ALBANY — Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who has promised to speak to the issues and people not addressed by other politicians or covered by the media, met with Native American leaders this week near Syracuse.
In stops in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse near large Native American territories, Sanders said he would refocus national attention that’s grown fuzzy since the 1970s to address the poverty, underfunded schools, and substance abuse plaguing many Native Americans.
“We are pleased to have at least one candidate for president talk about the original people,” said Onondaga tribe Faithkeeper Oren Lyons, 86, in an interview Wednesday. “On the issue of native people, he was straight and talked the history, which is probably the most terrible history there is if you look at it, and he said there is much to be adjusted. He talked about broken treaties.
“I think it’s a hot button, though,” Orens said of other politicians. “I heard we are a problem, that our treaties are a problem. I guess it is. If you make a promise and you don’t keep it, it’s a problem.”
Sanders met privately with Lyons, Chief Brad Powless and a half-dozen other tribal leaders before the campaign event at the Oncenter conference center in downtown Syracuse on Tuesday.
“From Day 1,” Sanders said Tuesday, “before we became a nation, the Native American people were lied to or cheated. Our nation owes the Native American people more than we could ever repay. Many of the best parts of country come from our Native Americans as they have taught us that human beings are part of nature, that we have to live with nature, not destroy it.
“But today, many of the Native American people are in deep, deep trouble,” Sanders said. He referred to high levels of poverty on some native land where the native people either didn’t turn to casino gambling allowed under federal law or found that their dependence on gambling has left them with dwindling revenue amid the rise of state-supported and Internet gambling.
New York is among 15 states with 100,000 or more Native Americans. The U.S. Census Bureau states that the poverty rate for Native Americans nationwide was 28.3 percent in 2014, the highest rate of any race group. The national poverty was 15.5 percent.
“As president of the United States, we will reform our relationship with the Native American people,” Sanders said.
In a rare moment in the heat of a campaign, Sanders met days before Tuesday’s New York primary with the tribal leaders who represent people who don’t vote. The Iroquois nation tribe, steeped in traditional values and sovereignty, however, has for decades had great influence with Native American groups nationwide dating to the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre; most of those groups vote. Those Native Americans live in important presidential politics states, including California and smaller states such as New Mexico, Arizona and the Dakotas where the native peoples’ vote could help swing a close election, Lyons said.
“Bernie has understood that and has taken the initiative,” Lyons said. “It would be interesting to me to see how the other candidates react to that. So far, nothing.”