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“Trump is a Mercenary”: Native Writer Gyasi Ross on GOP Debate & Why He’s Not Endorsed Anyone (Yet)

StoryFebruary 26, 2016
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As presidential candidates head into Super Tuesday, we look at a voting bloc that’s gotten little attention during this campaign season: Native Americans. We speak with indigenous writer Gyasi Ross, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, about last night’s debate, native support for Bernie Sanders in Nevada and why he believes Donald Trump is a “mercenary.” Ross’s recent article for Indian Country Today Media Network is “A Few Notes for Native People About the Presidential Elections: Neither Democrat Deserves Our Vote (Yet).”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show in Seattle. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we end today’s show in Seattle with Native American writer Gyasi Ross. His recent article for Indian Country Today Media Network is “A Few Notes for Native People About the Presidential Elections: Neither Democrat Deserves Our Vote (Yet).”

AMY GOODMAN: Gyasi Ross is a member of Blackfeet Nation, also the author of How to Say I Love You in Indian.

Welcome to Democracy Now! So, tell us, what do you feel the candidates must address when it comes to Native Americans in this country, and your first reponse to the Republican presidential debate last night?

GYASI ROSS: Good morning. Thank you very much for having me.

Regarding the Republican presidential debate last night, you know, I grew up watching wrestling, and it was very, very interesting and very reminiscent of those nights, you know, staying up late with my dad watching wrestling and the level of testosterone, the level of big talk, the level of threats. And it was ultimately very entertaining television. And ultimately, there’s a Blackfeet saying that says, “Lots of thunder, no lightning.” Ultimately, it’s not going to make much of a difference. Donald Trump, after Tuesday, after this Super Tuesday, is going to run away with the Republican field. And they didn’t do too much to alter that narrative. It was definitely entertaining TV, and I like to watch these, you know, very professional, very, very privileged men in suits fight and to lose all amounts of dignity. That was kind of cool to watch.

Regarding the Democratic candidates, I’m obviously a Bernie Sanders supporter, and I’ve been his supporter for a long time. I do take heart the fact that he’s from Vermont. He’s from a state that doesn’t have any federally recognized Indian tribes. And so, for that, he has been on the right side of history, whether you’re talking about the Oak Flats, you know, the transfer of the Oak Flat sacred sites and trying to stop that transfer on behalf of some of the Apache Nations, or, alternatively, the Keystone XL pipeline. He’s been on the right side of history a lot of times.

However, it’s going to take more than just general, omnibus, sort of slush fund positions on behalf of Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton in order to garner a critical mass of the Native vote. Native people have been very clear that we want specific policy positions, promises and pledges on behalf of any of these candidates who are going to earn our vote. And the early numbers do indicate that we have been supporting Bernie Sanders. In Iowa, the Meskwaki Settlement was very, very much in favor of Bernie, according to the numbers at the caucus. Moreover, in Nevada, the various tribes there, the various Paiute tribes, were very much in favor of Bernie Sanders. However, the unveiling of either party’s positions, platforms, on Native communities, Bernie has unveiled, as of this week at the National Congress of American Indians mid-year conference—they unveiled a pretty detailed platform. And that’s cool. But we want to see what the implementation of those ideas are going to be, from either candidate, and to reassure that those candidates are going to in fact earn our votes, instead of the way it has been in the past of taking those votes for granted.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Gyasi, I wanted to ask you—I can’t say that I have watched every hour of all the many debates that have occurred on both the Democratic and Republican side.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But those that I have watched, I’ve been struck by the total absence of any questions or discussion of the situation of Native Americans in the country. But I want to go to Florida Senator Marco Rubio last night calling Republicans the party of diversity.

GYASI ROSS: That was so interesting, wasn’t it?

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: I do think it’s amazing that on this stage tonight there are two descendants of immigrants of Cuban origin and an African American. We are the party of diversity, not the Democratic Party.

