I have been working on #NativeVote18 lists … folks running for state legislatures (55 and counting, 25 women and 30 men). I have also been working on a list of Native American women who have run for state wide offices and Congress. Fascinating stuff. (I was thinking of a trivia game I could post.) There have been four candidates for governor, three for Lt. Gov., and 12 for Congress. First statewide race that I have found, 1978. Cool stuff. #SheRepresents Will post this soon. I want to make a graphic.
Here is the #NativeVote18 state legislature list. Who’s missing?
One thing I should mention: Google has changed the way you can access pictures and it no longer is compatible with fusion tables. So I am looking for a solution or a new spreadsheet system. #Transparency
Davids, 37, is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation. She has a Ready-for-Congress resume. She is an attorney, a Cornell Law School alumna, a White House fellow during the Barack Obama administration, the former deputy director of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation in Porcupine, South Dakota, and, this is something that could definitely help the Congress, she once founded a coffee company, Hoka Coffee in Pine Ridge.
She began her campaign on Feb. 15. In a tweet, Davids cited an urgency for Congress to act to stop gun violence, singling out the current member of Congress in that district, Rep. Kevin Yoder. “We need more than condolences from legislators. We need swift legislation for commonsense gun safety reform. We can’t allow lawmakers, like Rep. Yoder, who accept big money from the gun lobby to continue sacrificing our safety in exchange for campaign contributions.
The Kansas City Star noted that if elected she would be the first female Native American to serve in Congress and the first openly gay member of the Kansas delegation. “Until it got pointed out to me it wasn’t necessarily part of my thinking, but the gravity of it really hit me recently,” Davids told the Star. “It’s amazing how long we’ve been in a country, but we’re still having firsts.”
Davids posted this on her web site: “I am proud to call myself a Kansan. But I have been disheartened by the way our district has been represented in Congress. We deserve a voice who represents our values and interests … As the daughter of a single mother Army veteran, I know the importance of determination and service to country. As a woman and a Native American, I know how to stand up and fight for equity. As a lawyer, economic advisor, and advocate, I know how to build consensus and get things done.”
This is the year where women are breaking campaign records across the board. More women than ever — 400 plus — are running for Congress as a referendum on President Donald J. Trump and his policies. There have been 12,244 people elected to Congress since 1789. The first woman, Jeanette Rankin of Montana, was elected in 1916 and since then only 327 women (about a third of whom are serving now) have won a seat in the U.S. House or Senate.
Davids, and most of the other Native American women running for office, are running in competitive primary races. That means they need the resources *cough* money *cough* early in order to have a chance. Davids’ primary election is in August.
Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District includes Kansas City and some of its suburbs as well as much of eastern Kansas. The district “leans” Republican. Yoder won the seat last election with a margin of more than ten points, 51 percent to 40 percent for the Democrat.
National Economic Council discusses White House infrastructure plan. (White House photo)
Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports
Budgets are statements: This is what “we” care about. It’s money that reveals priorities. The “we” could be, and ought to be, the country. Or the “we” could be a presidential administration that’s not really equipped to govern. So there will be lots of stories this year, like last year, about the Trump’s administration’s desire to cut federal Indian programs, wipe out public broadcasting, end student loan forgiveness, wreck Medicaid and Medicare, food stamps, housing programs, and generally just about every federal program that serves poor people.
And what a message: Rich people face tough times so they deserved a huge tax cut. Poor people are poor because of their own failures. And more money is needed for a wall that’s not needed, for the largest military in the world, and the Republicans no longer believe that deficits matter.
But Mulvaney has a different version. Here is what he says are the messages.
“Number one, you don’t have to spend all of this money, Congress. But if you do, here is how we would prefer to see you spend it,” he said. “And the other message is that we do not have to have trillion-dollar deficits forever.”
Ok. So the action is in Congress. Even Republicans on Capitol Hill know that this budget cannot be. It’s chaos as numbers.
Perhaps the best line of nonsense was written a line written by the budget director to House Speaker Paul Ryan saying domestic spending at the levels Congress has already approved would add too much to the federal deficit. That’s funny.
