By Joe Sestak 

Native American people serve in the military at a higher rate than any other ethnic group. During World War II, some tribes saw 70 percent of their able-bodied men enlist. During my time in service in the United States Navy, I served with many Native Americans who always distinguished themselves and did your community and our entire country proud. And I thank them for their service. As a former Navy Admiral, I believe we need to be accountable to Native American citizens of these United States – not only for the debt we owe them for their service today, but for the injustices throughout our nation’s history that we are still struggling to mend.

After my first Senate run, rather than become a lobbyist, I became a lecturer at different universities, including holding a chair at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania — at the very same site as the notorious Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where native children from across the country were brought to further the goal of assimilation. Children were punished for speaking their own language and expressing pride in their culture. It was at Carlisle that the US government began its forcible assimilation program, with its racist “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” ideology. At Carlisle, and places like it, children were kept from their loving families, from their cultures, and their histories. Girls were taught to be homemakers, because that’s what the Euro-American culture demanded of girls, while in their own communities women served as healers, religious leaders, warriors, and chiefs. Unknown native children are still buried at Carlisle today.

During my career, I traveled to over 80 countries. I saw many marginalized communities. In places like Africa, I encountered traumatized peoples, fragmented and weakened by generations of colonialism, by a foreign system being inflicted upon them. They lost their sense of community, their sense of identity, their ability to pass down their own governance practices, how to relate to one another, even their language. Americans need to recognize that we did the same thing here, to Native American communities. Above all, we need to understand that today’s poverty, ill health, addiction and substance abuse, depression, alienation, and suicide, are all the tragic result of what we inflicted on Native American communities.

Yet I’ve also seen countries that struggled in the post-colonial era become shining examples of strength and independence. And now the same must happen in Indian Country (and, indeed, it is happening already, driven largely by Native American people themselves). That is why in healing past wrongs we must start with the increased funding that is necessary for tribal education, especially language revitalization and immersion programs, as one important way tribes can take back what was stolen from them.

This work will require doing much better at respecting tribal sovereignty. Tribes are sovereign nations and our treaties with Native American tribes are treaties between equals. However, when I walk off a United States ship into another sovereign nation overseas — Nigeria, United Arab Emirates, or wherever — I am subject to their laws and judicial system. Often, there will be what we call a “status of forces” agreement that ensures fairness for our military members when charged with a crime — but both nations have to agree to that — while they are subject to the other nation’s jurisdiction. Why isn’t it the same when I walk into Pine Ridge Reservation? I should be subject to its sovereignty — its rules and jurisdiction should pertain to me when I am within its borders. Without that, there can be no accountability for justice, because a non-Native American can walk onto a reservation, commit a crime, and escape justice due to jurisdictional issues. More than 80 percent of sex crimes on reservations are committed by non-native men. 

This issue of accountability extends into the unacceptable failure to even know how many tribal women and girls are missing each year. One estimate from 2016 calculated over 5000 reports of missing women and girls, yet not even the federal government knows how many are missing. We need to get the data on missing Native American girls and women, then we can — and must — also focus resources where we need them: police, prosecutors, judges. We need to fully fund tribal justice programs, including restorative justice programs, because local tax revenue is simply not enough.

It is with all this sordid history in mind that we must consider other issues from our history and correct certain wrongs. That is why I support rescinding the 20 Medals of Honor awarded to U.S. soldiers who participated in the massacre of some 300 Lakota people at Wounded Knee. I believe as a military man with 31 years of service, leaving them on the record diminishes all of the other Medals of Honor given to thousands of brave patriots throughout our history. There is nothing honorable about killing women and children. We cannot change history, but we can change the way we look at it, and the way we teach it to our children. It’s time to right this historical wrong.

And it’s not too late to right historical wrongs that are being committed still today. From the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, to Bears Ears National Monument and Chaco Canyon, it’s not too late to stop the encroachment of corporate profiteers on Native lands, resources, and holy sites. We must learn to honor and respect Native American holy sites as we do churches, synagogues, and mosques. As President, I will always stand with Native people against the forces that aim to exploit and destroy what is theirs.

We need to fulfill ALL of our treaty obligations to Native people, and that includes fully funding the Indian Health Service, major increases to education and labor training (including through my “training for a lifetime” program) — and, of course, infrastructure, including roads, bridges, dams, and housing. Some 40 percent of homes in Native American communities are considered sub-standard. 16 percent have no indoor plumbing. We must do better — and as President, I will.

Finally, there will always be consultation between myself, my cabinet, and indigenous communities. I plan to re-institute the annual Tribal Nations Summit at the White House, because I can only be accountable to you if you have a seat at the table. Native Americans – and all Americans – will always be welcome in a Joe Sestak White House.

Joe Sestak is a former Congressman (PA-07), retired Navy Admiral, former White House Director of Defense Policy and Democratic presidential candidate.

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