BISMARCK, N.D. -- Bernie Sanders took his motorcade down a remote highway to visit the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in rural South Dakota, one of the poorest in the country where an estimated 70 percent of high school students will drop out before graduating.
Before addressing the packed gym Thursday, the Democratic presidential candidate met privately with leaders from tribes in the area. They draped him in a traditional white-and-blue quilted blanket and exchanged gifts.
Jane Sanders, the senator’s wife, had brought a pewter and glass tealight from Vermont, and by the end of the day, Sanders’ staff was carrying moccasins, blankets and a bundle of sweetgrass handed to him as a gift from someone in the crowd.
From Minnesota to California, Sanders has met privately with Native American leaders from dozens of tribes in the past four months and spoken publicly, at each of his campaign stops, about the hardships their communities face.
His effort has not gone unnoticed, especially in the remaining primary states out West, where “Natives for Bernie” has become a visible and vocal part of the senator’s coalition.
Walter C. Fleming, head of the Department of Native American studies at Montana State University in Bozeman, said he was not surprised Sanders is advocating for such issues on the trail. “Sanders is picking up a lot of support more recently, probably owing a lot to the visits that he is making, particularly out West,” said Fleming, who belongs to the Kickapoo tribe in Kansas. “Jewish people, generally, have always been interested in causes about equal treatment and justice.”
Sanders himself echoed the sentiment when asked about the origins of his interest in the issue.
“It comes from, I think, a political life of trying to do my best to protect the least amongst us,” Sanders told ABC News after his visit to Pine Ridge. “I try to get an understanding of the reality of American life, and I’ve learned a lot in this campaign.”
'At Least We Matter to Somebody Out There'
In Pine Ridge, many of the audience members had Sanders’ T-shirts, buttons and signs, including Theresa Claymore, 66, who lives on the reservation and said she hitchhiked to the event.
“He is the best candidate to help the Native Americans,” she said. “He is the only one who took time out of his busy schedule to visit us.”
Claymore said she had watched him mention Native Americans during a TV interview. “At least we matter to somebody out there,” she added.
By most estimates, Native Americans and Native Alaskans comprise around 2 percent of the U.S. population, part of the reason that demographic has been often overlooked during presidential campaigns.
Looking Beyond the Immediate Concerns
While both candidates have checked some key boxes for the constituency -- talking about the need to improve health care and education on reservations and maintain tribal sovereignty -- Sanders has been more vocal in his opposition to other key issues like the Keystone pipeline and fracking.
“It is another block you can either ignore or cultivate,” professor Fleming added, saying again that the alliance made sense for the senator. “Particularly out West where some of these issue of land preservation and environment are not just Indian issues.”
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has not been without her support among Native Americans. Indeed, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, Brian Cladoosby, endorsed her alongside a number of tribal leaders in Washington State the primary.
Clinton’s husband, in particular, was extremely popular in Indian country. President Bill Clinton held a historic tribal summit at the White House with representatives from all federally recognized tribes and invited several tribes to participate in his first inaugural parade.
In March, Hillary Clinton was given a Lushootseed name, “tsiw?l?x??i” which means “Strong Woman,” during a meeting with 19 tribal leaders from around Washington state.
And Councilman Bill Sterud of the Puyallup tribe recalled the honor in participating in that inaugural parade.
“So in 2017, a little over a year -- when she’s elected the next president, maybe, perhaps -- we’ll get a call,” he said during their meeting.
Multiple Visits Seem to Make a Difference
But Clinton drew considerable criticism last month when she used a perceived offensive line to refer to now-presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump.
“I have a lot of experience dealing with men who sometimes get off the reservation in the way they behave and how they speak," she said during an interview on CNN.
The campaign quickly issued an apology for the former secretary of states’ comment that many people found offensive.
Bruce Duthu, a professor of Native American Studies at Dartmouth University, agreed that Clinton’s comment hurt her standing in some Native American circles and that Sanders has benefited from personal visits with so many tribal communities.
Still, Duthu said many native people remain skeptical of sweeping campaign promises from any candidate. As the constituency has been easily neglected in past administrations, many tribal leaders, he said, remain focused on maintaining basic tenets of their tribal sovereignty.
“The general sense I get is that native peoples are skeptical about either candidate being able to deliver on the promises they’re making to Indian country,” he said.
One major issue of concern is the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, Duthu said. “People in Indian country are keenly aware of the tremendous role the Supreme Court has in setting the boundaries of tribal sovereign authority,” he added.
“Those boundaries have been drawn quite narrowly in recent years by a court dominated by conservative justices. There’s a lot riding on who gets the empty chair and, therefore, a lot riding on who gets to name the occupant of that chair.”