Founder of the American Indian Movement and elder statesman in the Twin Cities civil rights community Clyde Bellecourt (L) speaks to U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders during a forum on race and economic opportunity in Minneapolis, United States, February 12, 2016.

‘Are You Going to Honor the Treaties?’ Clyde Bellecourt Asks Bernie Sanders

Jacqueline Keeler

On Thursday, Clyde Bellecourt, founder of the American Indian Movement and elder statesman in the Twin Cities civil rights community, was the last audience member to be given the mic to question Bernie Sanders at the Black America Forum in Minneapolis. Despite repeated interruptions by the moderator to keep his question short, Bellecourt, a 79-year-old Anishinaabe elder, blasted Sanders and other presidential candidates for not saying “a single word about Native people.”

Bellecourt introduced himself both by his name in his language and his “colonial name” and reminded Sanders and those gathered of the long struggle of Native Americans to be heard on the national stage. He described his own role and AIM’s in leading Native American people to Wounded Knee in 1973 in an armed takeover of an Oglala Lakota village on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, site of the infamous 1890 massacre of Lakota men, women and children.

The moderator, Anthony Newby, chided Bellecourt, reminding him that the organizers had opened the event by recognizing they are on Indian land. Newby also told the elder that Native American issues were not being brought up at this forum because it is a Black forum, to which Bellecourt responded forcefully, “This is a people of color forum!”

As Sanders was standing to leave for another meeting he was late for, Bellecourt asked him if he would honor the treaties between the federal government and the Native American community to which Sanders responded: "I will do everything I can to redress that.”

The entire exchange can be seen on Youtube and is being widely shared via social media in the Native American community.

Just a week ago, Sanders’ campaign was riding high with Native American voters, having just announced the creation of a new Native American Policy committee to advise the candidate, and won a landslide victory on the Meskwaki Indian Settlement. Clinton won only 16.7 percent of the vote in that district.

RELATED: Sanders Announces Initiatives At Affiliated NW Tribes

Native supporters for Bernie were quick to counter Bellecourt’s accusation of not mentioning Native people by pointing out that in his New Hampshire primary victory speech Sanders did mention Native Americans, saying, “It is a political revolution that will bring tens of millions of our people together...It will bring together blacks, and whites, latinos, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, straight and gay, male and female.”

Indian Country Today contacted the Bernie Sanders campaign for a response to the video. However, in an interview with Nicole Willis, the campaign’s Native American consultant, she stressed that Sanders is notable for his work as the co-sponsor of the 2013 Violence Against Women Act, which featured an unprecedented increase in sovereign jurisdiction of tribes over non-Indians. The act allows for tribal prosecution in tribal courts of non-Indians accused of domestic violence on reservation land. This constitutes the largest increase in tribal jurisdiction since the Oliphant vs. Suquamish Tribe Supreme Court ruling in 1978 that determined tribal courts do not have authority to try and punish non-Indians unless specifically authorized to do so by Congress.

"Oliphant's impact on the development of federal Indian law and life on the ground in Indian country has been nothing short of revolutionary,” writes legal scholar and professor Dr. Bruce Duthu in his book American Indians and the Law. “The opinion gutted the notion of full territorial sovereignty as it applies to Indian tribes."

The Oliphant decision has led to a gap in jurisdiction is reported well known and exploited by offenders who know they will most likely not be prosecuted. The fallout was outlined in a 2010 Department of Justice report that found Native women had 2 and one-half times the rate of rape and murder of other American women. It has also been reported that the FBI which has jurisdiction in such cases declined to prosecute in over 70 percent of reported cases. This expansion of tribal jurisdiction was bitterly fought by Republicans.

Sanders has also co-sponsored the Save Oak Flat Act to repeal the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange Act that authorized the transfer Oak Flat, land sacred to the Apaches and other tribes in the Tonto National Forest to a foreign mining company. He has also remained outspoken against the Keystone XL pipeline in contrast to his opponent, Hillary Clinton, who was initially “inclined” to approve the pipeline and hired a major Keystone lobbyist as a consultant for her campaign.

Jacqueline Keeler is a Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux writer living in Portland, Oregon and co-founder of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, creators of Not Your Mascot. She has been published in Telesur, Earth Island Journal and the Nation and interviewed on MSNBC and DemocracyNow and Native American Calling. She has a forthcoming book called “Not Your Disappearing Indian” and podcast. On twitter:

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Scott Boan
Scott Boan
Submitted by Scott Boan on
I hate to see Bernie not have an answer ready for every situation, just like he didn't when Black Lives Matter took over his podium early in the campaign. Getting blind-sided like that isn't easy for everyone, especially when there are TIME constraints. That being said, I TRUST that Bernie Sanders will - as he said - "redress" these issues of Native Americans. He also plainly stated that he agreed that you have been treated badly. He got a stuttering start with the BLM movement, but his history and course correction have come a long way. WE have a LOT OF WORK TO DO, and I believe your issues, as well as those of all repressed and oppressed people will be at the top of his priority list with the OTHER staggering issues that face this country. I'll do what I can (not much except "Like" on FB and retweet your tweets), to make sure that this is not swept under the rug. I hope you will soon find the trust that I have in this man, his record, his experience and his intentions !

Blair Gilbert's picture
Blair Gilbert
Submitted by Blair Gilbert on
Apparently I'm missing something as it relates to the part of the 2013 Violence Against Women Act. It appears that Sanders' representative, Nicole Willis, is indicating that act gives tribal courts jurisdiction on sovereign lands. And if that's so, why is the Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians suit even being considered. Again, maybe I'm not understanding the entire point Ms. Wills is making, but I think I am.

