Elizabeth Warren apologizes, turns to policy talk at tribal forum

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After thanking New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, who had vigorously defended her minutes earlier, the Massachusetts senator quickly addressed her past claims to tribal heritage. Warren had drawn criticism over her decision last year to release the results of a DNA test that showed distant Native American ancestry. In the aftermath of that, she apologized, in public and private.

On Monday, she did so again.

“Like anyone who’s being honest with themselves, I know that I have made mistakes. I am sorry for harm I have caused,” the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said. “I have listened and I have learned — a lot. And I am grateful for the many conversations that we’ve had together.”

The audience had heard enough and applauded as Warren finished her thought and promised to continue her long partnership with Native communities “as President of the United States of America.” Over the next 20 minutes, at least two of the questioners onstage would say they hoped for the chance, one day soon, to address her by that title.

Warren’s rise in the Democratic primary has been built on a combination of detailed policy plans and her relentless engagement with voters and local leaders. At the Frank LaMere Presidential Candidate Forum here, she leaned on both, again showing off her fluency on the core issue at stake for this audience — federal policy concerning Native Americans, and the many ways in which the government has let down or betrayed tribes. Warren’s release last week of a new suite of policy plans and draft legislation, crafted with Haaland, seemed to speak on its own to many of the questions in Sioux City.

In her introduction, Haaland, who has endorsed Warren, called the media’s focus on President Donald Trump’s insults — and the speculation over what they meant for Warren’s campaign — a political gift to Trump.

“Every time they asked about Elizabeth’s family instead of the issues of vital importance to Indian country, they feed the President’s racism,” Haaland said. “Elizabeth knows she will be attacked, but she’s here to be an unwavering partner in our struggle, because that is what a leader does.”

Both the leaders up on stage and the audience seemed to agree. Warren was greeted warmly and she cycled seamlessly between notes of empathy and her case for the “structural change” needed to benefit and revive Native communities. She talked about directing new resources to tribes and guaranteeing them broader jurisdiction on their own lands. On the question of missing and murdered indigenous women — and men, Warren noted — the issue needs more attention from the government and the national media, she said.

“A problem that is not seen,” she said, “is a problem that is not fixed.”

Manape LaMere, son of the late Frank LaMere — the activist after whom the conference is named, told CNN after Warren spoke that he appreciated her focus on policies important to Native people.

“I hope that people can pay attention to what she’s saying about her policies — she seems to have a pretty, pretty good pulse on at least the legal understanding,” LaMere said.

As for Warren’s mea culpa for her handling of her own family’s ancestry, LaMere said he accepted the apology and that he was not interested in discussing it further: “We all make mistakes and if we’re able to hold ourselves accountable to people, that’s fine. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing.”

The conference — and the fact that several top-tier presidential candidates are attending it this week — was his father’s dream, LaMere added.

“We’re forgotten and so I loved to see how Dad has encouraged us to come together and we’re checking off a dream,” he said. “Posthumously, we’re checking off a dream of his.”

The desire to see Native issues given more attention was a consistent message across the morning and into the afternoon.

After Warren’s session, Aric Armell, who came to Sioux City from his home in Winnebago, Nebraska, where he is an enrolled tribal member, said the forum was just a beginning. He wanted to hear more from Warren — and all the candidates — and not just at a one-off event.

“A lot of the topics that came up don’t normally get a chance to come out. For a lot of the candidates today, for them to speak on that, it was really good to hear,” Armell said.

Warren, he added, seemed to have “skimmed over” the issue of her ancestry. But Armell wasn’t too bothered. Like so many others here, he was looking farther down the road.

“I think what she had to say is really good for Indian country. Her track record speaks to all that,” he said. “If she’s the president, we’ve got a good foundation with her already.”

CNN’s Daniella Diaz contributed to this story.



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