Flagstaff, Ariz. – When Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke to a packed crowd at the Twin Arrows Resort on March 17, he became the first presidential candidate to visit the Navajo Nation in nearly 20 years.
Over 2,000 people waited outside in an overflow area where Sanders spoke first before he went inside to begin the rally.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye took to the stage inside welcoming the crowd of about 900 people to the sovereign lands of the Navajo Nation.
Begaye commended Sanders for bringing Native American issues like treaty rights, sovereignty, and cultural preservation to the forefront of his campaign.
“We need a candidate that will honor the color of our skin. It doesn’t matter what color,” Begaye said to loud cheers, “[and to] uphold the sacredness of being able to speak in your own language.”
Language and cultural preservation has become a priority for many tribes due to the U.S. and state government’s policies of cultural oppression such as the Dawes Act of 1887, the boarding school era, and the Termination Policy of 1953. Many tribal languages, dances, and ceremonies were not protected under federal law until the Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which finally passed Congress in 1993.
Sanders named some of these past policies in his speech but also highlighted current concerns.
“All too often Native Americans have not been heard on issues that impact their communities,” Sanders said.
“Despite the logistics of negotiating treaties which coerced tribal nations into ceding, as we all know, millions of acres of their homelands to the United States in exchange for guaranteed rights, many of those rights have not be upheld,” he said.
“I’ve been all over the nation speaking to tribal leaders, not just here in Arizona, and this is what I heard.”
Sanders cited statistics about Native Americans, one of which made the entire audience gasp and grow quiet – the fact that the second leading cause of death for Native American youth, ages 15-24, is suicide.
“That speaks to incredible despair,” said Sanders.
“We need a candidate that will back up economic development even in rural areas on Indian nation land,” Begaye said.
According to a 2014 report by Diné Policy Institute, the Navajo Nation which is roughly the size of West Virginia spanning across western New Mexico, southeastern Utah, and northeastern Arizona, has a total poverty and at-risk poverty rate of 63 percent.
“It’s important that we lay this out because without the knowledge we cannot go forward,” Sanders said about the statistics.
“Most of the programs dedicated to the tribal nations are underfunded. That has led to inadequate housing, inadequate healthcare, inadequate education, and insufficient law enforcement,” he said.
The audience cheered, “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” when Sanders brought up the Save Oak Flat Act, a bill to repeal a federal land transfer of a sacred site to a foreign mining company.
Sanders is a co-sponsor of the bill that would reverse the original 2014 land exchange that was quietly attached to the National Defense Authorization Act by a handful of Arizona Democrats and Republicans, including Senator John McCain.
According to the grassroots organization Apache Stronghold, “this bill has been snuck in a land package that has been added to the National Defense Authorization Act that must be signed by Obama to fund the U.S. military. The San Carlos Apache tribe has worked tirelessly to avoid this from happening.”
Sanders received another loud cheer when he talked his opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline.
“You all are living here in this beautiful state. You have an unbelievable natural resource. It is called the sun,” Sanders said pointing upward.
“The sun, especially in your state, is out almost every day – wish I could say that about my state,” Sanders joked. Sanders spoke for nearly an hour and the crowd dispersed. Some attendees drove 3-4 hours, while others were local. The crowd was diverse with people of all ages and demographics. While waiting to hear him speak, a group of supporters sang, while others shouted “Feel the Bern”. No protestors were visible and attendees chatted with each other about politics. One man held a sign that read, “African American men are not super predators.”
Some attendees waited as long as seven hours to hear Sanders speak. One undecided voter said she was glad she waited. “I liked how he explained everything. He has a plan for all of his ideas,” she said.
College student Danielle Sherlock said she likes Sanders’ idea of a tuition-free college education for all.
“College is expensive. Not many students have that kind of money,” Sherlock said.
Republican voter Louise Curley said she also likes Sander’s position on education. She talked about how education on the reservation is encouraged, but many accrue so much student debt that they can’t pay it and are forced to leave to pursue jobs elsewhere.
“It’s hard to be a Navajo on the Rez,” Curley said. “Some people drive an hour, hour and a half every day to work. You have to be fully educated to get a good job. And that’s what Bernie Sanders is saying. Some of these people are saying, ‘How are we going to pay for it’,” Curley said. “I think if we get educated, we can reduce welfare.”
The other Democratic presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton, has not come to the reservation, but did meet with Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez on March 21 in Phoenix at a multi-tribal leadership meeting. Nez has endorsed Clinton, but Begaye has not endorsed a candidate.