Native history, and reservation life — as well as an Oceti Sakowin Native woman and enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe — I find that the plans proposed by these presidential candidates reveal them to be well-versed and well-advised on Indigenous matters.

My people have been lied to and swindled to death by the government of the colonizers. This land and its resources were seized and wrongfully taken by theft, genocide, and war.

One of the first Native women elected to Congress, Deb Haaland, helped Elizabeth Warren write her plan, and hers is the most comprehensive of those listed. Warren seeks to ensure that tribes are able to give free, prior, informed consent to all projects on or near their lands. She also plans to create a cabinet position just for Native issues, among a host of other remediations.

Sanders wants to undo environmental damage in Indian country, and Castro plans to invest $2.5 billion in housing for Native communities over 10 years and end leasing on federal lands for fossil fuel exploration and extraction. Harris seeks to push Congress to amend the Indian Reorganization Act to clarify that tribes federally recognized after 1934 can receive land into trust. All of the plans make some mention of honoring treaty rights and trust obligations. It also bodes well that so many of the Dem candidates mentioned here — including Sanders, Castro, Warren, Harris, Buttigieg, and Booker — have all signed the “No KXL Pledge,” vowing to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline on day one if elected. A number of tribes and Native communities are currently fighting the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline through their treaty lands.

II finding these developments encouraging, especially when viewed through a historical lens — though I have my concerns. I do not trust the government nor its elected officials. My people have been lied to and swindled to death by the government of the colonizers. This land and its resources were seized and wrongfully taken by theft, genocide, and war. Manifest destiny is a lie long perpetuated to justify the horror of colonization. There was no honor in it. The entire Western Hemisphere was all formerly Native land.

The U.S. government unilaterally breached every treaty it has made with tribes. Presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson called for our extermination. Andrew Jackson caused the Trail of Tears, where thousands of innocent Cherokee died of starvation, disease, and exposure when they were forcibly removed from their homelands. Abraham Lincoln ordered the hanging of 38 Dakota warriors in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The litany of genocidal acts initiated by the federal government under the authority of U.S. presidents against Indigenous peoples is never-ending and appalling. For these reasons, I am somewhat skeptical about whether or not politicians and the public understand the gravity of such promises.

Democratic presidential candidates seeking to honor the treaties with integrity, intelligence, and compassion is progress.

I’d also like to submit that if the candidates are serious about fulfilling treaty responsibilities owed to us, federal lands in the Black Hills of South Dakota should be turned over to the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation), in accordance with the Fort Laramie Treaty signed between us and the United States. The Black Hills were taken from my people when Congress reneged on the treaty after gold was found there. In United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians (1980), SCOTUS held that the seizure of the Black Hills from the Lakota was a wrongful taking and that the Sioux were entitled to just compensation under the Fifth Amendment. We refuse to accept the money. We want the land. The Fort Laramie Treaty still stands as good law and the Black Hills of South Dakota rightfully belong to the Great Sioux Nation.

While talk of honoring the treaties shouldn’t be taken lightly, fulfilling the obligations entailed, especially as outlined within these plans, is doable. Democratic presidential candidates seeking to honor the treaties with integrity, intelligence, and compassion is progress. This vision can be achieved, and these contracts can be made whole — in total or in part. Keep meeting with us and coming to our ancestral lands to visit with us within our communities so you can learn about our cultures and concerns firsthand. We are up to the challenge. But as tribal elders say: If you’re going to make a promise, keep it. Then, perhaps, this country can live up to its “promise” after all.

Dakota/Lakota Sioux writer. Bylines: Teen Vogue, Huffpost, Bustle, Jezebel, Truthout & more.

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