Bernie Sanders Met With Native Americans To Discuss Poverty & Here’s Why This Matters

Less than three months after enlisting the help of Tara Houska, a Native American environmental justice activist, as an adviser on his campaign, Bernie Sanders met with Native Americans to discuss poverty and other challenge they face. The Democratic presidential hopeful visited Native people at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota on Thursday, and met students and Native American supporters and activists at Pine Ridge High School’s gymnasium. He wasted no time in addressing the major modern issues faced by Native people, on Pine Ridge Reservation and on reservations across the country, first by simply acknowledging them.

These issues include poverty, job scarcity, poor health care, lacking infrastructure, and climate change, to name a few.

The Argus Leader reports Sanders suggested the federal government under him would altogether take a far more active role in bettering the lives of Native people. “We owe a great debt that can never be repaid,” Sanders said. “If elected president we will keep those promises.”

The meeting then proceeded in “call-and-response style” between Sanders and his supporters, as he asked them questions pertaining to tribal arrest rates, why many Native students didn’t finish high school, and why health care was lacking on the reservation, and let individuals share their stories.

Some statistics to help you loathe the world even more, and also to offer some insight as to why Sanders’ speech was so important:

  • Native Americans are killed by police in higher proportion than almost any other group, forming only 0.8 percent of the population but making up 1.9 percent of all police killings. Native American men are admitted to prison at four times the rate of white men and Native women at six-fold the rate of white women, according to Lakota’s People Project, and simultaneously, form 35 percent of the nation’s female prisoner population.
  • Native students “post the worst achievement scores and lowest graduation rates of any student subgroup,” according to U.S. News, which reports that only 67 percent of American Indian students graduated high school last year, compared to the national average of 80 percent. The outlet further reports that their facilities are neglected and some even lack access to water.
  • Today, one in four Native Americans lives in poverty, according to Pew Research Center. Simultaneously, the White House’s Climate Assessment reported in 2014 that “poverty makes moving difficult for tribes that need to migrate in order to escape rising seas or other climate impacts.”
  • Medical Daily writer Dana Dovey points out that in 1978, “the United States government agreed to provide federally recognized American Indians and Alaska Natives with free health care,” but senate hearings in February revealed that the government-run Indian Health Service (IHS) provided dangerous and even deadly care for Indians on reservations. Further, Native Americans suffer from depression, alcoholism, and fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) at higher rates than any other group, according to a report by In These Times.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely too many people at all would know about these issues faced by Native people without a popular white male politician around to hand them his mic and let them share their stories.

This wasn’t the first time Sanders directly discussed injustice faced by modern tribes and his plans to address this.

Not too long ago, back in March:

And while listening to the voices of Native Americans and altogether raising awareness about their problems is important, Sanders’ policies, from dramatically increased investment in education and free public college to ending mass incarceration and arguably the most progressive climate change plan of this election season, directly benefit Native people. His proposals for federal marijuana legalization, would not only address high rates of alcohol addiction and FAS, but even create crucial jobs on reservations.

Much of the suffering and modern issues faced by tribes are at least in part results of historical genocide of their people, theft of their land, and destruction of their culture committed by white settlers and condoned by the American government in the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet ironically enough, you’d be hard-pressed to find modern portrayals of American Indians as victims rather than savages.

The South Dakota primary will take place on June 7 and the odds might be stacked against a Sanders victory, but regardless, the Vermont senator made quite the impression on some Native leaders.


The candidate won over South Dakota delegate and Cheyenne River Sioux tribal member Alli Moran, with Sanders’ promise to respect treaties with Native American tribes. “These treaties aren’t being upheld. We fight for education every single year, and it doesn’t get better,” Moran, who will be voting for Sanders, told the Argus Leader.

Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellow Bird Steele endorsed Sanders on Thursday, as well, telling the newspaper: “I endorse Bernie Sanders and I encourage all Dakota, Lakota and Nakota tribal members out there to vote for him too,” Steele said. “The reason we need to vote for Bernie is to give him some more power. Bernie needs the power of our vote to work on our treaties.”

You can watch his full speech at Pine Ridge Reservation in the video above. And if 52 minutes of him spitting the truth isn’t quite enough for you, you can also read his lengthy plan to “empower tribal nations” here.