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Orpheum Theatre exterior

A special forum for presidential candidates to discuss Native American issues has been scheduled at the Orpheum Theatre, 528 Pierce St. 

SIOUX CITY -- O.J. Semans says it would be a mistake for presidential candidates to ignore Native American voters in the 2020 election. 

So, Semans and other national Native leaders decided to invite White House hopefuls to Sioux City to talk exclusively about issues that impact "First Americans."

"I think if the presidential candidates are smart, they're going to realize the actual voting power Native Americans have," said Semans, co-leader of the Native American voting rights advocacy group Four Directions. "Right now, we have large populations in seven states that are battleground states." 

The Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum has been scheduled for Aug. 19 and 20 at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Sioux City. Billed as the first of its kind, the forum is hosted by a coalition of groups including Four Directions and the Native Organizers Alliance. Co-hosts include the National Congress of American Indians, the Native American Rights Fund, the Coalition of Large Tribes and the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Association. 

The forum is named for the late Frank LaMere, a Native American activist from South Sioux City who died of cancer last month.

Twenty-six Democratic candidates have been invited to the forum, as have President Trump and William Weld, a former Massachusetts governor who is challenging Trump for the Republican presidential nomination.

"I'll be honest with you, I think most of the candidates are going to be here, because this is the one time they'll get to speak to six million Native Americans in the United States," said Matt Samp, a spokesman for Four Directions. "We have soft commitments from, I'd say nine of them." 

Samp said the official lineup won't be released until July 19. 

Over two nights, candidates will take questions from panels of elected tribal officials, tribal members and Native American youth. Mark Trahant, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe and the editor of Indian Country Today, a Washington, D.C.-based publication, will moderate the forum. 

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Marcella LeBeau, a 99-year-old member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, a World War II veteran of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and a recipient of the French Legion of Honor, will be a featured guest. 

Semans said the debate will touch on issues including housing, healthcare, infrastructure, drug and alcohol abuse and socioeconomic issues, among other topics. Candidates already speak volumes about most of these topics, but Semans said such policies in the past have applied differently to Native American tribes. 

"One of the main problems that we have with elected officials is that they do not understand tribal treaties or tribal sovereignty, so that is going to be a priority topic," he said. "Another priority is creating equality in voting."

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Sioux City was chosen as the site for the national forum for two reasons: partly because there is a population of Native Americans in the region, but also because the Iowa caucuses are the first test of the nominating season. Many of the candidates will already be campaigning in the state.

"We wanted to ensure that the presidential candidates have access -- it's not like they're not going to be in Iowa in August," Semans said with a laugh. 

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