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Beyond left and right: The case for an Indian conservatism

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Guest columnist

You can’t be so partisan that you alienate yourself from sources of power and support. While liberals and Democrats say they deplore stereotyping, profiling and generalizing, that is exactly what they do when they vilify Republicans to justify Democratic viewpoints. Such barrages are usually against Republicans, but other parties, including the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, get a taste as well. Heavens (or is that another Republican code word?), why should facts get in the way of a good blasting?

Here is my point. A journalist or activist (sometimes it is hard to tell the difference, even though journalists are supposed to have a set of ethics to guide them) can write all they want without regard to facts. As tribal leaders or tribal members wanting to improve our communities, we don’t have the luxury of being partisan. No one party has all the answers nor are they in power all the time.

We have to get away from the extremes of liberal or conservative or party affiliation. We need to look at the diversity of ideas and find those that we can use, regardless of where they come from. Tribal leaders need to look to all parties for answers, not just to cliched and perceived Democratic positions.

The 19 pueblos of New Mexico have seen past this superficial staining to see the real people and real facts that have helped their people. The pueblos have recognized the contributions of two men who happen to be Republicans. They have named two buildings on their new Albuquerque development center the Pete Domenici Indian Affairs Building and the Manuel Lujan Jr. Indian Affairs Building. And if you think this came about because these men got large sums of public or private money given to the pueblos for these buildings, you’re wrong. These buildings were constructed without one penny of government money.

There are many more American Indian Republicans than Democrats want to openly acknowledge. “Well, isn’t it true that Indians vote the Democratic Party more than the Republican Party?” you may ask. Well, that’s probably true; but those conclusions are always drawn from voting records on American Indian reservations. We have to remember that only 25 percent to 30 percent of Indian people live on reservation. The question becomes, “Where do those other 75 percent of American Indian people stand on issues, what are their philosophies and how do they vote?” There are not any statistics available, but there is much anecdotal evidence that Republicans get a good share of those votes and that Republican positions get good support from off-reservation Indians.

Though elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat, American Indian Ben Nighthorse Campbell felt closer to Republican philosophies and positions on issues than he did to Democratic philosophies and he switched parties. Wow – American Indians can hold conservative values, just like other minorities and other Americans.

The big, bad Republican Party – including those uncaring and unfeeling rich representatives in Congress and their mean leader, George W. Bush – has done well for America’s Native people.

After 40 years of trying, Indian country finally has a National American Indian Training Center for federal employees and tribal government workers. Failure after failure followed attempts to establish a national training center. The determination and actions by President Bush and former Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton made the center a reality.

While the president’s fumbling on the meaning of sovereignty at a town hall meeting is played over and over again, his actions and support of tribal sovereignty in programs from education to law enforcement to energy and natural resources have been ignored by Democrat-leaning activists. The president supported the Pueblo Lands Act Amendments and tribal jurisdiction “as an inherent power as an Indian tribe.” This joint Republican/Democratic effort is not celebrated by liberal activists.

The president supports the American Indian Self-Determination Act. He believes, as tribal governments do, that decisions impacting local governments need to be made locally. For example, education standards under the No Child Left Behind Act are left to state governments to determine, not the federal government in Washington. Tribes support this concept as well, preferring to set standards and curricula at the reservation level and not to be dictated by Washington, where Democrats want education standards and curricula set.

By the way, President Richard Nixon, a Republican, guided the self-determination legislation through Congress and signed the original landmark act. Nixon also received a significant write-up of support for being a strong pro-Indian president from Indian Country Today [“Assessing the Presidents – Richard M. Nixon” by Jerry Reynolds, Vol. 23, Iss. 34].

At a time when the majority of federal programs (identified as non-military domestic spending) were fighting for a 3 percent budget increase (above the 2 percent proposed by the president – April 2002), the president raised BIA education funding by 25 percent. And not just for one year, but for three straight years (totaling 74.5 percent). Also, school construction was increased to construct or replace three times the amount of schools Democrat Bill Clinton spent over the same period of time. In addition, school and dormitory operation funding was significantly increased.

Funding was included for the BIA school privatization initiative, which backed up the president’s statements supporting tribal sovereignty and self-determination. For the first time, BIA-funded schools (two-thirds of which are run by tribes and tribal organizations) became eligible for funding under the Reading First initiative.

Activists point to the problems in Indian health care funding and blast Republicans despite the fact that these problems have existed for years. Republicans and Democrats locally and nationally continue to support short-term and emergency funding. No mention is made that Indian health care funding is a part of the president’s health care reform package. In the meantime, our Swiss-cheese health care system does not discriminate against any race.