For this budget to become law (and overwrite the current spending bill) the House and Senate would have to agree to a budget. That’s unlikely. As I have written before there are lots of votes against any budget but not enough votes to pass any budget. A budget resolution would allow the Senate to move forward with a spending plan with only Republican votes (and even then only one to spare). But unless the rules change (which President Trump wants) the Senate needs 60 votes for regular appropriations bills. That means a lot of compromise before federal spending.
The most popular part of the president’s budget is infrastructure spending. But most of his plan would be funding from state, local, and tribal governments. That’s a problem. Congress will not be eager to follow this approach, especially in an election year. Members of Congress love announcing new roads and other projects. It means jobs back home.
It’s telling that in the White House statement on infrastructure tribes are not mentioned (something that was routinely done in the Obama White House).
Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, wrote: “Our infrastructure is broken. The average driver spends 42 hours per year sitting in traffic, missing valuable time with family and wasting 3.1 billion gallons of fuel annually. Nearly 40 percent of our bridges predate the first moon landing. And last year, 240,000 water main breaks wasted more than 2 trillion gallons of purified drinking water—enough to supply Belgium.”
So the Trump administration’s answer is to fund this with local government dollars because, as Cohn puts it, “the federal government politically allocated funds for projects, leading to waste, mismanagement, and misplaced priorities. The answer to our nation’s infrastructure needs is not more projects selected by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C Instead, the President’s plan designates half of its $200 billion for matching funds to stimulate State, local, and private investment.”
Another thing for a broken Congress to fix. If the votes are there. In theory that should be easy. This is an area where Republicans and Democrats agree (actually anyone who looks at the crumbling state of infrastructure can figure this one out). But in this Congress? We shall see.
At the State of the Indian Nations Monday, National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel said: “Native peoples are also builders and managers of roads and bridges, and other essential infrastructure. These projects are often in rural areas. They connect tribal and surrounding communities with each other, and the rest of the Nation. Tribal infrastructure is American infrastructure. In 2018, NO infrastructure bill should pass, UNLESS it includes Indian Country’s priorities.”
Back to the budget as a messaging document. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities says this budget “violates the spirit of the bipartisan agreement that congressional leaders negotiated just a few days ago.” That’s going to make it much more difficult to come up with the next agreement in Congress (unless the law is ironclad, stripping the administration of some of its governing authority).
The budget assumes that Congress would repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a block grant formula. The votes are not there for that. It’s fantasy.
The current bipartisan agreement “calls for adding $2.9 billion per year over the next two years to the discretionary Child Care and Development Block Grant, boosting this key federal program to help make child care affordable for low- and modest-income parents. But the budget reneges on that and proposes essentially flat funding for the program. The Administration’s blatant dismissal of a major bipartisan agreement on which the ink is barely dry may make bipartisan agreements harder to reach in the future,” the budget center reports. “And then, in years after 2019, the budget calls for cuts of unprecedented depth in non-defense discretionary programs even though that’s the part of the budget that contains many federal investments in long-term economic growth. By 2028, funding for non-defense discretionary programs would fall 42 percent below the 2017 level, after adjusting for inflation. Indeed, by 2028, total NDD spending, measured as a share of gross domestic product, would be at its lowest level since Herbert Hoover was president.”
Where federal money is spent. Source: Congressional Budget Office.
To me that’s the key point. Domestic spending, the programs that serve Indian Country, are already dropping and have been for a long time. All domestic discretionary programs add up to about 4.6 percent of the budget — and federal spending on Indian Country is a tiny fraction of that.
And, as the budget center points out, that means Trump budgets would actually “go below the 2019 sequestration levels, which Congress just agreed is too low to meet national needs.”
The messaging document (the budget, remember?) has another problem. It’s based on assumptions that are even more of a fantasy than repealing the Affordable Care Act. The budget assumes a 3 percent growth rate this year and 4 percent next year. So lots more people earning more and paying more income taxes (since corporations will be paying less). Not. Going. To. Happen.
Even economists think this is nonsense. The crackdown on immigration, for example, is shrinking the economy, not growing it. And the Congressional Budget Office projects a long term growth rate of just under 2 percent. Last year the economy grew at 2.6 percent, below what Trump said would happen and even below the consensus of economists.
This 2019 budget will accomplish one thing: It will serve as a mile post for the fall election. Republicans can make the case for defense spending and, I suppose, that they used to be against deficits. And Democrats will make the case for protecting health care and other domestic priorities.
