Sanders appeals to indigenous, environmental activists at Grand Rapids rally

Sen. Bernie Sanders at a Grand Rapids rally, March 8. 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

At his Grand Rapids rally on a sunny Sunday afternoon, U.S Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was able to draw an audience of more than 7,600 people with just a few days’ notice. A common concern among many attendees: climate change and environmental justice.

Sanders’ policies on climate change and environmental protections are popular — not just among environmentally minded folks and young activists — but are lauded by a number of high-profile indigenous activists across the country. Environmental issues traditionally are a top priority for Native Americans, whose cultural tradition is rooted in the well-being and purity of the earth.

Sanders has scheduled a flurry of events since Friday before Tuesday’s presidential primary, including events in Detroit, Dearborn and Flint. After Sunday’s Grand Rapids rally, Sanders held a rally in Ann Arbor and is scheduled to hold a coronavirus roundtable and participate in a Fox News town hall in Detroit Monday. His chief rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, has events in Grand Rapids and Detroit scheduled for Monday. Surrogates for both candidates also are holding a number of events leading up to the election.

Sen. Bernie Sanders at a Grand Rapids rally, March 8. 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

Among the speakers at Sanders’ Grand Rapids rally — which included civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who endorsed Sanders before speaking to the Grand Rapids crowd — was Native American activist and northern Michigan attorney Holly T. Bird, who was named last week as Sanders’ Michigan campaign vice chair.

“Us indigenous [people], we overwhelmingly support Bernie Sanders,” Bird told the crowd, citing his support for indigenous efforts against oil pipelines like Michigan’s controversial Line 5. It runs under the Straits of Mackinac and is strongly opposed by environmentalists and tribal populations in the state.

Holly T. Bird speaks at a rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders in Grand Rapids, March 8. 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

Bird is just one of a number of indigenous and environmental justice activists who have recently been named co-chairs for the campaign across several states. North Dakota co-chair Angel Young is a member of Standing Rock Nation; Washington state vice chair Deborah Parker is an indigenous activist; Idaho co-chair Irene Ruiz is an immigrant rights and environmental justice activist — and those are just the states that vote on Tuesday.

Nichole Biber, a 45-year-old Lansing resident who grew up in Grand Rapids, belongs to the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. Biber donned a jingle dress, a traditional Native American dress decorated with rows of small metal cones, which made a chorus of jingle sounds every time she held up her rally sign and cheered for Sanders.

Biber cheered the loudest at Sanders’ mention of the Green New Deal, a bold resolution to curb climate change introduced by progressive members of Congress. Sanders was the first of the 2020 candidates to back the Green New Deal, and is now the only remaining candidate who has expressed full support for the resolution.

“I’m wearing my jingle dress today because it is a healing dress,” Biber explained. “… The Green New Deal, to me, is a chance to heal that original wound … to heal the planet.”

Nichole Biber at a rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders in Grand Rapids, March 8. 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

“The Green New Deal, that is the only dignified and meaningful work we’re going to find. It’s the only way we can fix the problems we have right now,” she added.

A big aspect of Biber’s support for Sanders is his clear opposition to Line 5. The senator called for the 67-year-old pipeline to be decommissioned in August, and is now the only candidate in the race who has publicly called for it to be shut down.

For Biber, shutting down Line 5 is “the bare minimum that we’re starting with. And [Sanders’] focus never wavered from this clear thing that would make it so there’s less suffering.”

Biber voted for Sanders in 2016, and voted absentee for Sanders again last week. She said she hopes to vote for him yet again as the Democratic nominee in November.

“This is ‘second chance Tuesday.’ All those young people and all their friends … they’ll be the ones working to renew the country. And this is their chance,” Biber said, referencing the Super Tuesday results last week, when Biden won 10 of 14 primaries.

Sanders wasn’t the first, or even second choice of 33-year old Eirann Betka-Pope of Grand Rapids. She had preferred U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) at first, then switched her support to U.S Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) after Harris dropped out. Now, she happily supports Sanders and plans to vote for him on Tuesday. She added that she will vote for whoever wins the nomination in the general election.

Betka-Pope said she admires Sanders’ policies on renewable energy, a quality that she had also admired in Warren’s campaign platform, and wishes the Vermont U.S. senator would make it more of a central priority of his campaign.

“I always love to see the environment put first, as well as some of these other human issues, because we won’t have to fight for them if we don’t have a world to live in,” Betka-Pope said.

Rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders in Grand Rapids, March 8. 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

As for Biden, Sanders’ top primary rival, Betka-Pope said she doesn’t think he could do anything at this point to sway her vote.

“I think [Biden has] shown a pretty clear record of a traditional way of thought, that I think he’s not ready for the change that we’re seeing with a lot of youth. … I just don’t think he’s connected as well, and he’s not listening as well as Bernie is,” she said.