FRESNO, Calif. — When Donald Trump began his campaign by accusing Mexico of sending drug dealers, rapists and other criminals into the United States, the political conversation quickly focused on Latinos. Something similar happened when Trump called for closing U.S. borders to all foreign Muslims.
One minority group that hasn’t received nearly as much attention — negative or otherwise — is Native Americans. But in California, Bernie Sanders is spotlighting indigenous peoples ahead of the Democratic presidential primary here on June 7.
As usual, Trump might have something to do with it. Feuding lately with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the presumptive GOP nominee has been mocking her claim to Native American heritage, which became a major issue during her 2012 campaign against Republican incumbent Scott Brown (now a Trump backer).
Trump has repeatedly referred to Warren as “Pocahontas” in stump speeches, though he has not directly disparaged Native Americans, in general. Addressing Native American concerns is one way for Sanders to draw a sharp contrast between himself and the real estate mogul, something he has done throughout his tour of California.
Sanders has another good reason to focus on Native Americans. California is home to more of them — by far — than any other state. According to the 2010 census, 723,225 people claiming Native American heritage — 14 percent of the national total — live in California. One in 50 Californians is at least part Native American.
That’s still just a shard of the Golden State’s electorate, but Sanders needs every vote he can possibly get, as he tries to catch up to Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who holds a commanding lead in the delegate race.
At a rally in Visalia on Sunday, Sanders revisited injustices from several hundred years ago.
“This campaign is listening to a people whose pain is rarely heard — that is the Native American people,” he said. “All of you know the Native American people were lied to. They were cheated. Treaties they negotiated were broken from before this country even became a country. And we owe the Native American people a debt of gratitude we can never fully repay.”
The Vermont senator went on to credit Native Americans with inspiring environmentalism.
“They have taught us so much, and one of the major lessons they have taught is, as human beings, we are part of nature,” he said. “We must live with nature. And if we continue to destroy nature, we will ultimately destroy ourselves. If elected president — when elected president — our relationship with the Native American people will change in a very fundamental way.”
Later, at a rally in Fresno, Sanders delivered a slight variation of the same message.
“Despite all that the Native American people have given us,” he added, “if you go to Native American reservations, if you go to their communities, what you see in many cases is very high rates of poverty and unemployment, inadequate health care, inadequate education.”
Sanders stopped short of proposing reparations and did not delve into the specifics of how — beyond tone — the federal government’s relationship with Native Americans might change. But he went into greater depth in March before a primary in Arizona, the state with the third-largest Native American population.
On a visit to a Navajo reservation, Sanders touted the importance of preserving Native languages, said he opposed a copper mine planned near tribal land there, and said the Washington Redskins football team should change its name. A Washington Post poll this month found an overwhelming majority of Native Americans are not offended by the name.
Clinton has made occasional overtures to Native Americans, too. She has earned the endorsement of Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians. In Washington state in March, 30 tribal leaders endorsed Clinton, and one tribe gave her a name that translates to “Strong Woman.”
So Sanders doesn’t have a monopoly on Native American appeals. But he has clearly decided now is a good time to ratchet them up again.