Bernie swept a trio of caucuses on Saturday: Washington, Alaska and Hawaii winning by double digit margins. In each state, he won more than 70% of the vote.
On Friday, Bernie Sanders returned to Portland, Oregon where he drew more than 11,000 supporters (and one small bird). His wife Jane O’Meara Sanders headed to Alaska and met with Native Alaskans, even touring Eklutna, a Dena’ina Athabascan village with Chief Lee Stephan—a first for any campaign. The visits were part of a final push to bring voters to caucus in those states on Saturday.
In Portland, “Birdie Sanders” stole the show. A tiny, brown house finch found its way to the podium and the crowd went wild. Sen. Sanders declared that despite its outward appearance, “I think there’s some symbolism here. That little bird is really a dove asking us for world peace, no more wars.”
This lighthearted scene spawned thousands of memes bringing some levity to a presidential primary marred, on the Republican side, with ugly infighting. The hashtag #BirdieSanders trended Friday night. Some, identifying the bird as a sparrow shared memes on the ancient symbolism of the tiny bird as a Christian “symbol of triumph after long suffering,” and as a symbol for peasants and lower classes of Europe who felt helpless under an oppressive feudal system. However, the Portland Audubon twitter account identified it as a house finch—a bird indigenous to the United States.
Memes created by Bernie supporters used #BirdieSanders to take swipes at other candidates, including Republican Donald Trump who was caught on camera crouching and reacting in fear when confronted with a bald eagle earlier this year.
Some Native American voters on social media were quick to draw a connection between the bird and Sander’s new Native American name “dx?shudi?up.” Pronounced dooh-s-who-dee-choop (“the one lighting the fires for change and unity”), the name was given to him during his visit to Seattle last week. On Friday before speaking at SafeCo Field to a crowd of 15,000, Bernie thanked the Native American community for his name by gifting Quinault tribal president Fawn Sharp with a wool blanket from local Nooksack artist Louie Gong’s company Eighth Generation.
On Thursday, Sanders spoke in Yakima, Washington to several thousand voters and met before the rally with Yakama Nation tribal leaders, including Chairman JoDe Goudy, who spoke to the senator about the need to uphold and fulfill the Treaty of 1855. The Yakama dance troupe the Little Swans performed at the rally and Bernie was gifted with a large beaded medallion in the shape of the Yakama Nation seal. Yakama tribal members were given special seating and, spotting the Yakama Nation flag, Asa Washines, a council member, asked on Facebook, “So did I just come from a Yakama Nation rally or a Bernie Sanders rally?”
This was the first visit to the city of Yakima by a presidential candidate since George W. Bush spoke there in 1999.
At all of these rallies Sanders continued to address Native Americans concerns specifically. In Portland, he went beyond his previous statements about broken treaties and Native American environmental leadership and talked to his supporters about the difficult conditions on reservations: “Right now, on Native American reservations and Native American communities unemployment rates are sky high. In Native American communities, suicide rates are off the charts, kids are dropping out of school, drug abuse, alcohol abuse is rampant.”
“If elected president,” Sanders declared, “we will change our relationship with the Native American community.” This promise was greeted with a deafening, standing ovation.
In Alaska, his wife Jane O’Meara Sanders met with Alaskan Native voters and Native Alaskan leaders including First Chief Katherine Cleveland of Ambler, 2nd Chief Edward Alexander of Fort Yukon, and Natasha Singh from the Tanana Chiefs Conference.
She also toured Anchorage’s Alaskan Native Medical Center and held a townhall meeting in Anchorage on Thursday. There, she was given handmade Tlingit formline earrings by Meda DeWitt Schleifman. Schleifman, a Tlingit traditional healer asked if Sen. Sanders would support expanding Universal Health Care to cover traditional healing. His wife answered by saying it hadn’t been discussed before, but felt that it would be a positive direction to take. Sander’s Universal Health Care plan does provide coverage for alternative health care.
O’Meara Sanders also addressed her husband’s stance on Climate Change.
“One of the things that we have heard very, very clearly,” she told a local TV affiliate, “is that climate change is not just real and caused by humans, but Alaska is on the front lines, and we are hearing about the impacts on the salmon, herring, fisheries.”
According to the EPA, more than 30 Alaskan Native villages are threatened by climate change and will need to be moved. In villages like Shishmaref, Kivalina, and Newtok, erosion is threatening homes and thawing permafrost is endangering clean water sources, creating saltwater intrusion and sewage contamination. However, due to prohibitive costs and lack of suitable land, villages are not being relocated at present, endangering residents.
On Friday, Jane’s planned trip to Dillingham, Alaska was cancelled due to weather. The town of about 2,500 is located in Bristol Bay and is over 50% Alaskan Native. Bristol Bay is the home of the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery and the largest herring fishery in the nation. It is also the location of the largest undeveloped gold and copper mine in the world, the Pebble Mine. Opponents say that the mine would harm the entire Bristol Bay watershed and endanger the fishing industry.
She spoke to representatives from 14 tribes in the Bristol Bay Region by teleconference for an hour and a half instead.
“We heard very clearly that this project would be a disaster to the local fishing economy,” O’Meara Sanders told the Alaska Dispatch News, “putting the Alaska Native community’s way of life and the subsistence way of life at risk.”
Her conclusion after the phone meeting was that the traditional economies and lifeways “cannot be compromised.” Both Democratic presidential candidates oppose development of the mine.
“We are so grateful that presidential candidates are willing to listen and hear what’s important to our indigenous people in Bristol Bay and the issues so many of our people are facing throughout Alaska,” Robert Heyano, president of United Tribes of Bristol Bay said in a written statement. “We are overjoyed and grateful that the Sanders campaign came to hear from our tribes and now support our efforts to protect our fisheries, our communities, and our way of life from large-scale mines like Pebble.”
David Michael Karabelnikoff, an Alaskan Native co-founder of Alaska’s Youth, presented Jane with a “Bernie” button made by his grass roots organization. “Our offices are located in the most diverse house district in this entire country,” Karabelnikoff told Indian Country Today. “There are 200 languages spoken here and we have 22% unemployment.”
He was glad to see Jane Sanders in Arctic because he believes that to truly address climate change and Native American voters, a presidential candidate must include Alaska as part of a true 50-state campaign.
“Arizona is far from here, it might be on a reservation,” he said referring to Bernie’s recent rally at the Navajo Nation’s Twin Arrows Casino, “but 43% of tribes in the United States are in Alaska.”
Karabelnikoff also pointed out that for every one degree annual temperature increase globally, the Arctic experiences a six degree increase. Sanders supports transitioning away from fossil fuels. “Our transition from fossil fuels to clean energy,” Jane said to a large audience in Anchorage, “must also include a transition for workers.”
Also of concern was the distance Native Alaskans have to travel to participate in primary elections. The caucus system requires voters be physically present to be counted. Karabelnikoff shared on Facebook that plane tickets to attend can cost hundreds of dollars as most caucus sites are hundreds of miles away from Native Alaskans and not accessible by car.
By Sunday, these concerns were temporarily forgotten for Sanders supporters, who were reveling in the news of their candidate’s three-state sweep.
Jacqueline Keeler is a Navajo/Yankton Dakota writer living in Portland, Oregon and co-founder of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, creators of Not Your Mascot. She has been published in Telesur and The Nation and interviewed on MSNBC, Democracy Now and Native American Calling. Her forthcoming book is called “Not Your Disappearing Indian.” On Twitter: https://twitter.com/jfkeeler