Meet Tara Houska, Native American advisor to presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders

Ojibwe woman, Tara Houska, Native American advisor to Democrat Bernie Sanders. Source: Twitter

The Native American advisor to Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has told SBS she is determined to bring Indigenous issues to the forefront of the his campaign.

Bernie Sanders made history this year when he prominently featured Native Americans in his campaign – the only presidential to do so.

Tara Houska, an Ojibwe woman from Couchiching First Nation and a tribal attorney, told SBS she was determined to bring Indigenous issues to the forefront of Mr Sanders' campaign. 

"I would like to see the past and ongoing treatment of Native American communities addressed at the highest levels of government," she told SBS. "Native Americans are the original peoples of what's today the United States, and we should be accorded equality, recognition, and the ability to succeed as self-determined sovereign nations".

Sanders has pledged on his website and at many of his rallies to support Indigenous rights.

Sanders' commitment to the cause was what saw Ms Houska come on board.

"At that time, Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign was ramping up and therefore more and more Native American questions arose. I continued to assist until being formally brought onto the campaign as a Native American policy advisor," Ms Houska told SBS.

Recently Sanders was in Flagstaff, Arizona where he visited the Navajo nation. It’s been almost two decades since a presidential hopeful has stepped foot on their territory. The last was Senator John McCain in 1999.

When Sanders took the stage the Native American voters were jubilant, like 18-year-old Sage Jon Deangelis Romero.

“It makes me proud. It makes me feel represented. It makes me feel like I belong,' he told AZ Central. "He’s trying to get our vote because he feels that we’re also important. Not just blowing past us like all the other candidates."

In his speech, Sanders dedicated almost all of it to Native American issues.

"All too often Native Americans have not been heard on issues that impact their communities. They have been told what to do. They have not been involved in the process," he said. "The United States government has a duty of ensuring equal opportunity and justice to all of its citizens, including our First Americans."

Despite his age, there is no doubt Sanders appeals to a younger generation.

The self-stated socialist has held some of the biggest rallies around the country, outdoing his presidential counterparts in both parties. His views on climate change, free education, support for the arts and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign have connected him with millennials like no other candidate.

And Sanders' stance on Native American issues may prove to reinforce his strong position in the presidential race.

But many Clinton supporters believe the former first lady is just as supportive of Native American issues.

"To this day, she's still the same person," said Peterson Zah, former Navajo nation president, speaking on her visit to Navajo with husband Bill in the 1990s. "She still has those values that she talked about back then," he told NPR.

Clinton has won a number of states that include large native populations.

Ms Houska is aware of Clinton's Native American policy, which has been in place since last summer. But she said she had not heard much from the Clinton campaign and laughed off the thought of Donald Trump and his policies on Native Americans.

"He's one of those people that say Native Americans are absolutely in support of the Washington Football team, that we love the term 'redskins,' because he has a Native American friend that told him so," she told CBC News.

She said the biggest issues facing Native Americans today were as diverse as the 567 federally recognised tribes throughout the US.

"Our struggles are as diverse as our populations," she told SBS.

"We face everything from rising seas and loss of homelands due to climate change, to seeking out funding for language and culture revitalisation within our communities. For those of us located along the Great Lakes region and the Great Plains, we are fighting the widespread effects of fossil fuel extraction, youth suicide, and disparate rates of violence against our people."

Ms Houska has dedicated her life to advancing Indigenous and environmental issues and is currently the National Campaigns Director of Honor the Earth, a non-profit raising awareness and financial support for Indigenous environmental justice.

But her biggest role yet will be assisting Sanders' with drafting Native American policy, a role she is privileged to undertake.

"I'm honored to have an opportunity to raise awareness about Native Americans in a high-profile presidential campaign and contribute to proposed policies that could positively benefit Indigenous peoples throughout the United States," she said.

#NotYourMascot

In addition to her environmental efforts, Ms Houska is also a founding member and contributor to the #NotYourMascots campaign.

Created in 2014, the non-for-profit organisation aims to address the misappropriation of Indigenous identity, imagery and culture.

The campaign has received attention lately due to their mission to eliminate the name and logo of American football team, the Washington Redskins, which has been labelled as harmful stereotyping. 

The group uses educational and advocacy tools to provide a more comprehensive understanding of native people and the damage that can be done to communities through the misrepresentation and mockery of their cultures.

"To grow up hearing, 'Scalp the Redsk*ns' at games and regularly seeing peers wearing a caricature of you on a jersey is dehumanizing; our cultures aren’t costumes. We're still here'," Ms Houska said on the organisation's website.  

Ms Houska is also a contributing columnist for the Guardian, Huffington Post and Indian Country, a national news source for Native people in North America.

A global scale

It's hard to find any Indigenous population that has not met the consequences of colonisation.

According to the UN, Indigenous peoples make up 5% of the world’s population, some 370 million people. Yet they are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.

The effects of colonisation have seen Indigenous peoples removed from their traditional lands, denied their languages and traditional ways, and consequently left impoverished.

This is evident in our own Indigenous population. Indigenous Australians make up just 2 per cent of the population yet face the worst outcomes for most social economic factors.

And Ms Houska is all too well aware of the global effects. She believes participating in government will bring change.

"We are fully capable of speaking for ourselves, and we know our communities better than any government official ever can," she told SBS.

"Whether it's voting, outreach to your representatives, serving in the government, or running for political office, our rights are best represented and advocated for by our own peoples."

Ms Houska knows that Indigenous issues are, historically, not the biggest concern for presidential hopefuls but is hopeful this election proves different.  

"This election season has been empowering - it has been incredible to see Native peoples prominently being courted by presidential candidates, and has reinforced my belief in the importance of participating in the political process," she said.

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