Mark Trahant / TrahantReports
A question I am often asked: Are American Indians and Alaska Natives only Democrats? Of course not. There are Native Republicans, Greens, Libertarians, and Independents. Yet the data show that the vast majority of Native Americans vote for Democrats. And run for office as Democrats.
Of the active candidates on my #NativeVote16 boards there are 75 Democrats, 14 Republicans, and 4 independents (or no affiliation reported). But if you look at history, there are a lot more American Indians and Alaska Natives who have won office under the Republican banner. That list includes: Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Northern Cheyenne, who joined the Republican Party after his election; Vice President Charles Curtis; as well as the only current members of Congress, Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin.
The Republican Party has its Richard Nixon legacy (even if it’s not talked about much these days). President Nixon championed self-determination, rejected assimilation, and returned land to its rightful tribal owners.
Today’s Republican Party platform continues to affirm Nixon’s basic framework. “Based on both treaty and other law, the federal government has a unique government-to-government relationship with and trust responsibility for Indian Tribal Governments, American Indians, and Alaska Natives,” the platform says. “These obligations have not been sufficiently honored.”
What do the Republican candidates say about issues impacting American Indians and Alaska Natives? How do they make the case for being Republican and Native?
Oklahoma’s U.S. Rep. Cole is perhaps the most senior and respected Republican who’s also a member of a tribe. “As an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation, I am very proud of my heritage and the tremendous accomplishments of tribes in Oklahoma and across our country,” Cole writes on his congressional web site. “I am committed to advocating on behalf of Native Americans in Congress.”
Cole’s advocacy is routine and powerful. He was instrumental in the 2013 enactment of the Violence Against Women Act because he gave cover to Republicans who voted for the measure (and against an alternative bill). Cole has called for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and, at the same time, has consistently said the United States government has “fallen behind” in its funding of the Indian health system. He often advocates for spending more on Indian health throughout the budget and appropriations process.
Indeed the area of health care is often a point of departure for Native American politicians who are Republican.
Montana state Rep. G. Bruce Meyer, who represents Box Elder in the state Legislature, voted for the expansion of Medicaid in the last session because it gave more options for American Indians. He also says that the Affordable Care Act has increased costs and the Indian Health Service has not improved as a result, including inadequate facilities, inadequate care and a lack of professionalism. “If we had all three working in tandem, if we had people qualifying for Medicaid services, and Indian Health Services, combined with the Affordable Care Act, it could work.”
But he said the problems in health care at the Veterans Administration and the Indian Health Service remain serious concerns. “I hope the affordable healthcare act could make some improvements, but so far we haven’t seen it,” he said. “I want to give it the benefit of the doubt to see if all three could work together, three sources of funding, but it hasn’t happened.”
Indeed most of the Republican candidates don’t even mention the link between the Affordable Care Act and the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. Oklahoma’s U.S. Rep. Mullin says on his web site that he is “a proud Cherokee citizen,” and “one of only two Native American Members of Congress.”
But when it comes to the issue health there is only the standard Republican party lines: “I have voted over 30 times to defund, dismantle or repeal Obamacare. This terrible law imposes more mandates, more taxes and is driving up the cost of health care. Obamacare also jeopardizes Oklahoma’s rural hospitals, which are already struggling.”
Labor issues are another area where Republicans favor tribal authority over federal or state power. “It is especially egregious that the Democratic Party has persistently undermined tribal sovereignty in order to provide advantage to union bosses in the tribal workplace,” the GOP platform says. “Native communities should have the same authority as state governments in labor matters, so that union bosses and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) cannot undermine the authority of tribal governments.”
Meyer says that Native Americans are naturally conservative and so it makes sense for more to join the Republican ranks. He said one of the things he’s discovered by “knocking on doors” is that the Democrats take the Indian vote for granted. “We believe in the sacredness of life,” he said. “We believe in strong families. When I am asked about the Gay Rights movement in Indian Country, I just relate it to our traditional societies and cultures … Large families, traditional families, Mother, Father, Grandmother, Grandfather, Great-grandma, Great-grandpa, uncles, aunts, were considered just like mother and father. Strong traditional families were honored and respected. But now we see a shrinking family and the nuclear family.”
He said one of the issues where he often differs with a lot of people in the tribal community is regarding “federal dole” because it hasn’t improved conditions on reservations. “I am saying, ‘let’s give the Republicans a chance, let’s see if we can develop small businesses, let’s see if we can develop Indian entrepreneurs,” he said. “I think we can develop our resources instead of white corporations and the white man do it for us.”
Meyers is Chippewa-Cree from Rocky Boy. He’s a candidate for the state Senate running in a district with a large American Indian population. His Democratic competition is former state Rep. Frank Smith, a member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes.
Most of the Republican candidates make little mention of issues impacting American Indian communities (unless their district is majority Native American).
However in Duluth, Minnesota, Senate candidate Donna Bergstrom, Red Lake Nation, is making reform of Indian education an issue in her campaign. She writes on her web page: “… in the State of Minnesota, American Indian students graduate at about a 49% rate, far below that of their non-Native peers. In many of the schools throughout the state, the numbers are actually lower. When education is not an expected goal or shared experience in nearly 50% of our youth, our societal foundation is weakened. Gone are the children’s options for the future of their education, for employment opportunities, and for their prospects of serving a productive role in our society.”
