Tribal leaders and advocates slam Donald Trump as NCAI opens annual convention

Germaine Omish-Lucero serves as executive director of the Strong Hearted Native Women’s Coalition. Photo by Tara Gatewood

Election Talk at 2016 National Congress of American Indians
By Tara Gatewood
Indianz.Com Correspondent

Phoenix, Arizona -- With the 2016 election less than a month away, the National Congress of American Indians is hosting its annual convention here this week.

The conference officially began on Monday but hundreds of tribal leaders, advocates and citizens descended on the Phoenix Convention Center on Sunday for a water summit, task force meetings and tribal consultation sessions. Throughout the day, speakers highlighted the significance of the presidential race.

“We have really one of the most important election cycles that is definitely going to have an impact on Indian Country,” said Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community.

With health care, housing, education and other issues at stake, Lewis zeroed in on Republican nominee Donald Trump, whose disparaging and lewd 2005 comments towards women dominated headlines over the weekend.

“You have a candidate that really has no agenda for Indian Country. What we continually see in the media completely shows an irresponsible bend to his campaign," Lewis said. "It’s a wake-up call for Indian Country that our voice needs to be heard and we need to vote.”

Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community. Photo by Tara Gatewood

Germaine Omish-Lucero, the executive director of the Strong Hearted Native Women’s Coalition, Inc., shared similar sentiments during a meeting of NCAI's task force on violence against women. In an interview after the meeting, she said Trump’s comments about women throughout his entire campaign have impacted her and her work.

“As an indigenous person, to hear the comments that this presidential candidate said really hits home especially when you look at the statistics of what our Native people go through, especially with domestic violence, sexual assault, sex trafficking, human trafficking, our youth and violence and stalking and we have the highest rates across the board,” Omish-Lucero observed.

But Omish-Lucero, who is a citizen of California’s Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians, expressed frustration with the intense focus on the 2005 videotape and audio. She said similar stories about Trump's behaviors didn’t elicit the same enormity of a response.

“Here we are only a month away from the election and all this whole time we’ve had to listen to his rhetoric and making comments about women and minorities,” Omish-Lucero said.

“All this time he’s been saying this stuff. Now it becomes mainstream talk and now people are wanting to back away from him because this person was not a minority, this person was not Native, she was a white lady," Omish-Lucero said. “How many people get brushed aside because of their ethnicity or who they fall in love with but, if something happens to a white person it becomes, ‘Now we can’t stand for this.’”

The Trump controversy, she asserted, shows how mainstream society “thinks about not only indigenous people but people of color or people who are not a part of white dominant society.”

National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby opened the organization's 73dd annual convention in Phoenix, Arizona, on October 10, 2016. Photo by NCAI

Trump's comments aren't just a subject of media scrutiny. Governor Lewis noted that a growing number of Republican lawmakers -- including an important one in Arizona, where Native Americans represent 5.3 percent of the population -- are withdrawing their support for their nominee.

“When you have someone like John McCain, who’s a senior senator and very influential within the Republican Party, take back his endorsement of the Republican nominee for president, that shows a lot," said Lewis, referring to Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), a former two-term chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

"It shows that even within the Republican Party things are in disarray. So you have a viable option on the Democratic side with Hillary Clinton," added Lewis, who introduced Democrat Hillary Clinton at a rally in March and attended the Democratic National Convention in July.

Chairman Vernon Finley of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes from Montana also voiced alarms about Trump, who continues to draw large and vocal crowds to his events.

“The scary part is no matter how far he [Trump] goes there’s still a pretty solid base support for him, that’s discouraging,” said Finley.

Only two members of federally-recognized tribes are serving in the U.S. Congress and both are Trump-supporting Republicans. Finley is hoping someone from his state -- Democrat Denise Juneau, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation and a descendant of the Blackfeet Nation -- can make Capitol Hill a little more inclusive. She would be the first Native woman in Congress if she wins next month.

“It would pretty historic if she were to get in there," said Finley. "She’s a remarkable go getter that is highly intelligent and knows how to get things done. She’d be a really big plus."

NCAI's 73rd annual convention runs through Friday as tribal leaders focus on the Native vote, cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and other pressing issues. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the ongoing fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline are high on the agenda as well.

Tribal leaders are also hearing updates from senior Obama administration officials and key members of Congress throughout the week.

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