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Tribal sovereignty and the struggle for democracy in 2020

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A woman with gray hair holding a mic with a variety of flags in the background

An interview with Judith LeBlanc, Director of the Native Organizers Alliance, on social movements post-Standing Rock, the native vote, and governing power.

Judith LeBlanc, Director of the Native Organizers Alliance (NOA), recently sat down with Organizing Upgrade’s Jacob Swenson-Lengyel to discuss the Native organizing, tribal sovereignty and the recent Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum, the first presidential forum convened by Native communities and dedicated to discussing the issues that matter most to them, which Judith and NOA played a key role in organizing. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Jacob: Before we talk about the big presidential forum you just organized in Indian Country, could you give folks at Organizing Upgrade some context about what’s been happening in Native nations over the last few years?

Judith: In Indian Country, we are concerned about the future. From an indigenous point of view, we link our ancestors and the past with the future by how we walk in the present, how we organize our power. There is lots of innovation and a struggle for clarity about how we can exercise our collective power to achieve tribal sovereignty and the political power that flows from tribal sovereignty.

For the first time in history, we have two Native women in Congress. It’s taken hundreds of years for us to get Indian women elected to Congress; we have never had the kind of role models that other communities of color have had. The two Congresswomen see themselves — and we see them — as representing all of Indian Country. They come from congressional districts in New Mexico and Kansas, but they’re our congressional representatives, our voices on Capitol Hill.

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Their election is a reflection of a larger development in Indian Country, an interruption of the dominant racist, colonial narrative. A project that I participated in called Reclaiming Native Truth looked at racist stereotypes and popular perceptions of Indian people and the role that we play in society. Well, 39% of people believe we don’t even exist, that we’re gone, we’re part of history.

That’s not surprising considering that only a handful of states mandate that public schools teach Native history beyond the 1890s. For example, people learn about Reconstruction and the election of former slaves to govern in a way that’s siloed from Western expansion, a period of time when Indian land was being stolen, and Indians were massacred by the U.S. Army.

Standing Rock, the grassroots movement to stop the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline interrupted  that narrative. It showed who we are as a people and what we’re willing to do to protect Mother Earth. For both grassroots and tribal leaders, new possibilities have opened up for policy shifts and electoral victories at the local and national level.

In Indian Country, we’re in a political moment which is ripe for Native grassroots organizing, the best in my lifetime. We are electing our people to office locally and at the federal level. This challenges others to include Indian perspectives in every issue, every movement, and truly consider what it means when we say that all land is stolen in this country. We’re finding a tremendous amount of recognition of racist, colonial history. For instance, Columbus Day at the city and even on the state level is being changed to Indigenous People’s Day. We also have hundreds of Indians running for local office and getting elected. We are shifting from reliance on protest alone to moving into power, governing beyond our own collectively owned land, and for the common good. Or course, we’re always going to need the grassroots to raise their voices, to protest, but we understand that governing for the whole, participating in actually creating policies, is a major step towards achieving tribal sovereignty. Tribal sovereignty will only be realized for all Indian Nations with a broad and deep democratic system.

In the 1970s, when I came of political age, another surge moment within Indian Country erupted under the initiative of the American Indian Movement.  The occupation of Wounded Knee, and the building takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, were visible, militant protests organized along side of the other movements. But we, Native and non-Native, weren’t as prepared as we are today to take those steps from protest to power. 

Since Standing Rock, we’ve been doing it. Tribal leaders recognized that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s effort to protect its water supply and sacred sites was an act of sovereignty that should not be denied. We had over 400 tribes come together to support the sovereignty of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. There is a blossoming of tribal community initiatives which are built on traditional Indigenous wisdom and practices, creating emerging power centers to feed the momentum towards addressing the historic impact of systemic racism.

When people talk about protecting water and sacred sites, it’s about exercising our inherent, moral and legal rights to be caretakers of Mother Earth. The struggle around the Dakota Access Pipeline and protecting the Missouri River was a struggle to protect the water for 17 million people who live, play,  and love along the river’s shores. Tribal leaders are becoming even more aware of the critical role that they can and must play, not only for our own tribes, but for the good of humanity as a whole.

Now, many social movements, such as the movement around Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW), are picking up steam. Other grassroots social movements for food sovereignty and traditional methods of farming are becoming part of the general conversation about healthy food and a culture of health for all people. In addressing problems in our own community, we see our contribution to the health and wellbeing of other communities and humanity as a whole, just as we did when we were trying to protect the Missouri River.