Bergstrom calls for “vouchers, education credits, and policies that support ‘child-focused’ learning. She says: “We must continue to look out, as cherished in Native American communities, seven generations to see how our policies and practices of today affect our future generations.”
Energy versus climate change
Most of the Republican candidates favor more energy development on tribal lands.
Alaska’s House Majority Leader, Charisse Millett, Inupiaq, praised the Obama administration for its decision to allow oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean. “I’m encouraged that the president and Interior Department have finally awakened to the reality that Shell will follow the law and do right by the State of Alaska, indigenous peoples and federal regulators,” she said. “”We hope this signals a change in the federal government’s attitude toward their own permitting system and Outside environmental interests, who don’t have the Alaskan people in mind. We’re the nation’s Arctic. We’re the nation’s energy future. It’s time for the Obama administration to let us unleash our potential and build on our decades of energy production expertise. Today is a good day.”
Jason Small is running for the Montana Senate. He’s a member of Northern Cheyenne Tribe and his central theme is the importance of coal to jobs.”Indian Reservations contain 30% of the nation’s coal reserves west of the Mississippi, an estimated 1.5 trillion dollars of energy resources,” Small testified to Congress last year. “In my opinion, coal must continue to be the mainstay in the energy mix. While wind, solar, bio-mass, and hydro energy can contribute to our national energy needs, it is clear they cannot totally replace coal as a base load power sources. I am a strong proponent for development of the rich Northern Cheyenne coal reserves.”
Small said development of coal and the Colstrip power plant “provide 3,740 jobs directly related to energy production in Montana, 3,500 in eastern Montana. An additional 2,688 private sector jobs are related. Personal income from coal-related employment is about $363 million … Colstrip employs 363 permanent workers, including 41 tribal members, one-eighth of the workforce. Others are employed by subcontractors, including during the annual overhaul when 680 are employed by North American Energy Services alone including many Navajo boilermakers. The Western Energy Mine, Colstrip currently employs 80 minorities, the majority Northern Cheyenne, nearly one-third of the craft workforce. This satisfies an original tribal goal of developing a trained work force for the day when the Northern Cheyenne would develop their own reserves.”
But the problem with coal is not just political. The international market for coal is in free-fall and more West Coast ports are refusing to be shipping centers because of environmental and climate change concerns. The United Nations has said that 80 percent of the world’s coal is un-burnable after the most recent climate change agreement signed in Paris.
Meyers said the Crow Nation is sovereign and it ought to be able to develop its own coal no matter what the state or federal government says. “The test of sovereignty is not how much we are going to be dependent on the federal government, but the true test of sovereignty is, what can we do? To create our own businesses, create our own economic viability, or own economic sustainability, that will be the true test of sovereignty.”
And what about climate change?
“I think it’s more of a political agenda than reality,” Meyers said. “There have been some scientific studies, but even those, how true are they? When you really look at the scientific evidence, how scientifically-based are they really?”
Actually, the answer is 97 percent. According to the National Space and Aeronautics Administration, “multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals1 show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.”
Inside the caucus
In New Mexico, like Montana, being a member of the Republican Party means being in the majority. Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, Navajo, is working with a Republican initiative to expand that majority with the Future Majority Project— a program designed to recruit more Republican candidates that reflect the diversity of America.
“Representatives (Alonzo) Baldonado and Clahchischilliage will be a great addition to the Future Majority Project because both have done a tremendous job advocating conservative values to increasingly diverse communities,” said Debbie Maestas, chairman for the Republican Party of New Mexico. “They represent the future of our party.”
Republicans are hoping to recruit, train, and elect hundreds of candidates from diverse communities. That’s essential to the party in a state like New Mexico where about half the population is Hispanic and Native Americans exceed 10 percent of the population.
Clahchischilliage is an experienced politician. She’s worked as executive director of the Navajo Nation’s Washington Office, ran for tribal president, and for other state offices. She also shows that Republicans can win seats in districts that are majority American Indian (and, for that matter, majority Democrat.) Her district is 70 percent Native American. She will face another Navajo in November, Glojean Todacheene.
However there is one caveat: Both Meyers and Clahchischilliage won their races in off-year elections. The challenge during a presidential cycle, when more Native Americans show up at the polls, will be tougher simply because there will also be more Democrats voting.
Perhaps the strongest case that Republican candidates for office make to Native American voters is that they will be inside the room when the party makes decisions on American Indian issues. Meyer said he was able to convince Republicans, for example, to support tribal water compacts with the state. “We need friends on both sides,” Meyers said. “It’s good that I am on the other side of the aisle. I tell people I am out to get the best deal for American Indians no matter which party because that’s my constituency.”
The Trump challenge
There is one question that every Republican has to answer this election: What do you think about your party’s nominee for president?
Rep. Cole, who is an important voice for party leadership, says that’s not an issue. He said on MSNBC: “There is a choice. It’s a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at this point. And, frankly, if you’re a Republican that’s a pretty easy choice. There is nobody who unites and motivates Republicans as much as Hillary Clinton.”
Then again not every Native American candidate is quite so eager to embrace Trump.
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
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