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 5 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 bloc 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 Gov. 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 Corp.
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.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Utah and Arizona vote for presidential candidates today. And in Arizona's Democratic primary, Native American voters will be numerous enough that they could influence the outcome. NPR's Nathan Rott reports from Phoenix.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED SANDERS SUPPORTERS: (Chanting) Bernie. Bernie. Bernie.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: When Bernie Sanders took to the stage at the Twin Arrows 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 U.S.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BERNIE SANDERS: We owe the Native American people so, so much.
ROTT: The Navajo Nation crowd was ecstatic. The hope for the Sanders campaign is that that excitement turns into votes in today's primary. Native Americans are the second-largest minority group in the state of Arizona, after Latinos, at about 5 percent of the state's population, which might not sound like a whole lot. But...
DAVID MARTINEZ: Despite of our comparative smallness, Arizona Indian voters - as a block - can be the swing vote.
ROTT: This is David Martinez, a professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University and a member of the Gila River Indian Community near Phoenix. He says that the reasons for that outsized Native American impact are partially due to the lobbying power of the tribes' casino industries. The sheer amount of land the tribes own...
MARTINEZ: More than 25 percent of the landmass of the state of Arizona.
ROTT: And also because of their history of voting as a block. Mark Trahant is a journalism professor at the University of North Dakota and runs a blog on Native voting issues. He says he recently heard an example of that from Montana Governor Steve Bullock.
MARK TRAHANT: He had communities that were 213 to zero.
ROTT: Native communities voting 213 votes for one candidate, zero for the other.
TRAHANT: And just start getting those kind of waves coming in, and you can make up a lot of ground really fast.
ROTT: Now, Bernie Sanders is unlikely to get that kind of unified vote from Native Americans in Arizona, largely because his competitor is a popular figure herself.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Navajo).
ROTT: Ads like this one, in the Navajo language, are airing on radio stations. And there are large number of tribal leaders and individual supporters - like Lisa Blackhorse - at Clinton's events that remember her involvement with Native American issues when her husband was president.
LISA BLACKHORSE: When she was first lady, Bill Clinton actually did the first tribal leaders meeting. It was on the White House, and they started building that relations.
ROTT: Voter turnout for Native Americans - like here at the Salt River Maricopa Reservation east of Phoenix - is typically pretty low. But inside their community center, 22-year-old Mikah Carlos says that people see that most of the big problems candidates are talking about this year - the heroin epidemic, unemployment, impacts of climate change - affect them on the reservations, too.
MIKAH CARLOS: The problem is just a little bit worse here.
ROTT: So there's a sense of hope that some of them will actually be addressed. Now, Carlos says she knows there is a reality here.
CARLOS: They're going for the votes. They want those votes.
ROTT: But she hopes that whichever candidate gets the nomination will remember the promises they made while campaigning in Arizona's reservations. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Phoenix, Ariz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.