Walz-Flanagan won nearly a third of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor ballots. State Auditor Rebecca Otto was in second place with 20 percent, followed by state Rep. Erin Murphy with 13 percent and former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman at 12 percent.
Walz told the Pioneer Press that he was “cautiously optimistic” because of “broad support across the state. It’s coming from all areas.”
The Walz-Flanagan ticket also has a significant lead in the fundraising department. Reports filed with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board show the team raising more than a million dollars with $$488,194.57 cash on hand. (The second place Democrat, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, raised only about half that amount.)
Flanagan, White Earth Ojibwe, would be first Native American woman ever elected as a Lt. Governor.
Meanwhile, in Idaho, another break-through candidate, Paulette Jordan, Couer’d Alene, resigned her seat in the legislature to concentrate on her run for governor. “My priority is my constituents and the people of Idaho. I cannot fairly serve my constituents and run for governor, therefore I am stepping down from my legislative seat,” she told the Spokesman-Review. “This is necessary to win the Democratic primary and to move toward victory in November. I’m all in for Idaho.”
Jordan is in a contested primary facing a Boise business owner, A.J. Balukoff. The primary is in May. Jordan’s campaign finance disclosure form shows that she has raised about $5,000 so far while Balukoff has collected only a little more than that, but he loaned himself $175,000.
This year’s “Stop Disenrollment” campaign launches again on Feb. 8 and is led by Alaska Native actor Irene Bedard. (News release photo)
Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports
I was at an event in Seattle recently and listened to Slade Gorton talk about the future of the Republican party in Washington at the Crosscut Festival. Washington state is changing and the GOP runs the risk of being irrelevant (as is now the case in California elections). And, Washington, like California, has a top two primary. So it’s a challenge for Republicans to win a spot in the general election. In the last Senate election, for example, the “top two” finalists were both Democrats.
Gorton, who just had his 90th birthday, was once considered a moderate in Republican circles. That’s no longer the case. It’s true he is not a “loyal” Trump supporter. Then that’s not an easy species to find in Washington state. But he does support the GOP congressional agenda. So moderate he is not.
Of course Gorton did not talk about American Indian or Alaska Native issues. Even though that’s what we in Indian Country remember. Actually it’s too bad for Republicans. The party is shrinking, in part, because it does not recognize the changing nature of the country’s demographics. Then that’s been true for a long time. I remember talking to a former GOP party leader, Gummy Johnson, more than twenty years ago who wanted to position his party as a supporter of Treaty Rights and tribal governments. The Gorton wing of the party would never have let that happen.
Gorton (and his ally on the Supreme Court, the late William Rehnquist) had a nuanced view of tribal governments. These two men used their legislative and judicial powers to try and undercut federal Indian law and treat tribes as social clubs. Tribal membership was not citizenship but a special privilege. So tribal authority, the power of government, could only be applied to tribal members (and even that was subject to any limitations set by Congress). The legal theory for this nonsense was the implied divestiture doctrine, the secret but steady erosion of tribal governments.
Sen. Gorton has moved on to other issues. He’s an expert on national security, and, as I learned the other night, on rebuilding the Republican brand. (Or not. Because he argues there is an ebb and flow and Republican ideas will come back again in Washington with major change.)
I was thinking of Slade Gorton’s ideology in the context of the Stop Disenrollment campaign that will be posted across social media on Feb. 8. It’s being led this year by Alaska Native actor Irene Bedard. “The movement is poised to raise indigenous social consciousness again this year — in what might be its final year given the growing sense that disenrollment is declining nationally,” said a news release. “Prominent Native Americans like author Sherman Alexie, former U.S. Vice Presidential candidate Winona LaDuke, rapper-actor-entrepreneur Litefoot, film director Chris Eyre, fashion designer Bethany Yellowtail, and Olympic Gold Medalist Billy Mills headlined the 2016- and 2017-campaigns.”
What does Slade Gorton have to do with disenrollment? It’s an extension of the idea that tribes are social clubs and that membership is exclusive. That’s a different narrative than a government with citizens. Great nations grow. Great nations want all the talent that can build a better society. (Hint: This idea has applications to the immigration debate, too.) Great nations don’t kick out their relations.
