- By Kyle Edwards
This fall, as the country heads to the polls, the Native American vote has the potential to be the difference-maker in states like Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and beyond. Simply put, with roughly 5.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States, Native support matters.
Clara Pratte (Diné) is the national tribal engagement director for the Joe Biden presidential campaign. Her hiring marked the first major role on the campaign dedicated to Indigenous communities. Pratte is CEO of Gallup, N.M.-b based Strongbow Strategies, a firm that supports companies in need of IT, cybersecurity and facilities support. She has also served as the national director of the U.S. Small Business Administration's Office of Native American Affairs, and as chief of staff for Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye. Pratte spoke with Native News Online about the challenges of reaching Native voters in the age of COVID-19 and how the Biden campaign plans to win over Indian Country — and what a Biden administration will do if they win.
What's your strategy for reaching voters in Indian Country this fall? What’s different compared to four years ago?
The world has changed drastically in the last four years, and tribal engagement is being done in a very different way than it was four years ago. With tribal communities, by and large, what we like to do during campaigns is to reach people where they're at, in a face-to-face dialogue discussion. Due to COVID-19 and really big and valid concerns about tribal communities wanting to protect their people, many tribal communities are not allowing visitors in, and we have to be very mindful of not inadvertently putting people in harm's way. That is a huge issue. What happens now, the strategy for me reaching voters is through very heavy phone and digital outreach.
Unfortunately, due to infrastructure issues across Indian Country, Zoom isn't always the best for our folks, so we’re spending a lot of time talking one-on-one with leaders. Text message is always good, email where infrastructure exists and where we can get enough digital capacity to do Zoom and conference calls, that's also very helpful. But I think it's a very personalized approach because it has to be. We're missing that one-on-one connection and visiting with people. We have to just be mindful that we're being respectful to tribal leaders, engaging one-on-one, talking with them about their concerns and engaging in the days that come up between now and the election.
What's been the biggest concern you've heard so far from Native voters? There's obviously a number of challenges because of COVID-19. Many people have raised concerns about the greater reliance we might see on vote-by-mail. Is there anything in particular that's stuck out to you?
Vote by mail has been raised a number of times. I think in terms of issues, if there's something that COVID-19 really has had an impact on and has really laid bare, it’s the disparities between Indian Country and society at large. When you have lack of infrastructure, underfunded Indian Health Service, all of these things get really exacerbated when you have a pandemic like this. Indian Country has been hit so hard by COVID-19, it's been just heartbreaking.
I've personally lost loved ones to this horrible disease. That's just really on everybody's mind right now. How do we handle the crisis that is COVID-19? How do we prepare for the next crisis? How do we make sure we invest appropriately in Indian health care services? How do we make sure that our people have access to everything that others, off tribal nations, have access to?
Those are huge things that have been brought up the most. Then, of course, the fear of how are people accessing polls. Are there enough polling sites and polling stations? Do people know deadlines? Are they going to be able to get their mail-in ballots in? All these concerns that we've seen, which have really disenfranchised Native voters.
How has Indian Country been written into this year's Democratic National Committee's platform?
The Democratic National Committee released their tribal platform about a week ago. That was a really great process. I think the DNC did a fantastic job of highlighting the biggest issues that are facing folks in Indian Country. They addressed a variety of policy platforms, concerns about sovereignty, protection of land, taking land into trust and developing economies in tribal communities. I believe that platform is posted publicly on their website as well. The campaign, similarly, will be releasing our platform in the coming weeks.
I think that people are going to look at this and say, “This is the most progressive Democratic platform that has ever been put forth for Indian Country.”
What states have been targeted as those having the potential for the Native vote to be a real tipping point this fall?
Well, this fall is really historic for Indian Country, and really highlights the power of the tribal vote. This cannot be stressed enough. We have lessons learned as a nation, following the 2016 election when we saw that it really is every vote counts. When you're talking about very thin margins in some of these states and you're looking at states that have huge tribal populations. When you add those two things together, it is critical — so important. Tribal votes are the make or break it in a lot of these swing states.
The states that really have that strong tribal, or at least big tribal vote, in terms of population numbers are Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina — and Florida has a huge tribal population that we're looking at for getting out the vote. Most importantly, but I'm a little biased because I'm an Arizonan, but Arizona as well. Arizona is really an important battleground state from every office in that state and for the first time ever, we have a real opportunity to turn Arizona blue.
Shifting gears a little bit. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has been roundly criticized for not fulfilling tribal consultations and having lapses when it comes to working with tribal advocates on a number of issues, from CARES Act funding to tribal sovereignty. How would a Biden administration address those lapses in Indian Country?
