It will take more than an election campaign to right innumerable wrongs, committed against Native Americans yet; Mark Charles hopes to make a start of it.
The ambitious Native American activist and former pastor, cum politician, has launched a historic presidential campaign.
Charles is a dual citizen of the United States and the Navajo Nation. His campaign is the best-resourced independent presidential campaign this election cycle and the first-ever independent campaign by a Native American for president.
The history of Native Americans and presidential politics can be dated back to 1924 when an act of Congress granted all Native Americans citizenship. In the next election cycle a Sen. Charles Curtis (R-Kansas), ran for the U.S. presidency. Herbert Hoover later tapped him as his vice-presidential running mate in 1928.
Since then a few Native American activists from the libertarian Russell Means to the imprisoned Leonard Peltier have launched third-party presidential bids. None has ever launched an independent effort.
The seedlings of Charles’ own political campaign grew out of his opposition to the Iraq war in 2004.
“In the Iraq war I saw my country making the same mistakes in dealing with the Middle East that it made in dealing with the indigenous people of Turtle Island,” says Mark Charles.
As a child Charles lived in Gallup, N.M. Today, the town has emerged as a flashpoint in current tensions between the Navajo Nation and New Mexico over the deadly Corona virus. The Navajo Nation has a higher COVID-19 infection rate than any U.S. state.
“[Gallup] is surrounded by reservation lands due to one of the most brutal acts of ethnic cleansing that was carried out by a man most Americans have favorable views of – Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was one of the most racist and white supremacist presidents the United States has had. During the Civil War, he oversaw the brutal treatment of Native Americans in several incidents.”
In 1863, the United States government forcibly removed some nearly 10,000 Navajos and Mescalero Apaches from their homeland to a tiny reservation in New Mexico. The event is known today as the “Long Walk” involved crossing some 450 miles through alternating blazing sun of summer and frozen nights – at gunpoint.
Some parents urged their children to hide rather than join them. Stragglers were shot. The march and the following conditions on the reservation resulted in the death of 2,380 people. Charles, who later earned a history degree from UCLA has written extensively on this crucial chapter in Navajo history.
“The town of Gallup, NM and the associated railway line were built thanks to that ethnic cleansing… Navajos will drive from communities with no running water or electricity up to two hours to get there to shop at Walmart and other stores.
Concerns over the Corona virus prompted Gallup, NM to close the town to visitors from the Navajo Nation. Charles said the use of the Riot Act to enforce the measure shows clear racist undertones.
In 2004, Charles moved with his family back to the Navajo Nation. They lived in a simple home six miles off the nearest dirt road. There was no running water or electricity. Many of his neighbors were shepherds or traditional rug weavers. Like his neighbors, the closest of which was two miles away, his family cooked on a camp stove, read by candlelight, and built an outhouse. It was life without many of the modern amenities that most Americans are used to. But there was, he says, a profound connection to the land.
“When I moved back to the Navajo Nation, I realized how deeply marginalized we all felt. It seemed there were only two types of people interested in us: those who wanted to use us to feel good about themselves through charity and those who wanted to take our picture but, no one who would treat us equals.”
Charles’ political ambitions have taken him to Washington D.C. where he now lives with his family. In doing so, he has had a front-row seat to the Trump administration.
“Donald Trump’s behavior, especially since he decided to run for POTUS (but it was also very evident prior) he seems to believe that his entire existence is encapsulated within a single binary,” Charles wrote in an article on his campaign website. “He is either the savior of the world OR the greatest victim of it. There appears to be no middle ground.”
Before the current COVID-19 crisis he had travelled extensively around the country meeting with indigenous leaders and other groups to build support for his campaign. He launched his campaign last year with the Navajo chapter in Fort Defiance, Arizona. He has had campaign events across the country from the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center to pow-wows in New York. He traveled to Oregon, New Mexico, New York, Iowa, the Dakotas, and many points in between to build support for his campaign.
The record of third-party and independent campaigns in U.S. history is rarely encouraging. He admits that independent campaigns face several challenges.
“The biggest issue, despite the lack of media coverage, is the lack of ballot access. The United States is a federal system and every state has its own laws regarding ballot access.”
Charles explains the ballot access issue in detail. In New Jersey and Tennessee, it’s a relatively low number – less than a thousand to get your name on the ballot. In California and Florida, you need more than 100,000 signatures for ballot access. Each state has different deadlines. States also charge separate fees to put one’s name on the ballot once the signatures have been collected or in lieu of signatures. Some candidates register as late August or September but, the bulk are closed well before a fact that poses a challenge to any third party or independent campaign.
Corona virus has added new challenges. While there have been many efforts to allow mail-in ballot access before November, the campaign can petition a handful of states (Alaska, North Dakota, New Mexico, and New Hampshire) remotely.
In a nation shocked and outraged at the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, Charles calls for a national dialogue on race, gender, and class.
In this regard, Charles takes some inspiration from the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that have been set up in Rwanda, South Africa, Canada and elsewhere as part of the healing process in those societies.
“We should have a similar dialogue in the United States to help build a common memory. Except it would need to be called the Truth and Conciliation Commission. We have never had conciliation before in the United States between the races.”
Charles points out that the 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution does not precisely abolish slavery allowing for prisoners to be enslaved. He suggests an edit of the amendment to once and for all put the slavery issue behind us. Charles’ call to action is far from pusillanimous.
“We need that to expose the history of racism, sexism, slavery, and genocide at the foundation of this country. We have had boarding schools for Native Americans and internments camps. At no point in our history has there been a healthy relationship across race and color. We need to change that.”