Native Americans notably absent from 2nd presidential debate, on the eve of Columbus Day

Native Americans notably absent from 2nd presidential debate, on the eve of Columbus Day
Source: AP
Source: AP

Entire books could be written about the topics that were ignored at Sunday's presidential debate in St. Louis.

But on the eve of Columbus Day, the noticeable silence around Native American issues from Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, their campaigns and the debate moderators seemed especially blatant — and typical of how indigenous people get brushed aside by mainstream electoral politics.

"It's nothing new, obviously," said Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a policy director at the Center for World Indigenous Studies and co-author of All the Real Indians Died Off and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans. "It's part of a bigger issue — America's foundational premise relies on the erasure of indigenous people from its discursive landscape."

This erasure has been especially apparent this election cycle. At a time when indigenous-led protests against the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline in North Dakota are drawing national attention, Native Americans were not mentioned once during Sunday's debate, or during the previous debate in Hempstead, New York, on Sept. 26.

In fact, Mic was unable to locate the last time Native Americans were mentioned in any U.S. presidential debate.

To make matters worse, only one major-party candidate has a platform or policy proposal that substantively engages with indigenous issues. Hillary Clinton has a factsheet on her campaign website that reads "Growing Together: Hillary Clinton's Vision for Building a Brighter Future for Native Americans," which includes promises to protect tribal assets and resources and ensure high quality education for Native youth, among other items.

Trump's engagement, meanwhile, is probably what you'd expect: He has hardly spoken about Native Americans this election at all, except to ridicule Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) references to her alleged Cherokee heritage by calling her "Pocahontas."

Donald Trump (left) and Hillary Clinton (right) at the second 2016 presidential debate in St. Louis
Source: 
Rick T. Wilking/AP

"We wouldn't expect [support] from him," Gilio-Whitaker said of Trump. "He's always been well-known for his anti-Indianism."

What we have instead, in Trump's case, is a long track record of hostility. In 1993, the businessman remarked at a congressional subcommittee hearing that the Native American tribes who threatened his casino interests didn't actually "look like Indians" to him.

He later bankrolled an attack ad campaign in New York in 2000 to prevent local St. Regis Mohawk tribe members from building casinos that competed with his in Atlantic City. The campaign relied heavily on racist rhetoric — claiming Mohawk-owned casinos would bring "increased crime," "broken families" and "violence" to the area, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Clinton, on the other hand, met with numerous tribal leaders in March and walked away with the endorsement of more than 30 of them, according to Indian Country Today Media Network.

It's an important endorsement, rhetorically — but one that hasn't been trumpeted by Clinton's campaign with the same enthusiasm as her allyship with the Mothers of the Movement, the Khan family and various Hispanic groups, which signaled her links to movement-friendly black Americans, Muslims and Latinos, respectively.

So between them, Clinton and Trump have replicated two of the most common approaches to presidential engagement with Native Americans: relative silence, in the case of the former; and outright racism and hostility, in the case of the latter.

There are varying reasons for this. It's partly a matter of political expediency: Native Americans and Alaska Natives make up just 1.2% of the U.S. population — a negligible demographic when it comes to swinging national elections.

Celebrants at Seattle's first annual Indigenous People's Day in October 2014
Source: 
David Ryder/Getty Images

What's more, many of the issues that disproportionately impact indigenous people — like high rates of poverty and police violence victimization — can easily be folded into other, less race-specific issues, such as economic or criminal justice reform, according to Gilio-Whitaker.

Columbus Day is an opportunity to rethink this approach. The federal holiday has increasingly become the nation's pre-eminent opportunity to reckon with the United States' colonial past, the very basis of which hinged on the conquest and subjugation of Native peoples.

For example, instead of celebrating Christopher Columbus — the Italian explorer who "discovered" the Americas in 1492 and spearheaded its conquest by European powers — a growing number of cities and states have opted to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day, or some version thereof, in recent years.

Doing so is meant as a minor form of redress: we will celebrate you, the logic goes, instead of the man who precipitated your ancestors' demise.

But the Columbus holiday rebrand still fails to reckon completely with the systemic marginalization that colonialism has wrought on Native peoples — including, but not limited to, political silence from major-party presidential candidates.

"It's still the elephant in the room," Gilio-Whitaker said.

At the end of the day, indigenous issues are rarely a priority in national elections. But they remain a potent referendum on how the United States reckons with its violent past — and Clinton and Trump's non-engagement with them stems from a long line of candidates doing the same.

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Zak Cheney Rice

Zak is a Senior Staff Writer at Mic.

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