Like many Americans descended from immigrants, I grew up feeling deep respect and reverence for Native American culture and history. Over time I grew to understand how indigenous people of North America are not only a part of America’s past but an important part of our present too, with rich, vibrant, resilient communities across the 50 states and US territories. As I learned more about the modern history of Native Americans, I came to understand just how resilient they have been forced to be, how much struggle they have endured over centuries of mistreatment and marginalization, up to the present day. As President, I will work with indigenous communities to secure their full rights and sovereignty, and attempt to make amends for the harm done to native peoples throughout our history.
The history of relations between the United States federal government and the sovereign indigenous peoples native to this land is not a happy tale. It is a story of marginalization, mistreatment, and outright oppression. From biological warfare (smallpox-laced blankets) to cultural warfare (kidnapping Native American children for forced assimilation) to economic warfare (the continued failure to upgrade infrastructure in Indian Country), from the Trail of Tears to Wounded Knee, and so much more, the United States has long failed to treat Native American people with the dignity and respect they deserve.
Even today, we are failing Native American communities and individuals. The more I learn about just how much we are failing Native people, the more appalled I find myself. Native Americans are more likely to sign up to serve their country in the armed forces than any other ethnic group, yet they are still treated as second-class citizens. The results of their marginalization are harrowing: Native American life expectancy is more than five years shorter than the average American’s; while 63% of the overall American population owns their own home, just 53% of Native Americans do; some 31% of the overall population has at least a bachelor’s degree, while just 14.5% of Native Americans do; the median household income for all Americans is nearly $60,000, while for Native Americans it is just under $40,000; and Native youth have the highest rates of suicide of any ethnic group in the country.
The despair that leads to that last sobering statistic should not be a surprise. Native American people have been forced to deal with trauma and pain for centuries. And the entity that caused so much of it — the United States government — is still too often a source of trauma and pain. If I am given the honor of being elected President, I will work every day to transform the US government into a friend to Native Americans, to make up for our past mistakes, and create a brighter future across Indian Country. The first step is to live up to our trust responsibility and treaty obligations.
More than 370 treaties have been agreed to between the United States government and various Native American tribes, which over the course of our nation’s history have expanded the territory of the United States from a small strip along the eastern seaboard to a continent-wide superpower with colonial territories from the Western Pacific to the Carribean. In treaty after treaty, the United States made promises it claimed would be kept “forever,” but time and again we have broken those treaties. For instance, the 1869 treaty with the Sioux said that any future treaty would need to be ratified by three-quarters of the men of the tribe. Just five years later, we conducted a new treaty with just a handful of Sioux in order to take control over the Black Hills which had recently been found to be rich in gold.
In general, treaties obliged the United States government to set aside land for reservations, respect tribal sovereignty, protect the tribes, and provide for the tribes’ well-being. The Supreme Court has interpreted this as “the undisputed existence of a general trust relationship between the United States and the Indian people.” Yet though we are bound by law to provide for the well-being of Native Americans, clearly we are not doing that. Life on most reservations is marked by deep poverty, violence, adverse health outcomes, lack of economic development, poor infrastructure, and shoddy housing.
As President, I plan to restore our trust relationship with Native peoples. I will do this by improving education (discussed in the next section), fully funding the Indian Health Service (which provides healthcare to more than half of all Native Americans), increasing nutrition assistance (as I will do for all Americans), funding infrastructure repair and new infrastructure projects (which are so desperately needed), and expanding funding for housing through Indian Housing Block Grants (because over 40% of Native housing is considered sub-standard, compared to just 6% in the general population). This is the fulfillment of our treaty-bound duty to honor our word and live up to our obligations.
I also believe that the trust relationship requires us to stand up to corporations and wealthy individuals who seek to exploit Indian lands and resources. This means revoking approval of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines (which threaten the water supplies of multiple tribes), and giving Native Americans veto power whenever any similar project encroaches on Native land, sovereignty, and sacred sites. It also means restoring the original borders of two major National Monuments in the west, known as Bears Ears and Grand Staircase/Escalante (which are home to singular rock art and other sacred sites), banning copper mining in the watershed of Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area, keeping the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge closed to oil drilling, and fighting against the extractive industries that seek to drill near Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, an ancient Puebloan religious center and one of the most significant historical and cultural sites in the whole world.