Some activists point to the support by the Bush administration of “anti-Indian” tax cases as part of the big, bad Republican Party. Not true. The Bush administration did support the state’s interests rather than the tribal position in the U.S. Supreme Court case involving the Potawatomi Nation and the state of Kansas. However, liberal activist groups conveniently ignore the fact that Democratic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Democratic Attorney General Patricia Madrid filed an amicus brief. The release, dated May 12, 2005, states: “It is important that the court preserve the state of New Mexico’s legal authority to subject such off-reservation taxes in the future – Attorney General Madrid is urging the court to preserve the state’s authority to subject an Indian tribe and individual tribal members to state gasoline tax laws.” Republicans get tagged with another anti-Indian position while Democrats get another pass taking the exact same position on the exact same issue.

But what about the big, bad conservative-dominated Supreme Court? It has to be anti-Indian. Not true.

Take the Supreme Court case, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma v. Michael O. Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services. The court found in favor of the tribe. According to the monthly magazine American Indian Report, a tribal attorney stated: “We are thrilled with the result. To get a unanimous decision from that court is unusual, especially in an Indian case.” People are only shocked because activists portray the court as anti-Indian. While some Supreme Court cases are decided against Indian interests, the anti-Indian Supreme Court exists only in activist stereotypes and not in court decisions based on law.

Democrats do a great job at public relations. They parade Clinton to the Navajo Reservation during an election-year campaign stop. In a big crowd, the president feels the pain of the Navajo people not having electricity and Internet connectivity. Except for promises, Clinton delivered very little. In his defense, the president could not have delivered Internet services to Navajo country or any other such isolated community because general public access was too expensive and sometimes years away (depending on exact location).

The Bush administration has made great strides to bring as much connectivity as possible to rural communities, including tribal communities. Millions of dollars have been invested into rural community Internet connectivity. The president has made good on initiatives to improve housing, home equity and access to capital on reservations. The federal government has spent millions to bring solar-powered electricity to isolated communities. The president has also supported the return of thousands of acres of land to tribes across the United States, including New Mexico. After failed efforts in 1982 and 2000, the American Indian Probate Reform Act of 2004 passed Congress and was signed by the president.

Acknowledging improvements in Indian country is apparently not worth also recognizing Republican efforts.

American Indian people also support many conservative positions on issues as opposed to those positions pushed by liberal activists.

Take abortion, for example. Indian people in New Mexico and other parts of the country have strong Catholic and Christian beliefs (and beliefs of other religions) that oppose abortion. They understand what the pope meant when he told John Kerry that one cannot be both Catholic and pro-abortion.

While traditional Indian customs make allowances for limited abortion and even infanticide based upon living in natural surroundings, abortion has never been – even today – openly accepted in Indian communities, as liberal abortion advocates want you to believe.

As unions are on the Democratic side of the ledger, one would assume tribal governments are pro-union, right? Wrong. Tribal governments have been fighting the establishment of unions on their reservations. The growth of gaming has enhanced both the desire of some employees to unionize and the opposition of nearly all tribes to oppose the establishment of unions on their reservations.

Indian people are very concerned about illegal immigration. Don’t take my word for it: but how about that of new National Congress of American Indians President Joe Garcia? Identified in American Indian Report, the magazine states: “Garcia highlighted two major safety issues that Indian country lacks the financial means to solve. The first is illegal immigration; the second is domestic violence against women.”

Unfortunately, political corruption always seems to be in the news. But again, neither party has cornered the market as the clean one or the dirty one. Enron’s chairman met with the president and vice president, spent 11 nights in the White House and donated $420,000 – to Bill Clinton and not George Bush.

In 2000, Indian Affairs Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover shut down offices in Albuquerque, moving money and people from Albuquerque and “the center of Indian country” to Washington, D.C., “the center of Beltway consultants.” These offices had 150 permanent (plus about 100 temporary) mostly Indian employees with an operating yearly budget of $9.5 million. A Republican action to take 250 jobs and almost $10 million a year out of Indian country to Washington, D.C., would be Democrat activist fodder for years. This Democratic move is remembered by Indians in the Albuquerque area but not mentioned, and even ignored, by Democrat advocates.

This is not meant to be a pro-Republican article as much as it is a call of openness and honesty in trying to deal with reservation issues. Again, we need to look at all venues for answers to problems on our reservations. We need to look beyond party stereotypes and tired rhetoric.

Gover often stated: “The myths will continue until reality sets in.” Well, reality has started to set in and we need to identify it and work with it if we are to truly make progress on our reservations.

Are we looking out for the good of our Indian reservations or a chance to make political points? The divisiveness of politics in America does not have to spill over onto our reservations. Let’s deal with reality and not the myths.

Indian country still needs activists but activists with a diversity of ideas, not one-sided rhetoric, stereotyping and generalizations that do not serve our communities. That is why several of us in New Mexico have started a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, a think tank, about issues on our reservations. In the next several months, look for us at www.tribal thinktank.org.

Ron Toya is chairman of the Albuquerque, N.M.-based Tribal Government Institute, a 501(c)3 nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank working on issues that affect American Indians and their tribal governments.