Bullock ceremonially signs bill

State Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, left, and Fort Belkap Tribal Council President Andy Werk Jr., at right, look on Aug. 12 in Fort Belknap as Montana Gov. Steve Bullock ceremonially signs a bill that allows tribes to develop community health aide programs.

Drawing heavily on his time in the governor’s office, Democratic presidential candidate and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said Monday he would focus on consultation with sovereign tribal nations to address systemic inequities that face Native Americans in the United States.

Bullock spoke Monday at the first-ever presidential forum that focused solely on Native American issues. The Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum was held in Sioux City, Iowa, a state Bullock has frequented in his three-month-old presidential campaign. It was hosted by the Native American Rights Fund and Four Directions Vote, a Native voting rights organization. LaMere was a Native American civil rights activist from the region.

“I’ll take the experiences that I learned here in Montana to Washington, D.C.," Bullock said. "I’ll take the lessons I’ve learned, some of the success we’ve had but also the recognition that there’s still a lot more to do."

Bullock spoke to the panel of tribal leaders, Native advocates and others in the audience via a video chat from Helena, where he attended the state Land Board meeting earlier in the day. Bullock told the forum he couldn’t attend because he was also going to the Jeremy Bullock Safe Schools Summit on Tuesday in Butte. The summit is named for Bullock’s nephew who was killed in a school shooting 25 years ago.

Bullock was introduced by Fort Belknap Tribal Council President Andy Werk Jr.

Eleven candidates will speak at the forum Monday and Tuesday. In addition to Bullock and Warren, others who appeared Tuesday were self-help guru Marianne Williamson and Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Slated for the second day of the forum are former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Native American activist Mark Charles, who is running as an independent.

Event organizers invited candidates from all parties, including Republican President Donald Trump and former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, who is running against him in the primary. They are not attending.

Tom Rodgers, executive vice president of the Global Indigenous Council, pressed Bullock about what he would do as president to start addressing the epidemic of missing and murdered Native women.

While Native Americans make up 6.7% of Montana’s population, they account for 26% of missing persons cases. By Rogers’ count, 5,712 Native women across the U.S. went missing or were murdered in 2016. That figure, he said, “represents the systemic failure of leadership in the country.”

Native communities are often pushed to put up billboards to raise awareness about cases, Rogers said. He also called for better data collection around the problem.

“If you don’t measure it, you don’t value it,” Rogers said.

While at the federal level, there's a stalled bill called Savanna's Act meant to facilitate sharing information between local, federal, state and tribal officials when Native women go missing, Bullock said Montana has been able to get legislation passed to start addressing the issue.

The hallmark bill in the package that cleared the most recent legislative session this spring was Hanna’s Act, named after a Native woman who was missing for several days in 2013 before she was found murdered near the rodeo grounds on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. The law creates a missing persons specialist within the state Department of Justice.

“She wasn’t even getting attention for going missing … and was found murdered shortly thereafter,” Bullock said. “I wish Hanna Harris was unique to the Northern Cheyenne or unique to Montana.”

Bullock said as both governor and attorney general before that, some of the richest experiences but also the most heartbreaking he’s had were through government-to-government relationships with tribes. He said he would continue to focus on tribal consultation, such as his annual meetings with tribal leaders from around the state, if elected president.

"I do look forward to, just as I've done in the last 10 years in public office, learning from our tribal nations, Native American brothers and sisters, how we best address the systemic injustice so that a generation from now we wouldn't be talking about a health disparity of 20 years or a generation from now there would never be a discussion of missing and murdered indigenous women. …

"For any of these we can't wait a generation, even though many of our tribal nations and indigenous people, they've been waiting."

A health improvement plan Bullock instituted after his first election to governor in 2012 found that in Montana, that Native Americans die on average 20 years earlier than white people. He said following that study he created to Office of American Indian Health within the governor's office, also in consultation with tribal leaders.

"Whether you're in Iowa or Oklahoma or Alaska or Montana, you should know that the next president of the United States is going to listen, is going to consult and is going to work in partnership to make all of our lives better," Bullock said.

Ta'jin J Perez, program manager with Western Native Voice, said Monday the forum is an important sign of the increasing understanding about the importance of Native Americans and their voice in the political landscape.

"The Native vote has been incredibly important in a lot of elected officials’ re-elections and successful campaigns, so it just goes to show the growing awareness of Native Americans as a very strong voting bloc, and the importance to not only reach out to get votes but to make deeper relationships,” Perez said, saying the forum was "long overdue."

Perez said he was happy to hear candidates discuss building relationship and working in consultation with tribes.

“I hope that theme persists with the rest of the candidates who are talking about their policy ideas, their plans that impact Indian Country, because if that’s the case then there’s going to be quite a lot of strong candidates that Indian Country can look to at the ballot box later on in November 2020,” Perez said.

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