To me, tribal citizenship is the key. Thumb through history and some of Indian Country’s greatest leaders: Washakie, D’arcy McNickle, and many, many more could have been on the wrong side of history had there been a narrow debate about disenrollment and membership.
Are tribes exclusive clubs? No. The answer is always the framework of government.
U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, a member of The Chickasaw Nation, raised more than $869,000 last year. #NativeVote18 (Campaign photo)
Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports
It’s time to look at the money. How much money are #NativeVote18 candidates raising?
Yes, I know, this is a silly metric. After all there is no relationship to governing and calling up people you don’t know and asking them for money. Yet this is the system in place. A candidate is more likely to be successful if she or he can raise a lot of money.
So it’s no surprise that the big money collectors — even in Indian Country — are the ones who already hold office or who have held office recently. And it’s probably no surprise that the big money is headed down Republican alley.
The top money raiser is Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma. The latest Federal Election Commission reports were posted at the end of January and reflect fundraising for 2017. His net: $1.7 million, cash on hand.
Several tribes donated the maximum amount to Cole’s campaign. Oklahoma tribes, such as his own, the Chickasaw, and the Cherokee Nation, backed Cole as well as tribes from across the country ranging from Penobscot to Stillaguamish.
Some of the contributors have different agendas. Tribes, for example, support Cole because of his strong stands on tribal sovereignty. Yet the American Dental Association, another contributor, has worked against that very issue by challenging the tribes right to regulate mid-level dental practices. (Previous: Tribal sovereignty and the call for better oral health.)
Washington congressional candidate Dino Rossi comes in second for fundraising last year, netting a little more than a million dollars. This is remarkable when you consider he was not even a candidate until September. Rossi is Tlingit and Italian.
As I wrote in September: “One of his first jobs was working for Bernie Whitebear at Seattle’s United Indians of All Tribes. It’s interesting how some candidates make their tribal affiliation prominent and weigh in on issues that impact Indian Country. That would not be Rossi. But he doesn’t shy away (as many politicians do) from the conversation. It’s just not his focus.”
His campaign finance report bears that out. You won’t find a lot of tribal money.
Debra Haaland, who is running for Congress in New Mexico, raised more than $386,000 in her bid. If elected, she would be the first Native woman ever elected to the House. (Campaign photo)
The top Democrat for fundraising this cycle is Debra Haaland running in Albuquerque. She ended the year just shy of $200,000 in cash. Haaland, of course, and I can’t write it often enough, would be the first Native American woman ever elected to Congress. She’s running in a district that favors Democrats but she must win the primary first against seven other candidates. So far Sedillo Lopez, a former associate dean at the University of New Mexico Law School, has raised some $456,000 and reports $348,000 in cash on hand. Haaland has raised a total of $386,000 in contributions.
There is a huge difference between Haaland’s fundraising and Cole’s money. Most of her contributions come in $10 and $25 chunks. Small money. But that’s important because it could reflect interest by real voters instead of tribes and Political Action Committees and business interests. She does get some money from tribes, including her own, Laguna Pueblo, but not nearly as much as is found in Cole’s treasury.
The race for Oklahoma’s second congressional district could become the first election between two tribal members, the incumbent, Rep. Markwayne Mullin, and his challenger Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols. Both men are Cherokee.
But so far on the money side it’s not much of a contest. Mullin raised about $725,000 last year, netting $434,333.37. Nichols raised $17,575.52 and ended with $8,287.30 cash on hand.
The trick in any campaign is to raise as much money as needed to be competitive. That doesn’t always mean first. But it does mean having the resources to compete in media advertising, including social media, hiring staff, and organizing.
Several #NativeVote18 candidates showed no fundraising in the FEC reports. It could be because there fundraising is scant, or ramping up later, or because reports have not been filed yet.
Rep. Peggy Flanagan speaking at a campaign event. She Tweeted: “My fave photo from our kickoff. I’m running for my little girl and all girls who deserve to be seen, heard and valued.” (Photo via Twitter)
Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports
The November election seems far off. It’s almost a year away, right? Sorry. Elections are a series of steps that lead to that moment when ballots are actually counted.
And for the #NativeVote18 candidates some of those early steps are real tests. And in Minnesota one of those critical test is Feb. 6.
