It's not easy to convince people at the Winnebago Tribe Powwow to talk about politics and the upcoming election. It's not only talking over the steady, infectious rhythm of the drum groups performing in the dance circle. There's often a sense that Native people get left off the radar of the people campaigning for office. In fact, if there's something everyone agrees on, regardless of political philosophy, it's that candidates need to make a swing through the reservation more often.
Just before dusk, the drummers accompanied singers on the long and mournful "flag song," performed as Native American veterans lowered and carefully folded nearly 100 United States flags surrounding the dance circle. For participants and spectators, it was a reminder that while tribes are independent, sovereign nations, their members are U.S. citizens and potential voters.
"I don't want candidates for Congress and Senate to ignore the Indian vote," said Jennifer Bear Eagle, an attorney and chair of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs.
She's a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe. She said decisions are made in Congress concerning federal funding and other issues that "direct the everyday lives of Indian people out on a reservation, where they may have no idea that these things are affecting them."
Photo by NET News
Indian Commission chair Jennifer Bear Eagle discusses her election year concerns as Alexcia Taylor-Boggs listens.
Bear Eagle and five other members of the commission stayed after their quarterly meeting at Ponca State Park to take part in an NET News Campaign Connection: Voter Voices roundtable discussion. Representing different tribal nations and different regions of the state, they talked about issues candidates should address during this year's campaigns for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
The last U.S. Census counted just short of 30,000 Nebraskans with some percentage of Native American ancestry, but few political polls target Native Americans. As a result, there's little solid data on the issues of greatest importance in the five tribes officially recognized in Nebraska. Nonetheless, tribal leaders are quick to point to the familiar and challenging problems that have faced Native populations for decades: Jobs. Health Care. Education.
"The candidates really need to understand that education is important to Nebraskans in general, but in particular to Native people," said Andrea Dawn Miller, a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux living in Scottsbluff, Neb. She pointed out that even if the issues are familiar to non-Native people, they have come at them from a starkly different vantage point. The issue of education, for example, goes beyond merely addressing grade point averages.
"We have a high rate of suicide on Native American reservations," Miller said, "and a large part of that is a lack of education and being unable to fulfill themselves mentally and socially, and getting that self-confidence built up to where they feel they can succeed and move on."
She said she believes policy makers "are missing the bigger boat on the middle and junior high age, where you see a lot of the mental health problems."
As Miller spoke at one end of the table, Kenny Chapman sat nearby looking down at his aged, rugged hands and slightly nodded. A member of the Santee Sioux and the oldest participant in the discussion, he had shared why he felt education should be the highest priority for elected officials.
"I spent most of my life in and out of jails as a drunk," Chapman said in a quiet, rumbling voice. "I got my GED and went into junior college and then the University of Kansas," where he got a degree in psychology. Most recently he was the director of his tribe's food program.
"I realize there are two roads. You can go down the road of alcohol or the road of education," he said. "Life has been so much better for me since I graduated from college."
With the unemployment rate among Native Americans nearly twice as high as the United States as a whole, those taking part in our discussion also put a high priority on economic development. According to a 2010 study done by the non-profit Economic Policy Institute, Native Americans in the Midwest experienced the greatest jump in unemployment - 10.3 percent - which raised the rate to 19.3 percent for the region. Numbers released by the Obama administration late last year put the unemployment rate within the boundaries of some reservations as high as 80 percent.
"If I was to give a message to the candidates, it would be to support anything and everything that gives support to the economy," said Alexcia Taylor-Boggs, president of the Ponca Tribe's economic development corporation, ONSI Ponca, LLC. The company is an umbrella for half a dozen tribally owned businesses, including a smoke shop and a tannery with a focus on job creation for tribal members.
Taylor-Boggs emphasized that any federal economic development push needs to include businesses on Native American land.
"Many of them are jobs we create that are not only tribal members but also non- tribal members," Taylor-Boggs said. "Whether you are tribal members or not, we are all residents of Nebraska and we need to support that."
"We have a commitment to help our Native people. We want to give them a hand up, not a hand out," added Mark Peniska, who also serves on the ONSI board. He has worked for Teledyne, a high-tech equipment company and promoting proposals that the Ponca tribe moves into casino gaming.
Photo by NET News
Former Ponca tribe leader Mark Peniska shares his opinion about economic development and Native Americans, along with Andrea Miller and Kenneth Chapman.
Peniska, a Democrat appointed to the Indian Commission by former Gov. Mike Johanns, a Republican, said political leaders could offer the most help by "not tying our hands."
"We are sovereign nations. We have the ability to put land in trusts. We have the ability for some tax exemptions. We don't want to have to go back to the government every year for grants, for education, for our health care, for our social services," he said. "We want to own (our own) economic development."
Peniska sees an opportunity if government agencies "stop fighting us" on development of initiatives, like allowing some of the tribe's land in trust to be given a tax exemption "just like some of those big businesses that get tax exemptions. We just want to do it on our own."
There were other issues raised during the discussion, including some that are deeply personal.
"There is a lot of domestic abuse victims who are Native women, and I don't think that gets enough attention," Miller said. She's a family practice attorney and said she witnesses firsthand how tangled local, state and federal laws applied on and off the reservation can delay protection needed for battered women and children.
"Enforcement of those protection orders across state lines and tribal lines; drawing up and getting uniform applications so that those are enforced uniformly would be a federal issue" in need of attention from Congress, Miller said.
Kenny Chapman added one other item to the discussion of important issues in this election. He said he believes the most important thing any candidate could do is to follow the strict interpretation of the United States Constitution advocated by some American conservatives, an interpretation as they believe the founding fathers intended.
"Most of the Constitution that was written and was adhered to was from the word of God, from our creator, and we need to stick to that, the old way," he said. "Christianity, preferably."
The quarterly meeting of the Indian Commission addressed items ranging from a youth empowerment program to the burial of potentially ancient Native American remains unearthed in Nebraska. It was held to coincide with the 147th annual Winnebago Powwow. To the best of anyone's knowledge, no one running for U.S. Congress campaigned there, one of the largest Native events of the year.
Additional funding for this story provided by Native American Public Telecommunications, Inc. NAPT exists to serve Native producers and Indian country in partnership with public television and radio. NAPT works with Native producers to develop, produce and distribute educational telecommunications programs for all media including public television and public radio. NAPT supports training to increase the number of American Indians and Alaska Natives producing quality public broadcasting programs, which includes advocacy efforts promoting increased control and use of information technologies and the policies to support this control by American Indians and Alaska Natives.