Bernie Sanders on Native American Rights

“Time and time again, our Native American brothers and sisters have seen the federal government break solemn promises, and huge corporations put profits ahead of the sovereign rights of Native communities. I will stand with Native Americans in the struggle to protect their treaty and sovereign rights, advance traditional ways of life, and improve the quality of life for Native communities.” – Bernie Sanders, 2020 Platform

Bernie Sanders respects and values Native Americans and believes the U.S. needs to support and work with our First Americans to improve their standard of living. Bernie supports the right of Native American tribes to self-govern and have sovereign jurisdiction over their lands. He also supports directly acknowledging our continuing history of mistreatment and racism against Native Americans and actively promotes measures to achieve justice for them.

Tribal Sovereignty: Native American tribes should have sovereign control over their lands.

Healthcare: Healthcare for Native Americans should be improved to better address medical needs and improve outcomes. We should expand community health centers and increase federal funding to Indian country to increase access to quality healthcare.

Acknowledging Racism: The history of gross mistreatment of Native Americans should be brought to and maintained in the public’s attention. Stereotypes and slurs against Native Americans should be discouraged and denounced.

Protect The Indian Child Welfare Act: Bernie supports keeping the ICWA in place to protect Native American children and families.

Tribal Sovereignty

Native tribes should have jurisdiction over crimes committed on their lands.

What does that mean?

While much lip service is paid to the sovereignty of Native American groups within U.S. borders, the legal reality is a quagmire. In many cases, if a crime is committed on a reservation by somebody who is not a member of the tribe, the tribal government does not have jurisdiction to prosecute the perpetrator under their own legal system.

What has Bernie done to strengthen the sovereignty of Native tribes?

Bernie supports legislation that would invest in Native communities.

Bernie cosponsored the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, which would give each tribal government jurisdiction over domestic violence crimes and provide funding for tribal criminal justice systems and victim services.

In 2014, Bernie supported the 10-20-30 bill that would invest 10 percent of rural development funds into communities where at least 20 percent of the population has lived below the poverty line for the last 30 years. Bernie has expressed a renewed commitment implementing the 10-20-30 formula as part of his 2020 campaign platform.

“Implement the 10-20-30 legislation introduced in Congress to prioritize federal funding for Indian country and ensure that significant percentages of federal funds are invested in Native communities that lack access to quality schools, health care, and job opportunities”

In a May 2019 interview Bernie said:

“The plight of Native Americans is not well known in this country, but you have a people who are suffering,” he continued, “People who in many cases are seeing life expectancy the equivalent of a Third World developing country, a people where healthcare is extremely inadequate, educational opportunities are limited…We will respect their sovereignty and will respect the treaties that have been signed with them. We will treat them as full partners rather than as subordinates. They need to have a say in the future of their communities in a way that they don’t have right now. Their health-care system right now is totally inadequate, not well funded, not well staffed, and that has got to change. So there’s some very concrete things that a president who wants to work with the Native American people can accomplish.”  

Bernie applauded the 2019 Supreme Court decision that ruled Native American hunting rights did not expire when Wyoming became a state.

How else has this issue come into play?

The proposed Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines would be built across Native American lands. Occupants of the land haven’t consented to the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, and many believe it would have negative effects on the area. Learn about some of the potentially damaging effects of the Keystone XL pipeline here.

Where does Bernie stand on the Keystone XL pipeline?

Bernie vehemently opposes the pipeline. Learn more about Bernie’s environmental policies.

What’s the latest on the Keystone XL pipeline?

The Keystone XL Pipeline is operating in some areas, but it hasn’t been completed yet. There have been several reported leaks in the Keystone XL Pipeline, including in South Dakota and more recently in Missouri. The Missouri leakage required an emergency shutdown to deal with the spill.

On January 24, 2017, President Donald Trump took action intended to permit the Pipeline’s completion. This was met with numerous court filings. Court cases continue to delay construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

The pipeline also faces an environmental impact review challenge in the Nebraska Supreme Court. The court has temporarily blocked construction of some portions of the pipeline. A federal judge in Montana ruled against TransCanada doing most pre-construction work for the pipeline. It is unclear when, and if, construction of the pipeline will resume. TransCanada has changed its name to TC Energy.