So far there are 15 Native candidates on my national list, people running for office statewide or for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. That’s extraordinary and compelling when you think about it. There are two candidates for state governors, two for Lt. Governors, eight running for Congress, one for the U.S. Senate, and two for attorney general and secretary of state. Seven of the candidates are Democrats, 5 Republicans, and 2 Green Party candidates and one independent. That’s a lot of diversity in thought, geography, and, of course, culture.
Back to that test. Voters in Minnesota will caucus at the precinct level. It’s a meeting that is run by a political party. Here is how it works (from the Secretary of State’s office): “We encourage Minnesotans to show support for their preferred candidates by participating in the candidate endorsement process that leads up to the state party conventions. It all begins on Tuesday, February 6, 2018 with the precinct caucuses. Going to a caucus is a great way to show support for a candidate, raise an issue that’s important to you, influence who the party will endorse for many offices, and meet people in your community.”
There are two important things that happen at these precinct-level meetings. First there will be a “preference” vote for governor. The winner of that poll could use it to help raise money and suggest a larger base of support. The second thing is the election of delegates to the state convention. This is the big deal. Because in Minnesota state party delegates will later endorse a candidate before the primary.
A precinct caucus can be won by a small group. Basically if someone decides to take a bunch of friends to a meeting — that could change everything. That’s especially true in this year’s election because both parties have so many candidates running. A small, dedicated group of friends could win an election. Literally. (Said in a Rob Lowe voice.)
On the Democratic side (the Democratic Farmer Labor Party) there are six plus candidates, a mayor, three legislators, a state auditor, and a member of Congress.
And Rep. Tim Walz is campaigning with his pick for Lt. Gov, Rep. Peggy Flanagan. Flanagan is a member of the White Earth band of Ojibwe. And she would be the first Native American woman to hold this office. This is unusual for a team to be put together so early, but it’s also an opportunity for voters to see what an administration would look like. And for the team to balance each other in terms of interest and perception.
That’s already been an issue. Rebecca Otto, the state auditor and a DFL candidate for governor, says she is running to be the most progressive candidate. In a fundraising letter she she has “strong disagreements” with Walz because he voted for Keystone XL three times in Congress, supports the Enbridge Pipeline and “says he does not oppose the DAPL pipeline.” As is often the case, the story is more complicated than that. It’s true that Walz voted for Keystone, but he also has said that if any pipeline negatively impacts Native people, violates treaty rights, or disturbs burial grounds, it should not be built.
There are two political tactics at work here: Otto’s team is eager to weaken support for Walz-Flanagan in Native communities and discount Flanagan’s role by only focusing on Walz’ record in Congress.
But Walz and Flanagan are running together early — so voters should judge both of them. Together. Should Walz be elected, Flanagan would be there to make the case. She would be inside the room. She might win the day. She might not. But she’ll be there for four years pushing and reminding Walz about the importance of Native issues. Especially pipelines.
Tuesday’s precinct caucus is a test for Walz and Flanagan — and for voters from Native communities in Minnesota. A precinct caucus is the perfect forum for Indian Country because a small dedicated group can win.
There are also nine Republicans running in their party caucus Tuesday. Last week former Gov. Tim Pawlenty signaled that he might try one more time. That could shake up that side of the race big time.
I skipped watching the State of the Union last night. That was the first time in, well, a couple of decades. There was really no reason to watch. I figured President Donald J. Trump would set out to be presidential in tone, but his words would largely be the more of the same.
It wasn’t a boycott on my part. I just didn’t care to listen. It’s so much less stressful to read the text later.
The State of the Union is a joint session of Congress. The House of Representatives is jammed with its members, the Senate, members of the Supreme Court, the cabinet, and invited guests. A fitting place for these eleven words said by the president: “Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill …”
The topic was infrastructure. But the problem of Congress producing a bill should be the greater question.
Instead of watching the State of the Union I was reading about the Ancien Régime, the end of the monarchy in France, the time just before the revolution.
I am especially interested in the mechanics of the Estates General. This was a legislative body with no official power (the king held that). The First Estate was the clergy, the wealthiest community in France at the time, owning about ten percent of all the land and exempt from all taxes. The Second Estate was the nobility. Still rich. Just not as rich as the priests. At least on a per capita basis. (And did own about a third of all the country’s property.) The Third Estate was supposed to be everyone else, but in practice it was really the bourgeoisie, the merchants, the lawyers, the folks who had some money and some property.