And the second point I would make is that we have to move past this idea that somehow the Hispanic community only cares about immigration. Yes, it’s an important issue, because we know and love people that have been impacted by it. But I’m going to tell you, the most powerful sentiment in the Hispanic community, as it is in every immigrant community, is the burning desire to leave your children better off than yourself. And you can only do that through free enterprise. That’s what we stand for, not socialism like Bernie Sanders and, increasingly, Hillary Clinton.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Marco Rubio looking around the stage and saying that the Republican Party is the party of diversity. Your response, Gyasi Ross?

GYASI ROSS: You know, thank you very much. That was, to me, a very fascinating part of the debate. And if you think about it, he’s actually, on some level, correct. That is, that there are two children of immigrants. There’s an African-American male that’s standing on stage. There was previously an Indian-American male that was also in the primaries. And there was a white woman. And that is much more diversity, unfortunately, than the Democratic folks have shown on their side during the primaries.

However—that sounds cool; however, there is the fact that those positions that are espoused by Ben Carson or by Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz are generally not consistent or congruent with the Hispanic population of the United States nor of the African-American population of the United States. And so, while there has been a movement for the Republican Party to push those voices to the forefront and to show some diversity on the top end of the Republican ticket, there hasn’t been that corresponding invitation and willingness to have inclusiveness within the actual parameters of the Republican Party proper.

And so, Marco Rubio is not incorrect in saying that, and I think it’s important for the people who consider themselves to be Democrats to continue to push the Democratic Party to be more inclusive of our voices, of people of color’s voices, of women’s voices, of transgender, of LGBQT voices. However, it is important to note at the same time, in fairness, that the Democratic Party has been more inviting and inclusive of our voices into the electorate body.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Gyasi Ross, about Donald Trump, his relationship with casinos, and casinos and Native Americans, if you could comment?

GYASI ROSS: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Donald Trump—I happen to be one of the folks who—you know, he was called into question. His Republican bona fides was called into question many times during this debate and many times during this campaign. I happen to believe that he’s neither Republican now Democrat. He’s a capitalist. And ultimately, he’s going to do whatever is best for his bottom line and to protect his capitalist interests. If those things that he has to do to protect those capitalist interests happens to be to attack Native people and Native casinos, Native peoples’ governance and entrepreneurial spirit, as he has done in the past, well, he’ll do that. If it happens to be working with Native people, he’ll do that, as well. And so, at best, Donald Trump is a mercenary. I don’t believe that he’s necessarily expressed his racist tendencies, that he does genuinely have, in relationship to Native people; however, I do feel that he will throw us under the bus very quickly in exchange for some dollars.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, looking at a Time magazine piece from 2011, “Donald Trump’s gambles don’t always go as planned. Especially when that gamble is gambling itself. In February 2009, Trump Entertainment Resorts [Inc.] filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for the third time in a row—an extremely rare feat in American business.”

GYASI ROSS: Wow! Congratulations, Donald.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Gyasi Ross, as we wrap up, what you think people around this country should understand about the participation of Native Americans in this election of 2016?

GYASI ROSS: Well, I think that what we’ve shown in the past few elections, and what we’re going to continue to show, is that, number one, our numbers are growing. And our willingness to participate, we have swung—we have swung elections on a statewide level for national positions, you know, in regards to, here in Washington state, Maria Cantwell, in regards to Jon Tester. And those particular legislators will say that very openly and have been very open about our meaning—the meaning of our votes to their elections. And we do have that power to impact national elections, as well. In Nevada, had those precincts gone, and had Bernie Sanders, you know, actively courted the Native vote, I suspect there might have been a different outcome, because that was a very close election.

The point is that although it seems like, based upon my experience at Indian Country Today Media Network and collecting data for that publication, being an editor, that Native people have largely supported Bernie Sanders in this campaign, I don’t think anybody can take our vote for granted. I think it is going to take a concerted effort for Democrats, who we historically vote for, to earn our vote, as opposed to just assuming that we’re going to give it, site unseen, as we have in the past. There’s a younger generation that’s very, very actively involved and very, very interested in these politics, that say that you have to do something affirmatively, proactively and progressively in order to earn the Native vote.

AMY GOODMAN: Gyasi Ross, we want to thank you for being with us, member of the Blackfeet Nation and an editor at Indian Country Today, author of How to Say I Love You in Indian.

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