Joe Biden is a staunch supporter of tribal consultation. During his time under the Obama-Biden administration, which I was very fortunate to have served in under the Small Business Administration, it was the law of the land. Tribal consultation policy was important. Every agency, every department had to submit their tribal consultation policy, it had to pass muster with the White House to make sure that we were doing it appropriately, as the foot soldiers out there on behalf of the administration.
I know and I have full faith and confidence that when we have a Biden-Harris White House, we're not going to have those issues. Because we understand that consultation is not a box-checking exercise, it's a before, during and after federal action. Given the CARES Act was done in such a time of emergency and trying to get it all up, then you work overtime. You make sure it happens, you engage and you talk with people.
What would a Biden administration do to promote economic development and opportunities for American Indians and Alaskan Natives?
We will expand upon this in our policy document for sure, but I can say in the racial equity economy plan, which we released a week and a half ago, we draw out specifically some economic development portions for Indian Country in that piece of it. A huge part of that is investment in infrastructure. When you're talking about Indian Country and you're talking about economic development, you can't really address issues of economic development in parts of our tribal communities when you lack basic infrastructure. In that policy document, we recognize that water infrastructure is economic development infrastructure for tribal communities. That's just so huge.
I love talking about all the pieces of economic development and again, it's varied across tribal communities, but by and large, when you look at tribal communities, there's such a lack of basic infrastructure, water, electricity. Now with COVID-19, we know that there's a digital divide. We knew that already. In a world where we're going to be relying for the foreseeable future on protecting our communities and doing things remotely, we need to make sure that they're connected and that they have access to reliable and safe internet to keep them safe and not having to send kids to school prematurely and if I need to work from home, I can do that.
And COVID-19, of course, is certainly exacerbating those disparities that have existed for so long.
Yes. The other thing that Vice President Biden has made clear is his request for mandatory funding for the Indian Health Service, which is huge.
I want to touch on the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. MMIWG is a significant crisis in Indian Country. Recently, the Trump administration's Operation Lady Justice Task Force has opened several offices across the country dedicated to investing more resources to solve missing and murdered cases nationwide. Is this enough? What would a Biden administration do to address this issue? Would it take it even further?
Yes. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls crisis is real, I'm certainly not going to dissuade or take away from the fact that there's action finally happening now, four years into the administration. But I will say that Vice President Biden, as being the crafter of the Violence Against Women Act, is such a huge proponent of addressing the safety of our women and girls and children and elders in Indian country.
It's a broad problem in Indian Country when you're talking about access to basic public safety. We are going to expand on that. We are going to make sure that under a Biden-Harris administration, we are engaging with tribal communities on how to address this. I know that with the rollout of the current administration's platform on this, it's great, it's drawing attention to it. It's an important issue. I think we will do it better, I think we're more in touch with tribal communities. I think we'll work collaboratively with tribal communities to address this crisis and to make sure that they have a seat at the table when we're rolling out programs that directly impact their community.
The announcement of Kamala Harris as Biden's running mate was major, historic news. What's been the reaction from tribes in California about this, who are very familiar with her? How will she come in and support Native communities.
There has been a great benefit from having Senator Harris run her campaign previously, because a lot of the issues that were brought up by tribal communities during her run were addressed during that time. I think she has a vast familiarity with tribes in California. She's worked collaboratively with many of those tribes. We've received a lot of positive responses, and we've also received questions. I think that's fair.
I really look forward to having Senator Harris as part of the ticket to be able to talk to tribal communities about her role as the attorney general, her capacity as a senator, some of the things that she's done on behalf of tribal communities in her time in the Senate and some of the things that she committed to on the campaign trail while she was making her run for the presidency. Some of which included a commitment to put hundreds of thousands of acres of land into trusts and to work with tribal communities to strengthen sovereignty.
In your role as the tribal engagement director for the campaign, when there is this lingering problem in front of you like the digital divide and face-to-face dialogue may not always be feasible because of the era we’re in, what strategies have you had to implement to reach certain voters?
It takes a great amount of coordination with folks on the ground. You have to be communicative and you have to have all of your ducks in a row, so to speak. So working closely with state leaders, state party leaders, state organizations like Mission for Arizona, which is the coordinated campaign in Arizona. Just making sure that we are putting resources into Indian Country. I know that's always a concern for tribal voters. We want to make sure that we are giving our folks on the ground all the tools they need to engage effectively with tribal communities and tribal voters.
I always say I'm one person, but there's a vast network of people in each and every state that are part of the campaign, that we rely on to help lead that engagement. I’m really excited to say that we have a very diverse campaign. I'm the tribal person, so to speak, but we have tribal members throughout the campaign that have other jobs that are not tribal.
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