At first each “estate” had an equal vote. But there were only about 10,000 members of the clergy, about 400,000 nobles, and 25 million people. So representatives that accounted for about 3 percent of the population could out vote the 97 percent.
The Estates General had one essential mission: Approve a budget. But for more than a decade that body could not find the votes.
The opening of the Estates General would have been a familiar scene to those watching the pomp of a State of the Union. “Louis XVI … as a peaceful king, he declared himself ‘the people’s greatest friend.’” Make France Great Again, right?
There are two things from that era that ought to be a concern in the United States. The absolute imbalance between representation in the legislature and the population. And the inability to come together and agree on a spending plan.
Two of the three bodies in the Estate General wanted to tax everybody else. The Third Estate, the people, knew that meant them.
The Republican plan at least pretends to cut taxes for everybody (all the while growing the deficit beyond reason). But rich corporations (our version of the Second Estate) get permanent tax breaks while the majority does not. If you look at the data since the 1950s the Corporate Estate taxes have been shrinking dramatically. (The United States has mostly paid for these tax cuts by increasing the payroll tax, the money that comes out of our paychecks.)
Just before the Revolution, the French government was facing all sorts of fiscal problems. As French economists Thomas Sargent and François Velde wrote in the Journal of Political Economy that after wars (including the cost of the American Revolution) there was a call to cut government spending across the board. And tax revenues “grew too slowly, causing debt service to increase. By 1788, as in 1770 and during the Regency, the inexorable compounding of interest brought France to a fiscal crisis. France in the grips of some ‘unpleasant arithmetic.’”
There is unpleasant arithmeticin our future. Especially when Congress cannot reach a reasonable conclusion about spending. The richest country on the planet is budgeting over the course of a few weeks.
The other issue that ought to be a concern is the destruction of basic democracy. The Estates General was completely illogical (one-third, one-third, one third) and it eventually reformed so that the people had at least as twice as much representation as the church and nobles. But that system was still way out of whack.
That, too, is America. It’s not quite as bad. Yet.
“Americans are dreamers, too,” President Trump said when he talked about his ideas on immigration. That’s odd. Which Americans have access, politically at least, to those dreams?
There are 3.5 million citizens in Puerto Rico who cannot vote for Congress, the Senate, or president. There are less than 3.5 million citizens living in Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska and South Dakota. Those citizens are represented by ten United States Senators and five members of the House of Representatives. And don’t get me started about California’s place in this mess. (It’s not democratic and it’s not fair.)
It’s not the electoral college. And it’s mostly not gerrymandering. The imbalance in the U.S. system of democracy is old and structural. It’s about geography and who gets counted as voters. (A problem that is sure to grow in the next census.) And on top of that state legislatures are working to make it harder to vote, even further limiting democratic representation.
The Economist this week published its index of democracies. “America sits in 21st place in the ranking, level with Italy. It remains a “flawed democracy” for the second year in a row,” the magazine said. The index uses index 60 indicators across five broad categories—electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties—and “concludes that less than 5 percent of the world’s population currently lives in a “full democracy.”
Seems to me that would be a good goal for any State of the Union. “So tonight I am calling on the Estates General * cough* I mean Congress to produce a bill …”
Indian Country needs a canon of stories. A collection of Memory that every child knows growing up. A reference guide to our shared history — as well as a reminder about what the fight is all about. I can think of so many stories that belong in our historical catalog: The real-life adventures of Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, Brant, Chief Seattle, Geronimo, Susan LaFlesche Picotte, Elizabeth Peratrovich, Forrest Gerard, and the decades-long fight for the return of Blue Lake.
There are so many other stories that must be told. Mary Katherine Nagle’s new play, “Sovereignty,” is one of those.
Nagle is Cherokee. She’s a nationally acclaimed playwright, an attorney and a partner with Pipestem Law. She’s also director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program.
“Sovereignty” is a huge deal. It’s now at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Think of it this way: It’s a Native narrative on the nation’s stage. All too often we get excited when we see a movie or a TV show that has one Native American character worth remembering. That’s cool. But we should really get excited about a work of art, in this case a play, when the author, the cast, and often the audience is Native. (That is something that Nagle has done often. Her play, “Sliver of a Full Moon,” is a good example of that last idea, writing for a Native audience. The inside story.)
