Bearnie Sanders was literally feeling the burn today. The man in the bear suit had been standing in the sun in front of the Caras Park Pavillion for more than an hour, surrounded on all sides by a sea of people with dreadlocks, fishing hats and signs declaring “A Future To Believe In.” But the heat was a small price to pay for hearing from a presidential candidate he felt he was “destined” to rally for. In Bearnie’s own words, “Ursine Americans stand firmly in support of Bernie Sanders.”
Caras had been bustling for hours even before Bearnie arrived. While the airport-style security made getting into the park a bit of an arduous task, any anxiety or frustration evaporated immediately upon entry. Those inside were giddy and energized, glad to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow members of the “political revolution.” High school seniors Brent Shadday and Nathan Dudden seemed particularly eager to hear straight from the mouth of someone they could end up voting for in their first election. Not many candidates come to Missoula, Dudden said, and it’s “cool that Bernie is reaching out to smaller cities and to Montana.” Shadday found the setting apt.
“Caras defines Missoula,” he said.
Spirits were high in the small, shady VIP section as well. Asked what brought him to the day’s proceedings, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Chairman Vernon Finley cracked wise. “A little Jetta.” Finley recalled attending a meeting of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., during which presidential candidates were encouraged to send video statements. Of those who did, Finley says, Sanders was the only one who had “done his research and addressed all of the issues that were important to all of us.”
Nearby, University of Montana Native American Studies co-chair Theodore Van Alst was kicking back in preparation for his introductory speech. He’d already been working with the Sanders campaign when the opportunity to “warm up the crowd” presented itself, and Van Alst didn’t hesitate. “I had a ‘Draft Bernie 2012’ sign years ago,” he said, adding he’s heartened by Sanders’ “commitment to listen to others.” As the words exited Van Alst’s mouth, a handful of tribal members carrying “Natives for Bernie” signs appeared on the far side of the pavilion, waiting to take their positions on the bleachers behind the lectern. “I mean, look who the first group on the stage is,” Van Alst said.
Former U.S. Senate candidate Amanda Curtis stood just a few feet away, unsurprised by the endless trickle of people filtering into the park. Missoula is the “Bernie haven” of Montana, she said, though she expects he won’t be the last 2016 presidential candidate to pay a visit. Curtis is “proud” to see two strong hopefuls on the Democratic side, and from a political standpoint, she believes Sanders’ decision to run under the party’s flag was huge. “The Republican and Democratic party platforms list their values,” Curtis said. “Saying he’s a Democrat means he agrees with those values.”
When Sanders finally took the stage, his stump speech appeared to cater to all those gathered: free tuition for public colleges and universities, equal pay for women, a push to “fundamentally change our relationship with Native American people.” He even touched on the need for a clean and healthy environment, though whether any of his repeated waves were specifically directed at Bearnie is tough to say. Bearnie himself certainly thought so.
Brendan Work looked relieved to finally shed the head of his $60 bear costume as the crowd dispersed. He’d purchased the thing on Amazon especially for the event, unable to pass up the opportunity for a pun. His real motivation in showing up for Sanders was, of course, far from a joke. As a high school Arabic teacher in Missoula, Work talks about the issues facing Palestine, Iraq and Syria on a daily basis. Eagerness for war in the Arab world is “a widespread disease,” he said, and he considers Sanders “the first anti-war candidate I’ve supported for national office”—a stark contrast to Hillary Clinton, who was recently dubbed a “warrior realist” by the New York Daily News.
“I don’t want a warrior,” Work said. “I don’t even want a realist.”
Like most of the more than 9,000 people who made the pilgrimage to Caras today, the man behind Bearnie just wants Bernie.