Finally, we need to pass an important bipartisan bill called the RESPECT Act (an acronym for Repealing Existing Substandard Provisions Encouraging Conciliation with Tribes) which seeks to finally repeal antiquated and discriminatory laws aimed at Native Americans which are still on the books. Shockingly, these include laws subjecting Native Americans to forced labor and laws that allow Native American children to be forcibly removed from their families and sent to boarding schools. Though these laws are no longer enforced, it is long past time to officially repeal them.
I served as the General Omar N. Bradley Chair in Strategic Leadership at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, at the same location as the notorious Carlisle Indian Industrial School. It was at Carlisle that the US government began its deeply misguided attempt to forcibly assimilate Native American children into Euro-American culture, undergirded by its racist “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” ideology. Native children were punished for speaking their own language. They were divorced from their traditional customs, daily activities, foods, and the love and support of their parents and elders. Girls were trained to be homemakers, while in their communities their mothers and grandmothers served as warriors, healers, religious leaders, and even chiefs. More than 180 students were buried there, and even more dead were sent home to their families.
Carlisle is but one example of the pain and trauma Native Americans have been subjected to by the US government. And beyond our treaty obligations, we owe it to Native Americans as fellow human beings to make amends for the actions our government. We who are not indigenous to this land must hold ourselves accountable for actions undertaken in our name. Native American people have been mistreated for far too long. If elected President, I promise to finally do right by Native Americans — and that is a promise I will never break.
One of the biggest challenges facing our indigenous communities is educating the next generation. Schools in Indian Country are too often underfunded and understaffed, and violence is a major issue. Some 90% of indigenous youth attend public schools, generally in some of the least affluent communities in the country. Most of the rest of indigenous youth attend schools run by the federal government. While most school districts in the country are funded by local property taxes, schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) are located on Indian trust lands, and property taxes are not legally allowed to be levied on federal trust lands, so budget shortfalls are common. (BIE operates 183 schools, educating 48,000 students, or 8% of all Native American students.)
Indigenous students lag far behind their non-indigenous peers. On average, in the seven states with the highest population of American Indian or Alaskan Native students, less than 50% of indigenous youth graduate from high school. They are far less likely than white students to get a college degree as well. While the reasons for this disparity are no doubt myriad — most likely rooted in the legacy of Native American marginalization — there are a few solutions that could go a long way toward solving the problem. First and foremost, the federal government simply needs to spend more money in Indian Country, both in BIE schools and in public schools with a large percentage of indigenous students. Education is part of our trust responsibility to Native American peoples, whether they live on or off reservations.
There is a great need for more teachers in Native American communities, which due to isolation, poverty, and low salaries have trouble recruiting and retaining educators. We need a federal program to help provide incentives for good teachers to take their skills to Indian Country — and to help educate a new generation of indigenous teachers interested in staying in their own communities. There is also a particular need for more special education teachers, since roughly 18% of indigenous students have special needs in the classroom (compared to 10% of the rest of the population) — a number that is far too high.
Education can be a powerful tool for cultural preservation, and many Native American schools and communities have been working hard to use their educational programming to help pass on important cultural traditions to the next generation, especially language. Far too many indigenous languages are on the verge of extinction, and when they disappear they take along embedded cultural, spiritual, and environmental knowledge encoded in them by generations of speakers. Preserving language helps preserve cultural identity, which in turn helps to preserve a sense of community. While the government has taken strides to help preserve Native languages, much more needs to be done. Tribes are doing amazing work, but they could use more assistance.
I support passing legislation along the lines of the Native Culture, Language, and Access for Success (CLASS) Act, a proposed law from nearly a decade ago that contained provisions to better support language and culture-based education, along with increased local and tribal control over educational priorities. Importantly, the CLASS Act recognized and elevated the sovereignty of tribes over the education of their youth — an issue for many decades. We also need to increase funding to deal with crumbling school buildings in Indian Country, which have a direct impact on student performance and student health. Congress needs to fully fund upgrades to all BIE schools, and dramatically increase funding for schools with a high population of indigenous students. We also need to invest in higher education and vocational training in indigenous communities, to make sure people who want to learn more and develop their skills have a chance to do so. My “Training for a Lifetime” program will include funding for lifelong training in Indian Country, as in the rest of the country.