You can find more information about the Keystone XL pipeline here.


Healthcare for Native Americans should be improved to better address the health issues that affect them. Native Americans experience disproportionately high rates of particular health problems, and also face challenges in receiving effective healthcare.

What has Bernie voted for to support addressing this issue?

Bernie has consistently voted in favor of bills that would take a wide variety of actions to address healthcare issues facing Native Americans.

Bernie voted for the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act in 2009, which contained important provisions to assist Native Americans in Medicaid and CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Bernie, along with Rep. James Clyburn, introduced legislation in March 2019 to expand community health centers. These health centers are an important part of the healthcare system in rural and Native American communities. The legislation has been endorsed by many organizations including the National Indian Council on Aging and the Diverse Elders Coalition.


Learn more about Bernie’s work to expand the social safety net — including healthcare — for all Americans here.

What about the Violence Against Women Act? Does that affect Native American communities as well?

The Violence Against Women’s Act was one of the primary reasons why Bernie supported the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act sponsored by Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. Bernie otherwise opposed the Crime Bill because he feared it would result in mass incarceration of minorities, including Native Americans.  He also believed the Crime Bill would reinforce the militarization of the police and perpetuate the War on Drugs, ramifications which Bernie sharply criticized prior to the vote.

According to a National Institutes of Health report, Native American women, are more prone to domestic violence due to the extremely high rates of poverty on Native American reservations, which exacerbate unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking excessively.

In 2013, Bernie was a cosponsor of the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, and noted its contributions into reducing domestic violence in many communities. As President, Bernie will reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act and provide resources to women on reservations who experience sexual assault, as well as allow tribal nations to prosecute non-Native criminals for domestic violence.

Acknowledging Racism

Bernie believes we need to immediately apologize for the damage our historical discrimination and racism has caused Native Americans, and that stereotypes and slurs against them should be actively denounced. The continuing history of mistreatment of indigenous peoples by the United States is still an issue that needs to be remedied and receives little public attention. Formal public acknowledgement of America’s role in this mistreatment is a small step in the right direction.

What are some examples?

For centuries, names and images have been appropriated from the cultures of indigenous peoples, stripped of context, twisted, and adapted to mock and perpetuate belittling stereotypes and tokens. This is a major problem that remains widespread today.

Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians and the National Football League’s Washington Redskins teams are both professional sports teams which use mascots that stereotype Native Americans. Additionally, the term “redskin” is commonly used as a derogatory racial slur to refer to Native American individuals.

What has Bernie supported along these lines?

Bernie voted to apologize “for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.”

Where does Bernie stand?

Bernie signed a formal congressional letter denouncing name of the Washington Redskins as racist and urged the NFL to push to rename the team.

Protect The Indian Child Welfare Act

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) was passed to protect Native American families from being separated from their children. The protections in the law are applied when Native American children are being taken into foster care, being adopted, and in child custody proceedings. In state court cases, the ICWA requires determination of a child’s tribal heritage, notice to the tribal government, and, where possible, keeping children within the tribal community to retain their identity and heritage.

The ICWA gives tribal governments exclusive jurisdiction over child custody cases involving children living on a reservation. In cases involving non-reservation Native American children, the ICWA gives tribal governments concurrent jurisdiction in state courts over child custody proceedings and foster care placement. This means that tribal governments are notified about the cases involving Native American children and are given an opportunity to intervene and participate or decide the resolution of the case.

A federal district court recently ruled the ICWA unconstitutional, and an appeal of the ruling is probably headed to the Supreme Court. Native Americans are concerned about the challenges to ICWA and want the law and the protections it confers to Native American families and children to remain in place. Not only is the integrity of Native American families protected by the ICWA, but research shows that children who grow up with a connection to their cultural identity is “linked to higher self-esteem, higher educational attainment, and lower rates of mental health problems and substance abuse.”

Bernie supports keeping the ICWA in place to protect Native American children and families. Our Revolution, an organization created by Bernie, states, “Native children are the future of tribal nations; the Indian Child Welfare Act is critical to survival and must be enforced with the original intent of the law.”