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Election Day 2012: A Choice of Cancer or Polio?

An election-day column by Steve Russell.

If Indians should vote in elections called by the colonial state, the question becomes for whom? It is axiomatic that we vote our interests, but which of many interests?

I maintain that we should reserve voting as Indians to helping allies or hurting the proud heirs of George A. Custer. When the Washington tribes took up the ballot against Slade Gorton (R), they removed an Indian fighter so rabid that the rest of Indian country owes them a debt of gratitude. Gorton’s career is a case study for those who maintain Indians should never vote.

Since the shooting part of the Indian Wars ended, we have not seen professional Indian fighters cruising into office on a wave of fear and hatred. No William Henry Harrison, who came to power over Tecumseh’s bones. No Andy Jackson, who championed the Final Solution, American style: Indian Territory as a concentration camp.

Gorton aside, modern Indian fighters do not run on Indian fighting. Sarah Palin, in spite of her husband’s indigenous roots, was no friend of Alaska natives. On the campaign trail, George W. Bush made statements about state supremacy over Indian governments chilling in their ignorance of constitutional and political history.

One Indian interest is a racial interest in the sense of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and associated laws. These laws class Indians like any other minority and protect Indians from overt discrimination based on being Indians.

Before the Republican Party went crazy, they voted with mainstream Democrats to break the Dixiecrat filibuster that had stymied federal civil rights legislation since WWII. The new GOP takes the position that anti-discrimination laws are “special rights” that hurt white people. They also continue to press the idea that federal law should not reach private choices to discriminate because “it’s a free country” and “free” means “safe for bigots.”

In the racial sense of “Indian,” we sometimes miss that non-Indians are protected. If the University of Michigan had believed Andrea Smith’s fake claim to being Cherokee and denied her tenure on that basis, she could sue them and prevail, regardless of whether any recognized Cherokee tribe would claim her. Even Ward Churchill could complain if treated badly on the basis of some fool believing he’s Indian.

The Vine Deloria, Jr. sense of Indian, on the other hand, only affects real Indians. That is, how does the candidate stand on the government-to-government relationship? In the continual clashes between state governments and tribal governments, how should the federal government address its responsibility to protect Indian interests?

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Since it would be political suicide as well as bad government to promise to always support tribes on all issues with the states, we are on our own to understand this critical issue. We seldom see clues on the level of Bush’s blunder about state law supremacy, and Bush later walked it back.

In this election, we have an incumbent who appointed Kevin Washburn to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an appointment significant to tribal governments not because Washburn is Chickasaw but because Washburn has a record of scholarship and of mentoring Indian students that predict he will be an effective advocate for our interests.

The only reason I have to think Mitt Romney may be an Indian fighter when push comes to shove is his lifetime history of being out for the main chance, siding with “winners” reflexively. I do not think Willard Mitt Romney is a bad man, but he mistakes high birth for virtue.

I betray my class origins. My dad did manual labor in the Oklahoma oil patch. My mother worked in a garment factory and waited tables. I’m the first in my family to hit college and I would not have hit it without the GI Bill. By Gov. Romney’s standards, my people are takers rather than makers and we don’t take responsibility for our own lives.

Barack Obama got to college because his grandfather had a friend who could get him in a prep school and his grandmother worked to pay the tuition. Michelle Obama got to college because her older brother got an athletic scholarship and helped pull her along.

My wife and Ray Sixkiller only needed to know was that Mitt Romney was mean to his dog. My own bias arrives by a different route. I am as much an elitist as Gov. Romney in my own way, but my idea of “elite” is achievement by education and hard work. When you “make it,” you extend a hand to others. I can��t know if I would feel differently if I had been born to the boss rather than the line worker.

I pride myself in policy wonkery, but my bottom line is emotional. A candidate who disrespects my people disrespects me.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.