When Bernie Sanders took the stage at the Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort late last week, he became the first presidential hopeful since 1999 to campaign – in person – on the largest Native American reservation in the United States.
The Navajo Nation crowd loved it, chanting his name and cheering as he went through his normal talking points: Income inequality, prison reform, and free college education. But the biggest roars came as the Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful started talking about the issues facing tribes and the much-maligned relationship between the U.S. government and the continent's longest residents.
"I think there is no debate, sadly no debate, that from the first day settlers came to this country, the Native American people have been lied to, they have been cheated, and negotiated treaties have been broken," Sanders said. "We owe the Native American people so, so much."
The Native American vote and the issues facing Indian country don't typically get a lot of attention in presidential campaigns. When candidates talk about minorities or court their votes, the attention is most-often focused on African Americans and Latinos.
Until recently, that was the case with this election.
Today's primary in Arizona has changed that. Besides the speech on Navajo Nation last Thursday, Sanders spoke about Native American issues at his other events in Phoenix and Tucson over the weekend and even doubled-down on Flagstaff, holding a rally there Monday night.
In a phone interview, he told member station KJZZ, "Whether their voting presence is large or small, I think we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Native American people, and that we've got to end the unfair way in which they are treated."
It's fair to say politics is at play. Sanders needs a win in Arizona to help his chances of getting the Democratic nomination, and the Native American vote could give him a needed boost.
A Solid Voting Block
Native Americans are the second-largest minority in the state of Arizona, behind Latinos, at about five percent of the state's population.
That might not sound like a lot, but they pack an outsized punch when it comes to the state's elections.
"Despite our comparative smallness, Arizona Indian voters as a block can be the swing vote," said David Martinez, a professor of American Indian studies at Arizona State University and a member of the Gila River Indian Community, south of Phoenix.
The lobbying power and economic clout of the state's reservation-based casino industries is one reason for that, Martinez said. The sheer amount of land under the control of the state's 22 federally recognized tribes is another.
"Arizona Indian reservations inhabit more than 25 percent of the landmass of the state of Arizona," Martinez said.
There's also a historical precedent. In state and local elections, the Native American vote – particularly from Navajo Nation – has played decisive roles in electing Arizona governors and congressional representatives alike, says Mark Trahant, a journalism professor at the University of North Dakota and a blogger on tribal voting issues.
That's because it's not uncommon for a tribe like Navajo Nation to vote almost uniformly in an election, if they feel strongly enough about an issue or a candidate.
"That's the real advantage of Indian country," Trahant said. Montana Governor Steve Bullock recently gave him an example of just that, where individuals from one of that state's tribal communities cast 213 votes one way and zero the other.
"You start getting those kinds of waves coming in," Trahant said. "And you can make up a lot of ground really fast."
Clinton Has History To Lean On
Even given his recent push into Indian country, it's unlikely that Bernie Sanders is going to get that kind of unified vote in Arizona. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, has a lot of Native American support in the state from the communities' leaders like former Navajo-president Peterson Zah.
Zah said he first met Clinton in the 1970s, when she was working with tribal members as the chair of the nonprofit Legal Services Corporation.
Their relationship grew when Clinton came to campaign for her husband, former President Bill Clinton, on the Navajo Nation in the 1990s.
"To this day, she's still the same person," Zah said. "She still has those values that she talked about back then." Zah is part of a generation of Native Americans in Arizona that remembers the Clinton Administration fondly.
Lisa Blackhorse is another. "When she was First Lady, Bill Clinton actually did the first tribal leaders meeting and it was at the White House and they started building those relations," Blackhorse said.
Those years of background and experience are why Blackhorse said that Native Americans in Arizona should vote for Clinton, not Sanders in the primary.
"She has a proven record," Blackhorse added.
Key Issues For Native American Voters
If there's one thing that Native American voters do agree on, it's that this election is hugely important to their future.
Zah pointed to the current vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court as one example. "There are a lot of legal issues that go the Supreme Court almost every year involving Native American issues and communities," he said. "So it's going to be pivotal to see who's nominating the next Supreme Court Justice."
Mikah Carlos, of the Salt River Maricopa Tribe, noted some of the other big issues that the candidates are talking about outside of tribal lands – the heroin epidemic, unemployment, impacts of climate change.
"We have those issues too," she said. "The problem's just a little bit worse here."
The fact that candidates are talking about them gives her hope that some of those issues will actually be addressed.
Carlos knows there's a reality to the rhetoric. "They're going for the votes," she said.
But she's hopeful that by giving some of the issues facing Indian Country the bigger, broader exposure that comes with a presidential election, some greater good will come of it, regardless of who's nominated.