Old Lady's picture
Old Lady
Submitted by Old Lady on
The question of honoring the treaties is LONG overdue - like several centuries. We have to do what's right, not just what's convenient. I wish more people would speak up like this.

Jacqueline Keeler
Jacqueline Keeler
Submitted by Jacqueline Keeler on
Blair Gilbert: the expansion of jurisdiction under VAWA is for DV-related cases only, but it does represent the first expansion in jurisdiction over non-Indians that has occurred in the nearly 40 years since the Oliphant decision. Bernie Sanders' has committed to further increasing jurisdiction beyond DV cases in the next reauthorization of VAWA.

jamessimon500's picture
Submitted by jamessimon500 on
Funny, Clyde never says "a single word" about his role in the premeditated murder of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash in 1975. He was there, he helped plan it, he knows who else was involved and he hides behind other issues...but it still follows him wherever he goes.

DavidFMayerPhD's picture
Submitted by DavidFMayerPhD on
Sanders LIE: Sure, we are going to honor our treaties. Sanders TRUTH: I just want your votes and then I will forget that you even exist. I am not one of you, but I know enough history to realize that NO GROUP of human beings was ever more persecuted than the Native Americans.

mthormahlen's picture
Submitted by mthormahlen on
Clyde Bellecourt: “If you are elected president, are you going to you honor the treaties made with the Indian people?” Bernie Sanders: "The Native American people have gotten a terrible deal from the federal government. I will do everything I can to redress that." (and then Sanders obviously had to leave) --- If you are in any way disappointed with Bernie Sanders' brief response to Clyde Bellecourt regarding this very important question. Please take a few moments to consider some facts: 1. Over 370 treaties have been ratified between Native American and the United States government 2. The U.S. government used treaties as a means to displace Indians from their tribal lands, a mechanism that was strengthened with the Removal Act of 1830. 3. Many treaties were ratified by Native American peoples under circumstances of extreme duress 4. Through a combination of coerced treaties and the contravention of treaties and judicial determination, the United States Government succeeded in paving the way for the westward expansion and the incorporation of new territories as part of the United States. 4. Treaties are complex legal documents --- “From 1778 to 1871, the U.S. federal government tried to resolve its relationship with the various Native tribes by negotiating treaties. In each of hundreds of treaties that were negotiated, these were formal agreements between two sovereign nations. So Native American people were citizens of their tribe, living within the boundaries of the U.S. The treaties were negotiated by the executive branch on behalf of the president and ratified by the U.S. Senate. The Native tribes would give up their rights to hunt and live on huge parcels of land that they had inhabited in exchange for trade goods, yearly cash annuity payments, and assurances that no further demands would be made on them. Most often, part of the land would be 'reserved' exclusively for the tribe’s use. The obvious effect of the treaty process was to speed the transfer of Indian land to white settlers. As early as 1803, Thomas Jefferson recognized that the American people wanted land and that it might be difficult to get the land needed as long as Native people continued their current lifestyles... The treaties helped set the stage for a later and more dramatic policy of Indian removal. Indians who resisted attempts by the whites to obtain Indian land via treaty arrangements found themselves facing 'removal' further westward. The white settlers created Indian territories in Oklahoma and the western half of present-day South Dakota where the Indians would be out of the way of westward expansion. In 1830, President Jackson convinced the U.S. Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act that appropriated funds for relocation — by force if necessary — of Native Americans. Federal officials were sent to negotiate removal treaties with the southern tribes, many of whom reluctantly signed. However, the Cherokees in the state of Georgia, fought their removal in the federal Supreme Court. They thought they had won when Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Cherokees were a "domestic dependent nation" that could not be forced by the state of Georgia to give up its land against its will. Unfortunately, President Jackson and the state of Georgia ignored the decision and moved the Native Americans to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. The Cherokees refer to their trip as ‘The Trail of Tears.’” A Long History of Treaties --- “Indian Treaties and the Removal Act of 1830 The U.S. Government used treaties as one means to displace Indians from their tribal lands, a mechanism that was strengthened with the Removal Act of 1830. In cases where this failed, the government sometimes violated both treaties and Supreme Court rulings to facilitate the spread of European Americans westward across the continent... Through a combination of coerced treaties and the contravention of treaties and judicial determination, the United States Government succeeded in paving the way for the westward expansion and the incorporation of new territories as part of the United States.” US Department of State - Office of the Historian: Indian Treaties and the Removal Act of 1830 --- “For centuries, treaties have defined the relationship between many Native American nations and the U.S. More than 370 ratified treaties have helped the U.S. expand its territory and led to many broken promises made to American Indians.“ Broken Promises On Display At Native American Treaties Exhibit --- List of U.S. – Native American treaties (wikipedia) 1778–1799 1800–1809 1810–1819 1820–1829 1830–1839 1840–1849 1850–1859 1860–1869 1870–1879 1880–present

idiotwind's picture
Submitted by idiotwind on
Fairly standard political stuff. Sanders is supposed to be anti-establishment yet he gave the predictable establishment answer. Trying to shut down Belcourt was just plain mean. Politicians make all the time they want for issues that get them the vote, clearly Indian votes don't mean much to Sanders. He couldn't wait to get out of there.

c5vanzile5's picture
Submitted by c5vanzile5 on
There are so many things Bernie Sanders must do for our communities not just what sounds like things pursued by Ms. Willis. I as a voter need Bernie to be actually passionate about my issues and visit more reservations.