Back to the play. “Sovereignty” tells two Cherokee stories, one historical, one modern. The first story is about the Cherokee Nation in the tribe’s homelands and the actions of Major Ridge, John Ridge, Elias Boudinot (a nephew of Ridge) and Chief John Ross (as well their fictional descendants). This was a time of war: The state of Georgia was determined to remove the Cherokees one way or another. The state’s military, the Georgia Guard, was evil, violent and determined to remove the Cherokee people from their homeland. The Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the Cherokees but the government of Georgia ignored that. The state’s primary mission was annihilation.
Opening night: Mary Kathryn Nagle author of the play, “Sovereignty.” (Arena Stage photo)
Nagle is literally an heir to this story. This is her family. Or, as Nagle recently said, “One hundred and eighty five years ago, the federal government sitting in Washington, D.C., sought to eradicate the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation … At a time when many in the United States have been hurt and threatened by polarization and prejudice, I believe we can find healing in understanding how my grandfathers, and all of our Cherokee relations, survived one of the most polarizing episodes in American history.”
It was polarizing episode because the story is about Indigenous survival. And different ideas about how to make that so.
Nagle does such a great job of working the law into her plays — and “Sovereignty” is no exception. The concept of tribal sovereignty is a recurring theme. When I saw the play, I overheard a couple remark about how sovereignty as a living, modern concept. Perfect.
But there is another angle for Indian Country and why I think this story must be in our canon; the power of dissent. So much of our history of leadership is about vision and consensus. Most of the great tribal leaders in the 19th and 20th century were successful because they conveyed their ideas to their tribal community and were able to get people to work together. As Vine Deloria Jr. wrote: “In every generation there will arise a Brant, a Pontiac, a Tecumseh, a Chief Joseph, a Joseph Garry, to carry the people yet one more decade further.”
But not always. Every once in a while it’s the voice of dissent; the leader challenging consensus that carries the people forward. There are two great stories about why dissent is so important to Indian Country: That of the Ridges and Lucy Covington’s fight against termination. (She followed around a pro-termination Colville tribal council at public events to counter their narrative and then stirred up support for new leaders.)
I have my own take on the Ridge story, mostly through the framework of Elias Boudinot (who is in the play) the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix. “As the liberty of the press is so essential to the improvement of the mind, we shall consider our paper, a free paper,” Boudinot wrote in the first issue. “The columns of this newspaper shall always be open to free and temperate discussions on matters of politics, religion, and so forth.”
It’s impossible to have a temperate discussion in a time of war. The head of the Georgia Guard, Col. C.H. Nelson, told Boudinot that he could not be prosecuted under Georgia law, but if the reportage about the Guard did not cease, Nelson would tie him to a tree and give him a sound whipping.
Boudinot responded with a series of editorials on the Guard and freedom. Boudinot wrote: “In this free country, where the liberty of the press is solemnly guaranteed, is this the way to obtain satisfaction for an alleged injury committed in a newspaper? I claim nothing but what I have a right to claim as a man— I complain of nothing of which a privileged white editor would not complain.”
The Cherokee leadership — led by Chief John Ross and the National Council — had its own issues with The Phoenix leading to Boudinot’s resignation. Ross was determined to remain in Georgia no matter the cost. One of those provisions would have been absolute Georgia authority over the Cherokee Nation. “Removal, then, is the only remedy—the only practicable remedy,” Boudinot wrote in a letter to Chief Ross. “What is the prospect in reference to your plan of relief, if you are understood at all to have any plan? It is dark and gloomy beyond description. Subject the Cherokees to the laws of the States in their present condition?”
This is the sovereignty part of the story. The Ridges and Boudinot argued for a future Cherokee Nation. That meant signing the Treaty of New Echota and setting the stage for what became the Trail of Tears and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Major Ridge knew the price of this dissent. He said at the time: “I have signed my death warrant.”
Nagle’s play captures those powerful themes but it also does something that only an artist can do. She brings the Ross and Ridge families back together. She shows through the power of story how we’re all in this together. Still.
Sovereignty is at the Arena Stage through Feb. 18.