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Native American Forum Focuses On Elizabeth Warren’s Policies, Not DNA Test

WASHINGTON ― When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) gave remarks Monday at a presidential forum on Native American issues, she began with an apology.

“Like anyone who’s been honest with themselves, I know I have made mistakes,” Warren said at the event in Sioux City, Iowa, referring to the controversy over her past claims of Native American ancestry. “I am sorry for harm I have caused. I have listened and I have learned a lot, and I am grateful for the many conversations that we’ve had together.”

“It is a great honor to be able to partner with Indian Country,” she added. “That’s what I’ve tried to do as a senator, and that’s what I promise I will do as president of the United States of America.”

The audience applauded. But despite the media’s attention on the DNA issue, it wasn’t the focus of the forum. Warren talked about the contents of her sweeping plan for empowering tribal nations and indigenous peoples. And it was a hit.

“What I’d like to see us do is reverse Oliphant,” Warren said to applause, referring to the Supreme Court decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, which prevents tribal governments from prosecuting non-Indians.

Currently, tribes only have very limited criminal jurisdiction over non-Native people who abuse Native women on tribal land, which hampers tribes’ ability to punish abusers. Meanwhile, more than 84% of indigenous women experience violence in their lifetimes, and the vast majority report being victimized by a non-Native person. Warren is the first presidential candidate to propose expanding tribal criminal jurisdiction over all people committing any crimes on tribal land. 

“I will revoke the permits for the pipelines,” Warren said to loud cheers, referring to the Keystone and Dakota pipelines. “They shouldn’t have been granted in the first place.”

There are only a handful of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates who have put together plans focused on tribal issues ― former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and author Marianne Williamson among them ― and they echo each other, to an extent. For example, all the plans emphasize the need for the U.S. government to honor treaty obligations.

But Warren’s 9,000-word proposal goes further than the rest, and that detail didn’t go unnoticed at Monday’s first-of-its-kind forum, which was hosted by Four Directions, a Native American voting rights group.

Two tribal leaders raved about Warren’s plan to create a Cabinet position for someone to work directly with Native American communities. She also got applause for her plan to impose a 2-cent tax on the wealthiest Americans, which would fund child care for every baby from age zero to 5 and cancel student loan debt for 95% of people who have it. 

“It is not very often that we as Native people come across friends and allies of Native people,” said David Sickey, chairman of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana. “It’s a wonderful day, and Native Americans across this country should celebrate a day, today, we’re sharing the stage with a future president, perhaps.”

Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan, brought up a past conversation he had with Warren when she talked about her heritage on “a very personal level.”

“I urged you to tell your story and I appreciate that you did,” Payment said at the forum. “What I would say is, from here forward, because now we’re in a presidential election, that we take Michelle Obama’s advice and when he goes low, you go high. And when he attacks in a racist way, disparaging one of our heroes, one of our female Indian hero women … that you take the option not to give any credence to his racist arguments but instead tell us what you’re going to do for us.”

“The Cabinet position you proposed for us is amazing,” Payment added. “That’s history in the making.”

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), one of two Native women in Congress, introduced Warren at the event as “my sister in the struggle” to a standing ovation. Haaland, who has endorsed Warren’s presidency and co-authored a spending bill with her aimed at addressing unmet needs in Indian Country, jabbed the press for focusing more on President Donald Trump’s attacks on Warren instead of her policy ideas.

“Some media folks ask if the president’s criticism of her ancestry background will hamper her,” Haaland said. “I say every time they ask about her [ancestry], they feed the president’s racism. She is here to be an unwavering partner in our struggle because that is what a leader does.”

Other Democratic presidential candidates participating in the two-day forum include Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, Castro and Williamson.

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