President Donald Trump was in North Carolina on August 24, 2020, for the opening of the Republican National Convention in Charlotte and at a food distribution event in Mills River. Photo: Shealah Craighead / White House

Republicans open presidential convention with familiar anti-tribal messages from Donald Trump

The Republican Party kicked off its national convention with no visible Native presence, opening a week of events that stand in marked contrast to the Democrats trying to unseat Donald Trump from office.

A roll-call of state delegations on Monday morning was touted by the Republicans as a showcase of the true face of America. But there weren't any actual representatives from tribal or urban Indian communities amid attempts by some states to highlight the contributions of Native people.

Arizona Delegation Chairman Michael Ward spoke of the Navajo Code Talkers whose Dine language helped the United States secure victory in World War II. But it won't be until Tuesday evening that the party sees someone from the Navajo Nation, when Myron Lizer, the tribe's vice president, is scheduled to address the convention.

And instead of highlighting the 21 other Indian nations with homelands in the state or the Native Americans who account for 5.3 percent of the population, Ward boasted of the "miles and miles and miles of big beautiful wall" being built through the Tohono O'odham Nation over the tribe's objections.

Representing South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem did not fare all that better when it comes to tribes and their sovereignty. After receiving a huge round of applause when she introduced herself, she pointed out that her state is the home of the sacred Black Hills and of Sitting Bull, a revered leader from the Sioux Nation.

But in thanking President Trump for "bringing fireworks back to Mount Rushmore," she didn't mention how Sitting Bull's people continue to fight the ongoing desecration of their treaty territory by the U.S. government. One of them, Nick Tilsen, the president of NDN Collective, is facing 17 years after being arrested on his own homelands by state authorities over the July 4 holiday.

"He's brought jobs to our town and he puts America first each and every day," Noem said of Trump, who is being sued by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe after she threatened to get the president to shut down coronavirus checkpoints on the reservation. She made similar threats against the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Immediately following Noem's roll call, Trump made his first appearance at the convention, where in-person activities are taking place in Charlotte, North Carolina. He didn't highlight tribal nations either, instead promoting actions and policies that have gone against their interests.

"We’ve done things that nobody thought were possible," Trump told Republican Party delegates as they renominated him as their candidate for president. "Like example, the Keystone Pipeline. We got that approved. The Dakota Access Pipeline. They were all bogged down, right? Right?"

Tribes and activists are suing the Trump administration for approving the Keystone XL Pipeline, whose path crosses treaty territory in Nebraska, Montana and South Dakota. Decisions about the project have been made without consulting Indian nations or addressing their concerns, according to cases in federal court.

Similar litigation is ongoing against the Dakota Access Pipeline, as a federal judge has invalidated a permit which enabled a wealthy donor to the president to start transporting oil through Sioux Nation treaty territory without tribal consent. The final portion of the project is located on the homelands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, where Sitting Bull was killed by a federal agent in 1890.

"We’ve got things that they said you couldn’t get done. We’re energy independent," added Trump, whose administration just cleared the way for oil and gas drilling on lands owned by Alaska Native corporations, whose Iñupiat shareholders support development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

The Gwich’in people, on the other hand, are suing the federal government for opening the door to resource exploitation. Their entire way of life revolves around a caribou herd in ANWR whose movements they fear will be disrupted by energy activities.

The messages from the GOP this week dramatically contrast those from the Democrats. Presidential candidate Joe Biden, who was nominated at his party's convention last week, has vowed to rescind approval for Keystone XL, which is not yet operational, and to stop oil from flowing through Dakota Access, which went online six months after Trump took office in January 2017.

The Democratic National Convention featured four Native leaders presenting delegate totals for the states of Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota and South Dakota. Jonathan Nez, the president of the Navajo Nation, also took part in a unique keynote address that highlighted voices not often seen at major political party events.

The DNC's Native American Caucus held two meetings last week, attracting not just Native voters but some of the party's most prominent members, like Dr. Jill Biden and House Speaker and California Rep. Nancy Pelosi as well as former presidential hopefuls Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. The Republicans have no similar counterpart.

The final night of the DNC included a prime-time speech from Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, who is one of the first two Native women to win election to the U.S. Congress. Besides Lizer, the RNC has not announced any prominent Native presenters.

Lizer, who has met with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, isn't being treated by his own party as a star at the convention on Tuesday evening. The reverence is instead being directed toward Nick Sandmann, a recent Catholic high school graduate who sued a handful of mainstream media outlets for covering his confrontation with Nathan Phillips, an elder from the Omaha Tribe, during the Indigenous People's March in Washington, D.C., in January 2019.

"The left is mad I decided to speak because it’ll be the first time I testify about the media," Sandmann, who is 18, wrote on social media last week.

The RNC runs through Thursday, with Trump broadcasting some activities from the White House throughout the event.

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