Last Friday, a little over a week ahead of her town hall in Seattle on Sunday, August 25, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren released her plan for working with and investing in Native American communities. She calls it "Honoring and Empowering Tribal Nations and Indigenous Peoples."
As with her other plans, this one is substantive, including legislative proposals and fixes at every level of government.
As far as legislation is concerned, Warren says she and New Mexico congresswoman Deb Haaland have introduced the Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act, which would guarantee funding for all federal programs that serve Indian Country. (Disbursement of the money is currently subject to yearly appropriations decisions, and can go unpaid.) She also plans to push the Respect Act, which requires government agencies to consult with Native communities on any law that affects them.
The second part of her plan creates a number of positions in the executive branch that somewhat surprisingly do not currently exist, including a “permanent, cabinet-level White House Council on Native American affairs” and a Tribal Affairs Officer in the budget office.
Warren also wants to increase funding for housing, health care, education, digital and transportation infrastructure, and water and sanitation services on reservations. She proposes expanding loan programs and instituting “a nationwide Missing Indigenous Woman Alert System modeled after the Amber Alert System,” which would be responsive to new data on the high number of missing and murdered indigenous women.
She vows to protect federal lands and to revoke permits for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, all while closing racial and gender pay gaps and dealing with climate change in a way that prioritizes resources for frontline communities.
In a phone interview, Matt Remle, a Hunkpapa Lakota member and an editor at Last Real Indians, called Warren's plan "perhaps the most robust tribal policy platform of any past president."
Gyasi Ross, a member of Blackfeet Nation who worked on substantive portions of Barack Obama's tribal policy platform, said the same thing. "It rights so many wrongs, if it’s executed properly, of course," he said.
Both Ross and Remle were particularly impressed by Warren's promise to fund broadband infrastructure, add cabinet-level positions, and provide a fix to the Oliphant v. Suquamish case, which prevents tribes from prosecuting non-Native people who commit crimes on tribal lands.
The 1978 Oliphant decision stemmed from an incident on Suquamish land. Tribal authorities arrested a guy named Mark David Oliphant for speeding through the reservation and resisting arrest. Oliphant claimed the tribe had no jurisdiction, and the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in his favor.
"That decision has led to a free-for-all of non-Natives committing crimes on reservations," Remle said. "It’s obviously tied into the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. Tribal cops can't do anything and tribal courts can’t do anything. There’s zero accountability. There’s zero justice."
Ross called Elizabeth Warren's proposed fix "a really big deal" and something a non-Native person might not understand the importance of.
Ross also praised the idea of creating cabinet-level positions. "Despite the fact that we come from sovereign nations, oftentimes we deal with administrative assistants and other folks who have no executive power to make decisions. No disrespect to those people, but we’re talking about the leaders of sovereign nations here—we should be dealt with at the cabinet level," he said.
The plan to expand broadband in Indian Country also drew praise from Ross. "There are parts of Native America that have less broadband access than sub-Saharan Africa," he said. "That willingness to take on monopolies in certain areas so we can create opportunities for kids to compete in schools—that's coming from somebody who deeply studied and profoundly understood the needs of Native communities."
On top of that, Remle, who cofounded Mazaska Talks, an organization dedicated to getting cities to divest from banks that finance the fossil-fuel industry, thinks Warren's plan to revoke permits for the pipelines is "clearly huge," especially when paired with her plan to reinvest in Native Community Development Financial Institutions, which he said will "get us away from Wall Street banks and put the financial power and decision-making in the hands of tribes.
This plan comes several months after Warren released a DNA test online to prove her Native American ancestry, a widely criticized move that garnered a spectrum of reactions from eye-rolls to condemnations. She's since apologized, saying she was just repeating what her parents told her about her heritage. “I’m not a person of color, I’m not a citizen of a tribe, and I shouldn’t have done it," she told CNN.
"I think it was corny," Remle said of Warren's decision to post the DNA results, which she took down last Friday after releasing the plan. Hearing non-Native people claiming ancestry is one of the "top three things Native peoples hear on a constant basis from non-Natives—it's comical," he added.
"Where it becomes offensive is when people add this dubious claim to a Native American history or ethnicity to the false perspective that there are benefits that come along with that. Because people in the general population have so little connection to Native communities, they truly believe they're entitled to free college or a per capita check," Remle continued. "That’s where Warren touched a nerve. To her credit, unlike other people, she was clearly pulled aside by some Native folks who set her straight. She apologized, and I've since heard her talking about it not working that way."
For Ross, Warren doing the work of creating "an ambitious and audacious plan to help correct harm done to Native communities" went some way in restoring his trust in her as a leader.
"Native people are obviously entitled to feel however they want about her apology," Ross said. "Some people are going to say she’s doing this for political reasons, and that's valid. But for me, personally, this is sufficient."
Both Ross and Remle had good things to say about a similar platform released by San Antonio mayor and 2020 presidential candidate Julian Castro earlier this year, and also Bernie Sanders's platform, which he released during his last run for president. "Suspiciously absent from this conversation is Joe Biden," Ross said. "Biden was part of [Obama's] pretty amazing platform in 2008, and it’s interesting that nobody has heard neither hide nor hair from him since."