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Democratic Presidential Candidates Attend Native American Forum

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This week, issues important to Native American communities will get attention in a presidential election really like never before. Eight Democratic presidential candidates have signed up to attend a Native American voter forum in Sioux City, Iowa. Elizabeth Warren spoke there yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH WARREN: I know that I have made mistakes. I am sorry for harm I have caused. I have listened, and I have learned a lot.

GREENE: Elizabeth Warren there was apologizing for her past claims of Native ancestry, which upset many Native Americans and made her a target of ridicule for President Trump.

Mark Trahant is editor of the news website Indian Country Today. He's been covering the forum and joins me. Mark, welcome to the program.

MARK TRAHANT: Good morning.

GREENE: And we should say you're also emceeing the forum, right? You're doing some double duty.

TRAHANT: Yeah, I'm the moderator.

GREENE: All right. Well, what - can you tell me what it feels like? I mean, eight presidential candidates coming to speak there - is this really different in terms of turnout, in terms of tone from the past?

TRAHANT: Well, certainly, it elevates Native American issues to a level that just hasn't been part of the conversation before. Instead of having candidates do their normal stump speech, they're really forced to address things that don't get talked about very much, like treaty rights and the role of the Indian health system and that sort of thing.

GREENE: Dig into some of those issues a little more, if you can, and help me understand what is really important to a lot of voters who come to a forum like this.

TRAHANT: Sure. There are some 500-plus tribal governments that have a history that predates the United States. And many of those tribes have direct treaties with the United States that have responsibilities. And every Congress and every president talks about the role of treaties, but very few have actually said, this is what needs to happen in order to have the treaties executed fully, including, for example, full funding of the Indian health system. It's the only direct federal system for health care in this country. In many ways, when you talk about "Medicare for All" or something like that, looking at the Indian Health Service would be an example of how to do it right and how to do it wrong, what works and what needs work.

GREENE: What has the record of the Trump administration been on issues like this so far, and, you know, how in general has the president done among Native American voters?

TRAHANT: Well, to put it in a bigger context, the Obama administration kind of reached new heights. They started a Tribal Nations Conference that happened every year and had direct consultation with the tribes in a way that was unprecedented. And so they set the bar really high. And the Trump administration has rolled back most of that and either not done the same sort of level of discourse with tribes or just ignored tribes. Where the Trump administration has put most of its energy is into the resource extraction issues and working with the tribes that have coal and oil, for example.

GREENE: What was that Elizabeth Warren moment like yesterday?

TRAHANT: It was pretty extraordinary. One of the things with the Elizabeth Warren story that I don't think - every time she appears before a Native group, she has made similar apologies. But more important, she gets an amazing reception. She was basically surrounded everywhere she went at the forum and received a standing ovation.

And so there is a group that really is concerned about her statements in the past. But among both tribal leaders and people that she's out and about in a broader sense, it's just the opposite. She was one of the - we had a quote from a young man who said, clearly, she was our favorite.

GREENE: All right. Mark Trahant, editor of the news website Indian Country Today, also emceeing the two-day Native American Presidential Forum that's taking place this week. Thanks so much.

TRAHANT: Happy to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.