Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

 

Republican candidate for Gov. Greg Gianforte playing stick games at Arlee Celebration. “Great time at the pow-wow in Arlee … Thanks to CSKT Tribal Chairman Vernon Finley for the hospitality.” (Photo via the candidate’s Twitter feed.) 

Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

Make no mistake: The 2016 election is not routine. If you want proof, look no further than the weekend encampment at the Arlee Celebration. On Friday afternoon the Republican candidate for governor, Greg Gianforte, showed up at the celebration with a GOP colleague and then proceeded to serve grilled burgers to all comers. Free food? At a powwow? Sure. Fire. Hit. Gianforte proceeded to play a round of stick games (a tradition that’s been practiced by several former Montana governors). 

Gianforte’s visit was friendly; he wasn’t exactly talking policy. But this is where a Republican gamble for Indian Country gets tricky. 

In any election it is smart for a Republican to try and peel off a few Native American votes. Montana Democrats have been successful reaching out to tribal communities for a long time, especially after the 2005 election of Gov. Brian Schweitzer. So it makes perfect sense for the GOP to pitch Native voters at a powwow.

But just a few miles from the camp is a visible reminder about how complex a simple idea can be.

Just as you enter the reservation, a billboard advertises against the water compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes as an assault against non-Indian property rights. Many of the complaints are focused on state officials, who critics say, gave the tribes everything in the negotiations. (The deal must still be approved by the federal government. The Interior Department said last week that it likes the structure of the compact but not its $2.3 billion price tag. Montana Sen. Jon Tester has introduced legislation to make it law.) Critics understand it’s bipartisan and blame the Republican Attorney General Tim Fox as well as Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat.

Again in normal times it would be easy to dismiss antics of what are essentially fringe groups. But the Confederated Tribes’ territory, where the annual July 4th celebration occurs, is the heart of Montana’s opposition to tribal treaty rights, tribal management of resources, and, well just about anything with a reference to a tribe in any phrase.

This is where the Republican fault line is visible. The same people who shout at their government for working with tribes to solve problems are the ones who formed the Tea Party. A report by the Montana Human Rights Network said: “Over the years, anti-Indian activists and organizations have tried to couch their opposition to treaty rights and tribal sovereignty under the banner of ‘civil rights’ for non-Indians … All of these comments are a smokescreen to try and distract from the reality that compact opponents are trying to deny legally-established rights guaranteed to CSKT by treaty.”

The GOP divide is present in many forms. The state’s Republican platform says it supports tribes and treaties (and, of course, tribal development of natural resources). But at the same time a party resolution calls for the transfer of federal lands to the state government. Not a word about how original land owners would fit into such a transfer or how treaty-protected activities on public lands would be protected. The party document even discounts the idea of federal law enforcement: “The Sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer of the county. We support the requirement that a federal officer may not arrest, search or seize in Montana without the advanced, written permission of the elected county sheriff.”

What makes the GOP divide even more pronounced is Donald Trump. As the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party he is adding fuel to The Hateful Mix, a blend of racism and anti-government rhetoric.

And that’s a mixture that not every Republican can tolerate.

On Friday former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot wrote in The Washington Post: “It is inescapable that every decision made by every leader reflects the character of the man or woman making the decision. Character is the lens through which a leader perceives the path to be followed. It conceives and shapes every thought and is inextricably interwoven into every word spoken, every policy envisioned and every action taken.” And, as a result, Racicot said, he could not endorse nor vote for Trump.

On the other side of the divide: Rep. Ryan Zinke not only endorsed Trump but suggested he might make a good pick for vice president. (Denise Juneau is running against Zinke for Montana’s only House seat.)

This election is different because the internal debate within the Republican Party is so visible. There will always be policy differences, but this year there is more than that, because the logic of Trump requires buying into the premise of hating government so much that you must destroy it.

So every Republican candidate this election will play stick games. Look close: Which hand is hiding the bone marked Trump and which hand will be free?

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

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