Jason Valandra directs the attending democrats to vote either “yes” or “no” for Colette Yellow Robe as Chairperson in the Sept. 25 Native Caucus election on Zoom.
Jason Valandra directs the attending democrats to vote either “yes” or “no” for Colette Yellow Robe as Chairperson in the Sept. 25 Native Caucus election on Zoom.

With a mix of virtual hand raising and “yes” and “no” votes typed in the chat, the process of local democracy took place despite the social distancing because of COVID-19. 

The Nebraska Democratic Party Native American Caucus hosted an online internal election over Zoom on Sept. 25. Roughly half of the 30 plus attendees elected five new chairpeople in a one-hour meeting. 

According to the Caucus’s official bylaws, the group exists to promote Native American candidates, advocate for Native American policy issues and hold the Nebraska Democratic Party accountable for the needs of the local Native American community. 

The Caucus was originally founded by late Winnebago activist, Frank LaMere, according to an article by the Caucus’s newly elected Vice Chairperson Kevin Abourezk. LaMere spearheaded the Caucus as part of his larger goal of Native American activism, which included issues like shutting down Whiteclay’s alcohol sales to the Pine Ridge reservation and raising awareness of police brutality against Native people. 

The year’s Native Caucus election meeting was open to the public and shared on the Caucus’ Facebook page prior to the event, but voting was restricted to registered Democrats. All of the candidates running were registered Democrats and enrolled citizens in a Native American nation or tribe. 

2020 Caucus platform

The Caucus’ new platform includes three main goals, according to Chairperson Colette Yellow Robe. They are intended to do the following.

  • Increase overall Native American voter registration by 10 percent. 
  • Run at least five Native American candidates in the 2021 local, county, and state elections. 
  • Provide candidates and elected officials with a platform of the most important issues for Native American citizens, starting with healthcare and education.

Yellow Robe also plans to approach the Nebraska Democratic Party about instituting a statewide land acknowledgment, a spoken statement that names and honors the Native American nations that resided on Nebraska territory prior to federal and state settlements. 

Such an acknowledgment could resemble what Michelle LaMere, the new Caucas treasurer, read at the opening of the Friday night meeting. 

“We acknowledge with gratitude and utmost respect that we are meeting on the ancestral lands of the Otoe-Missouria, Ponca, Pawnee,” LaMere said before listing eight other nations and tribes. 

The statement went on to recognize the “legacies of violence, displacement, migration and settlement.” LaMere ended the land acknowledgment by wishing each nation “peace, vitality, strength and an unbroken continual relationship” with the land. 

2020 Caucus chairpersons

Four of the five roles were elected unanimously. They include: 

  • Colette Yellow Robe: Chairperson
  • Kevin Abourezk: Vice chairperson
  • Michelle LaMere: Treasurer
  • Danelle Smith: Parliamentarian

Jason Valandra began the meeting as the only candidate for secretary but was joined by community nominations for Melanie Parker and Danelle Smith. Both Valandra and Smith spoke about their platforms and experience, but Parker was absent from the meeting. Valandra eventually won with 11 votes, compared to one vote for each of the other candidates. 

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The newly elected Native Caucus officials are pictured from top right to bottom: Kevin Abourezk, Colette Yellow Robe, Jason Valandra, Michelle LaMere, and Danelle Smith. Photo courtesy of the Nebraska Democratic Party Native Caucus.

New business from the Sept. 25 meeting 

During the open floor for new business, Edward T. Ventura Jr. promoted a Native representation role in the state and an opportunity to protest against the Bellevue Public Schools mascots. 

Ventura currently resides as the chair of the Ethnic Minority Affairs Committee in the larger Nebraska State Education Association. One of the EMAC’s two American Indian/Alaska Native representative chairs is open to an educator who is also a member of the NSEA. 

The EMAC board is a coalition of Native, Hispanic, Black and Pacific Islander representatives who bring to light relevant information and issues about their respective ethnic groups to the larger state education association. 

Ventura’s more personal project, protesting the Bellevue Public School’s “Chieftain” and “Thunderbird” mascots, stems from his desire for better Native representation for his family. 

If his son has grandchildren, Ventura wants them to attend schools that celebrate the mascots respectfully rather than use derogatory names pulled from a history of cultural insensitivity toward Native Americans. The educator said that most school and team mascots are animals, yet more than 40 Nebraskan schools still have Native American mascots. 

“We’re not a mascot. We’re not an animal,” Ventura said of the Native community. “It’s political correctness.” 

Ventura spoke about the issue to the Bellevue Board of Education in 2015. Despite other students and educators speaking out over the years, Ventura said the issue is forgotten quickly after each round of protest. 

Bellevue Board of Education meetings are typically held on the first Monday of every month. 

The Native Caucus plans to meet once a quarter and hold two community meetings in the upcoming years. Yellow Robe said they plan to hold a follow-up meeting in the following weeks, with further details to-be-announced on the Native Caucus of the Nebraska Democratic Party Facebook page.

Yellow Robe encouraged anyone interested to connect on social media or contact Caucus members directly for information. 

“It’s important that our needs, our interests, our pressing topics, our causes are being expressed by us in all levels of government,” Yellow Robe said. 

UNL Journalism Major, Graduating 2021