Biden-Harris campaign releases policy plan for Native American tribal nations

The 15-page plan acknowledges systemic discrimination, tribal sovereignty and treaty obligations.

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ST. PAUL — Marked by a Thursday, Oct. 8 campaign visit to the American Indian Veterans National Memorial in Arizona, Democratic presidential and vice presidential nominees Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have released a robust policy proposal for Native American tribal nations that acknowledges tribal sovereignty and systemic inequities in health, economic and educational outcomes in Indian Country.

The 15-page, single-spaced policy plan begins by acknowledging that the United States "was founded on the notion of equality for all" but "this promise has been denied to Native Americans who have lived on this land since time immemorial." The candidates go on to say that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the systemic inequities between non-Native and Native Americans, with Natives contracting the potentially fatal respiratory illness at 3.5-times the rate, and dying at 5-times the rate of white Americans.

Per the proposal, the candidates' presidential priorities for Indian Country are strengthening U.S.-tribal relations, upholding treaty obligations to providing quality health care and education to Natives, restoring and protecting tribes' natural and cultural resources and land, addressing disproportionate violence against Native populations, protecting Native Americans' access to voting and more.

According to a pool report, Biden and Harris on Thursday visited the American Indian Veterans National Memorial at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, where they were joined by Cindy McCain and several tribal leaders from throughout Arizona.

Minnesota's Democratic Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, endorsed the Biden-Harris ticket in August , saying that "Indian Country will once again have a friend in the White House" if Biden and Harris win.


In response to Biden's Thursday policy rollout, Courtney Parella -- who works as deputy national press secretary for President Donald Trump's reelection campaign -- said that Trump "has been a strong supporter of the Native American community." She pointed to $8 billion in coronavirus aid that the White House directed to Native tribes, though Minnesota tribal leaders say that assistance came with issues.

"(Trump) remains committed to finding solutions to prominent issues faced by Native Americans, from access to better education to rural development and more," Parella said in a written statement Thursday. "President Trump will leave no American behind as he delivers the Great American Comeback, and that includes our tribal nations.”

Minnesota is home to 11 federally recognized Native American tribes, Wisconsin to 11, South Dakota to nine and North Dakota to five.

Here are highlights of Biden's policy package:

U.S.-tribal relations

In the proposal, the campaign states that Biden "understands that tribal sovereignty and self-governance, as well as honoring the federal trust responsibility to Tribal Nations, should be the cornerstones of federal Indian policy" in order to rebuild "trust, good faith, and respect." For this, the campaign says a Biden White House would appoint Native Americans to high-level government positions, "address chronic underfunding" by the federal government in Indian Country, defend the Indian Child Welfare Act and promote consultation with the tribes.

Health care

While the novel coronavirus pandemic -- which has claimed a disproportionate number of Native lives compared to white Americans -- is new, Indian Country has seen disparate health outcomes for years. Native Americans on average have shorter life expectancies and higher rates of chronic illness, and lack health insurance at higher rates than any other racial or ethnic group, despite the United States' treaty obligations to provide reliable and accessible health care through the Indian Health Service.

Biden's policy plan would increase funding for the IHS, which it says "has been underfunded for decades, as well as nationally recruit health care workers for Indian Country, expand telehealth, increase data collection and sharing on health outcomes and address "social determinants of health" -- such as access to nutritious food, clean water, adequate wages and mental health care -- that impact overall health.

Protecting tribal lands, natural and cultural resources

The plan says a Biden Administration would protect and secure Native reservation boundaries for self-governance, as well as reverse course on the Trump White House's decisions granting permits to natural resource extraction and transportation on traditional Native lands. It also said Biden would make it easier for tribes to put land into trust, and that he would consult with Native Americans to address climate change.


Violence against Native people

With Native Americans significantly more likely to be victims of violence -- particularly Native women and children -- Biden's plan says he would increase data collection and sharing on violence against Native people across jurisdictions, address tribes' lack of power to prosecute non-Natives who commit crimes on Native lands and work to solve the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), as well as support survivors of violence.


The United States is also responsible for providing education to Native youth through the Bureau of Indian Education, but Native students still face disproportionately low high school graduation rates and are the least likely of all racial or ethnic groups in the U.S. to attend college. The Biden campaign says this will only be exacerbated by the pandemic, with a lack of internet access making it impossible for some Native students to attend virtual classes.

Biden proposes to increase funding to BIE K-12 schools and their infrastructure, as well as tribal colleges and universities. He also said his administration would recruit and retain diverse teachers to educate Native youth, make college more affordable and promote the teaching on Native history and culture in public schools.

Economic development

With nearly one in four Native Americans living in poverty -- nearly twice the national average -- the Biden proposal plans to put federal dollars toward affordable housing, roads and infrastructure, expanded broadband access and more in Indian Country. The plan also proposes putting federal dollars toward stimulus and startup funds for Native Americans who own businesses and make art.


Pointing to the historic disenfranchisement of Native voters, the plan said it would expand access to the polls by supporting legislation like the Native American Voting Rights Act, appoint workers to the U.S. Department of Justice who will challenge laws aimed at suppressing the Native vote and create a task force to investigate the impact of policies like voter ID laws on Native Americans.

Mearhoff is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. You can reach her at or 651-290-0707.
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