More Native Americans are participating in the 2016 election than ever before. Eight indigenous candidates are running for Congress, up from two in 2014. Over 90 are running for state legislatures, again exceeding previous years. Hillary Clinton ran campaign ads in Navajo and met with tribal leaders in Iowa, Washington, Arizona and California during the presidential primaries. Bernie Sanders met with 90 leaders in total, a political record. “This is the best campaign ever in Indian Country,” says Nicole Willis, member of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla and former advisor to Bernie Sanders. “There’s no question about that.” Native Americans, who make up approximately 1.7% of the US population, are unlikely to determine a presidential election. But they do play an important role in shaping local politics and swinging votes for seats in Congress. But why is 2016 proving to be such a vibrant year for indigenous politics?
Many Native American commentators point to President Barack Obama’s efforts to improve relations with the country’s tribal nations.
In the course of his two terms in office, he has settled hundreds of legal disputes with indigenous communities, passed favourable legislation, like the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, and established an annual conference for tribal leaders to meet at the White House. Ties between the federal government and many Native American communities, some of whom were denied the vote until the 1950s, have never been better.
“Obama’s commitment to young natives in particular has had a tremendous impact,” says Erik Stegman, executive director of the Center for Native American Youth. “We’ve seen a lot of interest in this election and a large number campaigning for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.”