Finally, education of non-Native Americans also has a role to play in improving the lot of Native Americans today. Public school curricula across the United States need to do a much better job of accurately portraying the history — and present — of Native American peoples. Rather than the Eurocentric “Columbus discovered America” version of history, Americans need to grow up with an understanding of the complex and sophisticated cultures that flourished here in 1492, of the great diversity of languages, foodways, religious practices and world-views of Native peoples, and of the continued existence of their rich cultures today. We should teach about the Lenape treaty of friendship with William Penn, and how Penn’s descendants shamefully betrayed it with “The Walking Purchase” decades later. We should teach how the Oneida people were the first allies of Washington’s army during the Revolution, and how their corn — and an Oneida woman named Polly Cooper who taught them how to prepare it — helped the army survive that awful winter at Valley Forge; how the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy influenced the development of the United States Constitution; and what life was like for Cherokee people before, during, and after the Trail of Tears. We should teach about the disparities of life on reservations today and about the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women. These facts are not footnotes to American history: they are American history. And if we don’t teach them, we help perpetuate Native American invisibility.
We are in the midst of a terrifying epidemic of violence and death directed at Native American women and girls. Sadly, it is a continuation of centuries of violence. It is estimated that 84% of Native American women experience violence in their lifetimes. On some reservations, women are murdered at a rate 10 times that of the general population. In 2016, there were an estimated 5,000 reports of missing or murdered indigenous women. This is a stain on the conscience of our nation — and policymakers must take action immediately to solve this profoundly disturbing problem.
The first and most urgent action is for Congress to pass Savanna’s Act. Sponsored by a Republican in the Senate, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, it was passed unanimously by the Senate in the previous Congress, but the then still Republican-led House failed to get it to the floor. Now it once again awaits Congressional action. Savanna’s Act would dramatically improve coordination and communication between tribal, state, federal, and local authorities, as well as clarify the roles and responsibilities of each of those. It would empower tribal governments with the resources and information necessary to effectively respond to cases of missing indigenous women and girls. Following the addition of important amendments to the bill, it would also improve justice for the majority of Native Americans who do not live on Reservations, but who also suffer disproportionately from violence and exploitation. In the memory of murder victim Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, as well as countless named and unnamed indigenous women and girls, Congress must pass this legislation without delay.
We also need to finally fix the jurisdictional issue that has far too often prevented justice from being served in cases in which indigenous people are victims. Good statistics on crime in Indian Country are very hard to come by, but by some estimates 80% of sex crimes committed against indigenous women are committed by non-Native men. Shockingly, crimes committed on reservations by non-Native people cannot be prosecuted by tribal courts. And because they generally fall outside the reach of nearby non-tribal courts, men often get away with their crimes unpunished. This is just ridiculous. In the military, we have “status of forces” agreements with other countries where our troops live or visit. If I step off a ship in Nigeria, I am subject to that country’s laws, and that is as it should be. If I come to the Pine Ridge Reservation, and I commit a crime, a tribal court should have full jurisdiction to bring me to justice. We must change the law to give tribal courts jurisdiction over all crimes committed on Native lands, including ones committed by non-Native people.
When I am President, I will use the power of my office to shine a spotlight on the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women. I will talk about individual cases, direct federal resources toward solving them, and mourn with the families of victims when there is no positive outcome, as Presidents regularly do in cases of national tragedy. For that is what this is: a national tragedy. I will launch a concerted effort to make sure tribal courts and police forces have the resources they need to deal with this plague of violence. And I will put particular effort toward boosting and spreading restorative justice programs, in which victims play an active role in determining how justice is applied to the perpetrator who victimized them. In small, isolated communities, where everyone knows everyone, restorative justice is particularly important. It can play a key role in rehabilitating criminals, even violent criminals, and tribal restorative justice programs — which are increasing around the country — are often rooted in deep cultural practices. Many tribes have traditions of “peacemaking” processes to deal with internal conflict, elevating healing and personal growth over simple punishment. We need the federal government to support such efforts.
We must also look beyond legislative fixes and process-based tribal justice issues to address the broader root causes of violence and injustice: lack of opportunity amid a context of intergenerational trauma. When we improve education, healthcare, infrastructure, jobs, and economic development, we should see a reduction in violence. Native American activists often discuss an epidemic of hopelessness on reservations, especially among youth — the high rates of substance abuse and suicide are indications of the extent of this problem — so we need to make a national priority of restoring hope to indigenous life. We need to atone for sins of the past, and make sure they never happen again. Native American people need to know that the government of the United States of America respects them, cares about them, and wants to see them succeed. As President, I will make this vision a reality. We cannot allow the status quo to continue any longer.