Jacob: It’s really exciting to hear about the movements that are springing up after Standing Rock. Could you tell us about the organizing model you use at Native Organizers Alliance and what differentiates it from other organizing traditions and practices?

Judith: Organizing, in Indian Country, is as old as dirt. In Native communities, tribal cultures, we’ve been organizing since the beginning of time. That’s at the heart of why, despite an ongoing genocidal federal policies, over 500 tribal cultures and nations continue to exist and resist in the U.S.

Native Organizer’s Alliance is a Native organizing and training network. We support and build the power of grassroots Native community groups and tribal leadership to foster the unique role Indians have in the struggle for democracy, being the only peoples that have collectively owned, self-governed lands.

In Indian Country, we have one of the longest running experiments on democracy and how democracies  — the good, the bad, and the ugly — work to meet the needs of the people, even under dire conditions. We are working to strengthen the power of tribal governments and their accountability to the grassroots. We are supporting grassroots community groups, traditional societies and tribal governments to pursue a spiritually directed strategy that strengthens our cultures in the 21st Century.

On a national level, our theory of change is that both short-term and transformational social change rely on our traditional values and spirituality woven into grassroots organizing, traditional leadership, and elected tribal governments. All three have a role to play in Indian Country. They’re not the same, but must be walking the same path towards sovereignty. That is a critical facet to traditional practices of building community. Everyone has a role that is needed and part of building community.

It’s a very indigenous concept. In the Native American Church (NAC), in my family’s tradition, when you go into the tipi for ceremony, you are going in as part of a community. You’re seeking guidance from the Creator and the community assembled about what your role can and should be. That is a fundamental building block for organizing a robust ecosystem of movement leaders and organizations working together for transformational social change. We have to recognize that we all have roles to play and overcome the “oppression Olympics” where we try to figure out who has more oppression and therefore should be at the center of any given organizing campaign. Those closest to the problem will always have a critical role in the creating the solution, but we can not make transformational change alone. It takes an interactive ecosystem of relationships. All movements need to break from linear, transactional formulas which limit the awareness of relationality. We are all related. 

In Indian Country, we are in a unique position because of our inherent, moral and legal relationship to the federal government based on our treaties. While the majority of Indians live in cities, tribal sovereignty and the fulfillment of treaty rights will have an impact on Indians no matter where they live. Our treaty rights guarantee us healthcare from birth to death, as well as education, housing and caretaking of land. Every movement is grappling with these issues, but we have a special connection as sovereign nations within a nation to the process of achieving those basic human rights for all.

In order for democratic processes to be deeper and more effective in the United States, the government must recognize those treaty rights. And in order for sovereignty to be realized, it requires a deep, authentic democratic system driven by justice. We will never achieve tribal sovereignty unless there is a fight for democracy and a system that recognizes our nation to nation relationship with the federal government. Strategically, Indian Country organizing must be centered on building strong relationships with other social movements. Indian Country must be fully engaged in the struggle to defend democracy, which is under attack in every way. 

In North Dakota, we worked in the midterm elections with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal government and traditional leaders to organize a grassroots response to voter suppression that would effectively strip Indians of their right to vote. It was a real fight and we won. There was 94% voter turnout. We knocked on every door on that reservation. We had a 300% increase in early voting. 

The state legislature passed a law to require all voters to have a street address instead of a postal address on an ID in order to vote. North Dakota had one of the best voter laws in the country allowing people to vote with any ID, but the new restriction is not only going to be a barrier for Indians, but for all people who live in rural areas. It affects Native voters on reservations in a disproportionate way, but it will affect democracy as a whole in North Dakota.

Broad popular, public education on tribal sovereignty is needed and should not be left in the hands of the rightwing. Treaties are guaranteed by the Constitution. In fact, the Supreme Court has consistently supported treaty rights as the law of the land including under the current Supreme Court. Two more cases were decided in 2019. So we must make sure people both within and outside of Indian Country understand that tribal sovereignty is a legal and constitutional right, and just as fundamentally that it is a moral obligation.

That is also a basic indigenous organizing principle. Everything is related. All things politically, economically, socially, spiritually in the natural world. That concept of all my relations being in relationship with each other helps you understand spiritually how to walk in the present, how to understand history, how to dream and believe that we can have a better future. That’s sense of wholeness and connection to humanity is liberating. And it is so needed at a time of such polarization when people are questioning the very values at the heart of most religions and the very survival of humanity.

