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Dorgan Shares Wisdom on Indian Politics & Policy

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., shocked the Democratic Party last January when he announced he would not be running for another term. After 30 years in D.C. (18 in the Senate), the abruptness of his decision—he had always been a popular moderate Democrat in a conservative state, and there was no scandal pushing him out—was a small shock. Among those most disappointed by the news were the many Native Americans who had come to depend on the no-nonsense senator to take their battles seriously. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Dorgan often spent hours getting his congressional colleagues up to speed on health disparities, tribal law injustices and federal funding shortcomings.

When Dorgan, now 68, took over the chair of that committee in early 2007, it was unknown how he would measure up against past powerhouses who had held the position and were all strong “friends of Indian country.” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had just come off an impressive run, righting some of the injustices perpetrated by lobbyist Jack Abramoff against some tribes. Before McCain, then-Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., was the first tribal citizen to lead the committee, and before him, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, made progress on several fronts. Dorgan quickly proved to be a great friend as well, especially after he showed that he was willing to probe the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service regarding failures tribes had been complaining about for decades.

That chairmanship, Dorgan acknowledged in a farewell interview with This Week From Indian Country Today, was not perceived as sexy on Capitol Hill—fighting for Indian health improvements and curbing crime on reservations weren’t the topics most cable network hosts were interested in featuring on their daily broadcasts. But unlike many jobs in Washington, Dorgan knew that this was one in which he could make things better for people nearly every day. He had no ulterior motives when he argued for improved suicide-prevention and diabetes services for tribes. Even when supporting tribal gaming endeavors, Dorgan was proud of his work, since gaming was one part of federal policy that was actually helping some tribes get ahead.

In the winter of 2009, Dorgan announced that after more than 40 years in public office (since he was 26), he was eager to pursue other projects—one of which, he told This Week From Indian Country Today, was to develop a youth program for Indians that he planned to announce soon after exiting Congress. “I’m going to continue to work on Indian issues even outside of the Senate,” he promised. “I’m not going to discontinue my work. I’m going to be involved on issues that deal with Indian youth—some exciting things that I think will make a difference.”

In his waning days in Washington, Dorgan continued pressing for Indian country, trying unsuccessfully to secure a “Carcieri fix” to a controversial 2009 Supreme Court decision that limited the Department of the Interior’s ability to put lands into trust for tribes; at the same time, he made good on his promise to release a report detailing a years-long investigation of IHS failures, and suggestions for improvement. “I would hate to have decided to leave public service and have left behind a huge Indian agenda behind that was unfinished. I’m really pleased,” Dorgan said. In a last goodwill gesture, he invited This Week From Indian Country Today to his office to discuss a range of successes and failures, and his hopes for Indian policy. Sitting confidently at his desk in the middle of his Hart Senate Office Building room decorated with Indian art and crafts presented to him by various tribes throughout his years in D.C., he was clearly proud of his record fighting for Native Americans.

This Week From Indian Country Today: What are you going to miss about D.C.?
Byron Dorgan: Chairing the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. I have developed a relationship with Native Americans all across the country, with tribal leaders and tribal members and reservations. It’s been a great privilege. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people who are very aggressive in pursuing the interests that they know are owed them by treaties and by trust responsibility. I’ll miss all of that.

When you started addressing Indian issues as a senator, were they familiar to you? Was there a learning curve?
I had been involved in them when I was in the House [from 1981 to 1992]. During my 30 years in Congress, I was always dealing with Indian issues. We have a number of reservations in North Dakota, and I have close relationships with a lot of people on those reservations.

You’ve learned a lot about how to get Indian policy enacted. What’s been the greatest lesson?

Number one: You have to be relentless. You can’t ask and hope. You’ve got to be relentless in pushing the things that you know need to be done. You’ve heard me at hearings talk about how Native Americans in many parts of this country live in Third World conditions, despite the promises that have been made to them but not kept. Treaties have been signed and not kept. You have got to be relentless and push very hard.

The other thing I learned: Don’t speak in the abstract. Speak about real people. Speak about the lives real people are living. I’ve told the story of Ardel Hill Baker showing up at a hospital in the midst of having a heart attack with a piece of paper taped to her leg [apparently by ambulance workers] that said, If you admit her, you might not get paid, because IHS was out of contract health funds. You’ve got to hold it in the face of people and say, This is about real people—it’s about children, it’s about elders—and you’ve made promises, and you don’t have a choice. You’ve got to keep those promises.

You sometimes attached Indian legislation to bills that weren’t directly related to Indian issues. That seems to have worked on several bills, especially in the past year, such as with the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. Meanwhile, some Native Americans have really fought to have stand-alone bills, arguing that their issues are important enough to be judged on their own merits. How do you feel about that?

Most issues don’t get passed in the United States Congress on a stand-alone basis. Most issues are combined with other things. I was able to get Indian health care passed by being belligerent, by saying, You can work on me for the next year, but you will never get my vote on a health-care bill unless you improve health care for American Indians at the same time. If it doesn’t include that, don’t even bother talking to me. I took a very hard line and then just pushed and pushed, incessantly. And it became a part of the larger health-care bill. That was the only way to get it done. And it was the right way as well. If you pass health-care reform for the American people, you’ve got to pass the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

With the GOP taking over the House there is a lot of talk about repeal of the larger health-care reform bill. Should President Obama do something to make it clear that Title X, the IHCIA, shouldn’t be touched?

I think he will. The president is strongly supportive of this and was very proud to be a part of the bill. There’s not going to be a repeal of the health-care bill. They may try to take parts of it away, but no one that I’m aware of has said they want to take away the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. But even if they were of the mind to repeal the whole health-care bill, and they got it passed, the president would veto it, and they could not override it. So, there is not a threat to the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

IHCIA was one of your major achievements over the past year. Talk about your other ones.

