SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Native American rights activist Frank LaMere fought against alcohol sales to the dry Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota for two decades.

He died just two months ago at the age of 69, but his life continues to make an impact. For the first time, presidential candidates are gathering this week to discuss only Native American issues on Aug. 19-20 in Sioux City, Iowa, at an event held in his honor.

As the Native American issues reporter at The Forum, I’ll be there to cover the event. As someone who had the privilege of getting to know LaMere, I’ll be there to honor his memory.

I worked with LaMere, a member of the Winnebago Tribe, during my senior year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. From 2016 to 2017, I was part of an in-depth reporting project comprised of a dozen students and several professors. We set out to report on the travesties of Whiteclay, Neb., an unincorporated town home to four beer stores that collectively sold the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer a year — almost all of it to Native Americans from the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Our yearlong project reported on the issue Frank LaMere had spent almost a third of his life fighting. For one of my stories, LaMere said, the “carnage” caused by the beer sales must be stopped.

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Frank LaMere reacts to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission's unanimous decision to revoke Whiteclay's four liquor licenses in Lincoln, Neb., on April 19, 2017. James Wooldridge / Special to The Forum
Frank LaMere reacts to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission's unanimous decision to revoke Whiteclay's four liquor licenses in Lincoln, Neb., on April 19, 2017. James Wooldridge / Special to The Forum

On April 19, 2017, nearing the end of the school year, the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission voted to not renew the liquor licenses in Whiteclay — the long-awaited victory LaMere had been fighting for.

My classmate, James Wooldridge, captured LaMere’s reaction in that moment perfectly.

LaMere fought for Native American rights in many more ways throughout his life as well. He was a busy man. But I enjoyed the few one-on-one encounters I had with him over the course of just that one year.

He was soft-spoken, yet passionate and thoughtful in his speech. He was humble. And his emails were always in all-caps. In written response to our in-depth reporting project on Whiteclay, he said. “YOU MADE ME FEEL! YOU MADE THE LAKOTA FEEL. YOU MADE ALL OF NEBRASKA FEEL. IT WAS GOOD! AH-HO!”

I can’t think of a better way to honor him than for candidates vying for the highest position in the country to discuss issues related to the first Americans.

“This discussion is certainly long overdue,” said Jacqueline De León, a staff attorney at the Boulder, Colo.-based Native American Rights Fund.

The Frank LaMere Presidential Candidate Forum is hosted by nonprofit Four Directions, which LaMere helped start, and the National Congress of American Indians. Several groups, such as the Native American Rights Fund, are co-sponsors.

Four Directions invited all major Democratic and Republican candidates to participate. So far, Democratic candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, author Marianne Williamson, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro and former U.S. Rep. John Delaney have confirmed their attendance, a press release said. Independent candidate Mark Charles, a member of the Navajo Nation, will also attend.

Representatives for tribes and Native American organizations from across the country will serve on panels and pose questions to candidates in the hopes of discussing issues such as missing and murdered indigenous people as well as Native American health care, education, economic development and infrastructure.

Voting rights have also been a prominent issue in Indigenous communities, as groups including Four Directions work to get more Native Americans to the ballot box. In North Dakota, a lawsuit that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court last year said a new voter ID rule would hinder Indigenous voters. The lawsuit is still pending.

In response, the November 2018 election in North Dakota saw the highest-ever turnout of Native American voters in some counties. Across the country, De León said Native Americans represent a “largely untapped potential voting block in key battleground states” such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada and Arizona.

“Native Americans have the potential to be a really potent political force,” she said.

Ruth Buffalo, a Democratic-NPL state senator for Fargo and a citizen of the Mandaree Hidatsa Arikara Nation, will be volunteering at the event. She said more and more Indigenous people are "seeing they have a voice and that they can make a difference," especially after the last election where two Indigenous women were elected to Congress for the first time.

“No candidate should take the Native American vote for granted,” said Four Directions co-executive director O.J. Semans. “When candidates demonstrate they understand the issues and will work for the betterment of our people and communities, they can earn our votes.”