At the grassroots level, our strategy aligns with a certain direction of Alinsky-based organizing. But we see shifting power as rooted in the power from within, the power of our values, the power of the ancestral knowledge, the power of traditional practices, the power that we can draw upon to bring our communities together.

We are already seeing emergent power centers develop. Every community has them. In Indian Country we have economic development projects. On Pine Ridge (the poorest county in the United States) an economic development corporation was founded with a spiritual ceremony that gave people the inspiration to do what some thought was impossible: create a community that would develop regenerative economic systems. Now you have workers being trained to build houses, plant crops, develop food sovereignty, and develop community. That’s an emergent power center. Now, could it become just another 501(c)(3)? Of course. But at this moment it is an emerging power center because it’s changing social and economic relations within the poorest community in the US. You see this in the Bronx, in New Orleans. These are places where people are changing the social and economic relationships on a very micro level. But those emergent power centers are important in developing our understanding of how we’re going to shift power. If people see that through their own labor they’re able to have regenerative economic and social relationships, this strengthens the hope and conviction that we can challenge the power of the 1% and win. 

So that is an indigenous framework for organizing at the grassroots level and our understanding of power. It’s unique to the spirituality that is alive and well in our communities. 

At the same time, there are over 500 traditions, cultures, origin stories and traditional practices. In every Indian community we have to be mindful of the particular culture and traditions. What works on Pine Ridge Indian reservation is not necessarily going to work on the Navajo reservation. So our trainings and the work that we do with local communities and tribal entities is to listen and learn from them what from their traditional practices will be of use in the 21st century to build the power for transformational change and realize tribal sovereignty.

Jacob: The focus on holism and what you’re saying about roles and struggling between the particular and the shared is really valuable. Let’s talk about the two day forum that you held with these major presidential contenders. What happened at the forum? How does it fit into the works that’s happening in Native communities going into the 2020 election?

Judith: This was the first ever Native presidential candidate forum. Four Directions, our sister organization, did research and found there are seven states where the Indian vote would be decisive in determining the outcome of 77 electoral votes. These 7 states include critical Senate races. From that scientific basis, Native Organizers Alliance and Four Directions began to organize traditionally, to reach out to the community groups that we have relationships within those seven states. We did on the spot political education about the historic gathering and the importance for candidates to hear directly from tribal and grassroots leadership. We also knew it would be an opportunity to share information about the groundbreaking work which weaves traditional approaches with science to address the economic and social problems we face. 

Our goal for this first ever Native presidential forum was twofold. The first was to energize the Indian electorate. We reached hundreds of thousands through the  live stream of the event and the vast array of media coverage, including both the Indian and mainstream media. The second goal was to educate the presidential candidates about our strategies for overcoming the challenges in Indian Country.

It was powerful. For example, Secretary Julián Castro spent quite a bit of time prior to the forum collecting input from various leaders in Indian Country. He issued a very excellent Indian platform prior to the forum. The week of the forum, Elizabeth Warren did the same. No other candidates have unveiled platforms at this point. The debate that happened during the forum, the back and forth with tribal and community leaders over the course of two days, will influence how whoever gets elected governs. For example, most of the candidates said they would have (or would consider) a cabinet-level representative of Indian Country.

There were over 500 people present at the forum. Native Organizers Alliance bought over 60 leaders from Indian Country to staff the event. It was totally grassroots staffed from the ticket-takers to hosting of the press as well as panel participants who questioned the candidates. Some volunteers were elected public officials from North Dakota, for example, others were elected tribal leaders, others were grassroots and traditional community group leaders. 

We had a large youth delegation from Minneapolis and two reservations in South Dakota. Afterwards, Julián Castro met with them. We had student leaders from the Center for Native American Youth who spoke on the panels. Youth leaders and an elder met each candidate backstage and escorted them to the stage. The youth vote is a large part of the electorate and therefore critical in Indian Country. High school students participated as well and see themselves as part of the greatly needed voter education organizing in their communities. In many ways, the audience reflected the diversity of mainstream of Indian Country.

