The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

While the Elizabeth Warren-DNA news cycle plays out, issues Native Americans actually care about aren’t getting any attention

Reporters and politicians rushed to say her DNA test shows she was only 1/1024th Native American. But that's a huge misinterpretation of the data. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)
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This week saw a huge increase in political stories featuring issues related to Native Americans, but it wasn’t the type of attention that Native Americans would have hoped for.

After Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) released a report Monday providing DNA evidence that she has Native American ancestry, like she has often claimed, many Native Americans called her out for appropriating Native American culture while doing little to improve the challenges that many indigenous people in America face. Others said she set a bad precedent for other candidates in terms of releasing genetic information. President Trump followed up by reusing his slur against her, while Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) joined in the mockery by promising to search for a Native American ancestor of his own.

But all of this talk about Native Americans included very little focus on the issues affecting them that they want politicians in Washington to prioritize, something that many Native Americans involved in politics and policy noted.

“I think that in any given week in the United States, Native American issues are underrepresented in lawmakers' agendas. I think that is true this week and that’s probably going to be true next week and it was totally true last week, as well,” Julian Brave Noisecat, a writer and member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen, told the Fix.

Here’s a look at some of the issues Native American leaders told the Fix that they would prefer the national conversation to focus on regarding them.

Voting Rights

Native American advocacy groups argue that a Supreme Court decision allowing North Dakota to require voters to provide identification showing a residential address instead of a P.O. box number violates tribal sovereignty while disenfranchising voters. This disproportionately affects Native Americans because many live on rural reservations that do not have traditional street addresses, thus forcing them to receive mail at P.O. boxes. And given the likelihood that Native Americans are more likely to vote Democratic, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s reelection (D-N.D.) could be at stake.

“Those issues deserve attention and they’re not getting the attention they deserve,” Noisecat said. “That being said, I think that there has been some attention paid to the denial of Native American voting rights in North Dakota. It’s a threat to civil rights everywhere and one that is going to impact and could impact the outcome of the race and other races in that state.”

Education

House candidate Deb Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat who is seeking to become the first Native American woman elected to Congress, said all the attention on Washington lawmakers' past distracts them from focusing on the futures of young Native Americans. High school graduation rates for Native Americans are lower than the national average, and college affordability continues to be a real deterrent for those pursuing higher education.

“We need to be talking about the need for more scholarships in Indian country and education opportunities,” she told the Fix. “There are so many things we could be talking about to move our country forward.”

Sovereignty

Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) said that one major aspect of Native American communities that lawmakers could do a better job of understanding is their right to self-govern while remaining an integral part of the United States. This shapes how communities develop policy solutions to the problems affecting them most.

“Sovereignty is the issue that is at the root of most problems. You have to go back and understand sovereignty as a whole with a treaty between the federal government and Native Americans' communities," he told the Fix. “There’s a whole host of things we can get into: education, health care, all of these things that need to be addressed but we can’t get to them when you have someone like Elizabeth Warren going out there and trying to make Indian Country a political issue.”

Women’s issues

While mocking Warren at a July rally, Trump promised to donate $1 million to a charity if Warren could prove that she was Native American. After producing her DNA results, Warren demanded that Trump honor the pledge by giving to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, a point that Haaland said has been greatly overlooked.

“Since the beginning of my campaign, I’ve been talking about the epidemic of missing and murdered Native women,” she said. “That’s been on our minds a tremendous amount, so I almost feel like the media focuses on the thing that has the best sound bite, but they aren’t actually wanting to talk about what’s really important.”

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