Sanders Draws Crowds in Montana & Dakotas, Says US Must Change Relationship With Native American Tribes

This week Bernie Sanders visited several states in the West, including Montana and the Dakotas. These states have small populations but a relatively sizable Native American presence. During these visits, he attracted thousands of people to his rallies. In Montana alone, more than 12,000 people attended Bernie Sanders rallies.

In Missoula, 9,000 tried to get in, but 4,000 of those were unable to gain access. In Billings, more than 3,000 people attended his rally. In South Dakota, Sanders visited the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota (Sioux) reservation, where he spoke to hundreds of people. He held a rally with 3,500 people in Rapid City, and then moved to Sioux Falls, where another 4,300 enthusiastically packed into the Sioux Falls Convention Center to hear him speak.

Bernie Sanders drew thousands to Rapid City, SD, rally.
In North Dakota, he rallied in Bismarck and Fargo, where he drew several thousand people each. In all three states, the crowds were a testament to the unwavering support he and his message have gotten.

Montana is a purple state, with fiercely independent-minded voters. In fact, the state gave independent presidential candidate H. Ross Perot his highest showing of 26 percent of the vote in the 1992 presidential election. The cities are filled with progressives, while the rural and suburban parts of the state are more conservative. But according to the Billings Gazette, the state tends to lean red in presidential elections. Although no recent polls are available for the state, it’s likely that Trump could win Montana, especially if Clinton is the Democratic nominee. However, if Sanders wins the nomination in June, the outcome could be different.

In South Dakota, he criticized the Bureau of Indian Affairs for failing Native Americans, particularly those who call Pine Ridge Reservation home. After visiting the reservation, a visibly upset Sanders spoke about what he’d seen.

“We were in Pine Ridge Reservation this morning and what we saw on that reservation, I think, should shock and concern everyone. The unemployment rate is literally off the charts, poverty rate unbelievably high, suicide rate very high. Health care totally inadequate. Capability of the community to deal with drug addiction almost nonexistent. Life expectancy the equivalent of third-world countries. But this is the United States of America and we should not be tolerating those types of conditions in this country, and especially within the Native American community.”

According to Indian Country Today Media Network, half of Pine Ridge residents live in poverty and more than 20 percent are unemployed. Nationwide, more than 28 percent of Native American people are poor, which is higher than the national average of 15 percent.

In 2014, a report by MSNBC noted that on Pine Ridge, about 70 percent of students would eventually drop out of school, and an astonishing four out of five kids attempted suicide during that school year. In states with large Native American populations, it’s a running theme: poverty, suicide, substance abuse. Infant mortality rate on the reservation is five times higher than the national average, and the life expectancy for men is just 48 years old. For women it is just 52.

As Sanders continued to speak out about the atrocities facing Pine Ridge, he said the country must renew its relationship with the Native American community.

“We have got to change our relationship to the tribes all over this country, not just Pine Ridge, but all over this country. And if elected President, I certainly will.”

Bernie Sanders is one of the few presidential candidates to visit poverty-stricken areas in smaller states. The number of delegates may be fewer than states with larger populations, but he believes that the voices of every American must be heard. Months ago, he visited with families in Flint, MI, who were directly affected by the lead-poisoned water supply. Last week he visited McDowell County, WV, which is one of the poorest counties in the nation. Before the Arizona primary, he visited with immigrants and the Native American community to learn more about their stories and issues important to them.

Sanders has called for building new infrastructure, a federal jobs program to put people back to work, and better investments in education and health throughout the entire nation. For Native American communities, though, this need is especially pressing. During one appearance he called the Indian Health Service a failure and said currently policies are coming up short.

His visit to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota was no different. He and Jane — who is an important partner and surrogate for him — talked one-on-one with several members of the Oglala Lakota nation to learn from them. This is one of the reasons he appeals to many in the Native American community. Sanders takes the time to speak to the beleaguered and hopeless. He speaks to those who have no hope left because his life’s mission is to give them something to hope for. And as he said, it is time to create a new relationship with the Native American people. This time, for the better.

[Photo by Kristina Barker/AP Images]