At a time when everyone was reporting how difficult it was to get anything through Congress—a very difficult Congress, where most everything was obstructed—what I’m most proud of is that we got an agenda through that I think exceeds anything that’s been done in three or four decades. The Indian Health Care Improvement Act and the Tribal Law and Order Act are huge policy achievements. I was able to get $2.5 billion into the economic recovery act, which went toward a whole range of investments on reservations. Then we got the Special Diabetes Program reauthorization done, which was a big priority of mine.

What’s the lesson there? Are Indian issues so special nowadays that they are going to be agreed to even in a conflicted Congress? Or was there a bit of luck there?

I think it’s a matter of setting up very specific goals and then being very aggressive. Congress operates at its own speed, but sometimes you can prod it along a little bit… I set up an ambitious agenda, and said, I’m going to push to a point of wearing out my welcome with people to get everything done that we can get done.

Do you think your retirement weighed on the minds of any of your colleagues, who have seen you pushing all these issues for years, so they threw you a bone?

I don’t think so. Nobody does very many favors around here in terms of legislative policy issues. Most of them have their own views of policy and manifest those views. Bipartisanship really helps on getting these issues done.

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Have you talked to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, about what she’s done on Carcieri?

I got off the phone with her an hour ago. I’ve been in conversations with her all along.

How do you feel about her position?

I disagree with her. But you know, this is a process. Legislating is a process. You need to talk to try to resolve issues. Sometimes you progress by inches, sometimes it’s miles. This is a process. There are about four or five areas of opposition to Carcieri. I think most of them can be resolved if people just look at the facts. You’ve got a court decision that renders doubt on the status of property belonging to Indian tribes that were recognized after 1934. That cannot be allowed to stand. You need to resolve that status of the property. It is unfair to Indian tribes and Indian tribal members not to resolve that.

You’ve worked with plenty of tribal advocates and lobbyists. Before your tenure as chairman, lobbying was seen as something sinister, especially for tribes that had been bit by the Abramoff scandal. What are your thoughts on Indians and lobbying

John McCain and I chaired and co-chaired, respectively, the committee that took on the Abramoff investigation, and a whole lot of folks went to prison as a result. We found that tribes were being fleeced, and crimes were being committed. It was all about greed and money. When I think of lobbying on Capitol Hill in terms of what we just did, like with Indian health care, I’m thinking of tribal chairman and tribal members who travel to Washington from across the nation to tell us the situations of their tribes. Those who they would hire in this town to look after their interests are generally working with BIA and with Congress, talking about specific problems. In terms of the larger point of passing big bills, I think it’s more a function of the tribal leaders themselves. They are government leaders. That’s much more valuable than any other kind of lobbying—for them to come in and say, ‘Here’s our situation with our tribe.’

Does the person leading SCIA spend a lot of time thinking about tribal gaming?

We did not do a lot of tribal gaming issues in this Congress. We confirmed the new chairman of the organization that regulates it, but I decided that with this Congress, you could get into tribal gaming and have 10 hearings with a lot of controversy on various pieces of it, but I wanted to try to get some of these other things done that had not previously been done.

It sounds like you’re conscious of the negative attention that sometimes gets focused on tribal gaming in the mainstream.

The issues of tribal gaming—when the Cabazon case was decided in 1987 and opened up tribal gaming—circumstances were created that required a compact with the state, which created state regulatory capabilities over that gaming. It’s grown into a multibillion dollar industry. In order to make sure that the gaming function is as regulated as all gaming must be, I think there needs to be oversight. It’s not a negative at all.

The SCIA chairmanship is not seen by the D.C. media as one of the sexiest chairmanships, but what was sexy about it for you?

[Laughs] You know, there are lots of committees in the Congress. And I was on four or five of them, and enjoyed working on all of them. I particularly enjoyed working on the Indian Affairs committee because the needs are so great. The answer is just so obvious: We’ve made commitments and not kept them. If you know anything about Indian culture and Indian traditions, you come to this job really wanting to help. Part of it is trying to repair what a government has done. Our government in the United States has made tremendous mistakes. Over the first half of our history, we told the Indians, “You don’t count, you can’t vote.” In parts of our history we said to the Indians, “We want you to erase all evidence of your culture.” What our country has done in the Trails of Tears, at Wounded Knee, is pretty unbelievable. We’ve got a lot of making up to do.

A lot of Americans don’t know much about the history you speak of, or they think it’s all in the past. Do you confront colleagues in the Senate?

There’s almost no push-back. There’s no one who says we’ve done great things of behalf of American Indians. They understand. The most common response is that people don’t want to talk about it very much because it’s a profound embarrassment.

What should be the focus of the relationship between the next SCIA chairman and the Obama administration?

I think the chairman of the committee will want to continue the work that we’ve done. There’s still a lot of work left to be done on the issues of Indian youth, Indian health care, Indian gaming. I would expect a new chairman will move on those areas.

Can you say who you’d like to see take over?

No. [Laughs]

Can you say anything about the crop of folks who might take over?

We have people on that committee who have been very active and very aggressive who have worked through these issues.

Indian issues seem to resound for President Obama. Why do you think that is?

Well, I served with him as a colleague. I know him, and I think he wants to address areas of the country where people are not doing very well—where they are living in poverty or unemployment. Often those conditions exist on reservations, and I think that commands his attention.

With the GOP leading Indian affairs in the House, do you anticipate friction?

I don’t think we should anticipate failure. We should expect cooperation until we see there isn’t any. My hope is that the House and Senate will cooperate on things that they know need to be done.