When Senator Elizabeth Warren apologized for her actions in the past, there was a deep understanding and a sympathetic response because we know that when President Trump taunts her with “Pocahontas,” he is taunting us. He is feeding, aiding, and abetting racism against Indians and sowing division. When Bernie Sanders spoke about the significance of sovereignty for the dignity of tribal communities, there was a strong reaction. We had one candidate, an independent from the Navajo reservation, who is running. Of course everybody just loved hearing and seeing him speak even though we understand the balance of forces, but he is a voice who is educating our peoples about the importance of voting.

Coming out of this forum, Native Organizers Alliance will work with Four Directions to develop a candidate questionnaire and a grassroots program to outline what we expect from any new administration. We’re also turning our attention to working in those seven states where the Native vote will be decisive. Native Organizer’s Alliance is working with groups in Wisconsin, Arizona, Minnesota, Michigan and Nevada. We’ll be doing the kind of voter registration, education and mobilization that ensures that our grassroots groups and tribal entities expand their organized base. The day after the elections, we will be ready with a stronger organized, politically empowered grassroots base.

We’re very excited and we are looking forward to working with our non-Native allies in those states. Every movement now must consider how we make voting just one step in building our movements. In order to protect and deepen democracy in the long run, we need strong, vibrant social movements who understand that voting is one of the tools of social change along with protest, advocacy, governing and popular political education. That holistic strategy is needed for us to make transformational change which deals with the systemic nature of the problems that our communities face.

Jacob: It’s exciting to hear about the plan to keep doing movement politics work going into 2020. Judith you have so much experience in left organizing and the peace and justice movement. I’m wondering if you could talk broadly about the electoral strategy that you think that left organizers need right now.

Judith: I think that the bottom line for left organizing is not to exceptionalize the electoral arena. We need to utilize basic values-led organizing approaches to strengthen existing and begin new relationships. That is the only path in this contentious and polarizing arena. That takes relationality, an indigenous concept. We are all related. Our ancestors and descendants are all related by what we do in the present. What each community does affects everyone. We must work in a collaborative way with an open heart and open mind — and discernment.

Acting with reciprocity and awareness of others would go a long way in changing the flow of resources to all our communities. It’s a well-known fact that those who fund voter engagement in Indian Country and Communities of Color always wait until just before the elections, then throw money at voter turn-out, when the problem is about systems which inherently depress voter turnout. We need to create ecosystems of groups that are working together between elections. That’s why our grassroots organizing work needs to be resourced.

We also know that in order for democracy to work, you have to have the right to vote near where you live and not be arbitrarily stricken from the voting rolls without recourse on election day. There is a  full-fledged attack on the right to vote not only for Indians, but People of Color, working class people, and rural voters. It’s in Georgia, it’s in Texas, it’s in North Dakota on Indian reservations. It’s not just a random episode here or there; it’s a system. In order to address that system of voter repression and the restrictions on access, we need funding to build the bridges between the affected groups and our allies, and not simply on election day. We have to create ecosystems that function all year round.

We need narrative change work, too, and that also needs to be funded especially as elections season is underway because that’s a part of voter engagement and mobilization. In Indian Country, we need to convey the idea that voting is and should be a tradition. We need resources to train the messengers, the grandmas, the teenagers and the traditional leaders, those we trust in our communities on reservations and in urban communities.

We also need to ensure that people doing this work are paid a living wage. It’s a popular catchphrase that “we must bring those who are closest to the problem into organizing the solution.” But we must pay them a living wage to do this work. 

In North Dakota, we paid over a hundred canvassers $15 an hour and it had a huge impact, enabling people mobilized by their convictions to put food on the table and also support local businesses. People were able to do things for their children that they otherwise would not have been able to do while doing good for their community. There were many people who said: “Since Standing Rock, we’ve been waiting to do something more for our community.” These are people who fought for months to stop that pipeline and they weren’t being paid. They were doing it motivated by a sense of responsibility to the natural world. 

Elections are a tool to do the same, and every other sector has ways of funding that work. We also need it in Indian Country. One young woman saved enough money in three weeks to buy her first car so that she would have a way everyday to go to classes at the tribal college. We should be funding that kind of voter mobilization alongside spending money on specialists who analyze voting trends. One tactic limps without the other. We need science and people power. In Indian Country, voter engagement work involves mobilizing the people that we live next door to and who we have and will be in relationship with for generations.

Jacob: Well thanks so much Judith for taking the time to talk with Organizing Upgrade. We’ll look forward to talking with you again soon.



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