Elections 2012: Post-Boldt Politics in Washington State; Seeking Native Support

Native American issues have come a long way in Washington state. In the 1970s it represented one of the most divided states on tribal issues – sometimes called “the Mississippi of Indian Country” – after the fishing rights’ case U.S. v. Washington (the Boldt decision).

But politics has changed for the better. Tribes and tribal interests have a seat at the table on issues ranging from higher education to the management of natural resources. Politicians from both parties court Native American support, whether votes or money.

Native Vote Washington even has a Facebook page with news, registration information, and comments.

Remember this is the state that was once represented by Sen. Slade Gorton. He campaigned against tribal interests as attorney general and then in the U.S. Senate until his defeat 12 years ago.

Last month more Native Americans than ever before represented their communities at the Democratic National Convention.

Both candidates for governor are reaching out to Indian country. The Democratic Party’s nominee, Jay Inslee, a member of Congress from Bainbridge Island, has a full platform that starts with his actions as Vice Chairman of the Native American Caucus in Congress. Inslee’s support on Native issues is a long list. It starts with his statement on sovereignty.

“Jay believes Native American communities know what is best for their people. That’s why he has stood up for tribal sovereignty over the years and supports policies to enhance tribal self-determination and meaningful tribal consultation,” Inslee’s campaign document says.

That 13-page document is specific – support for full-funding of the Indian Health System, Carcieri Fix legislation, and improved scholarship programs. “From salmon, to forests, to the Puget Sound, Jay has come to rely on tribes for guidance and insight when legislating on a wide variety of issues. Jay is honored to have a relationship with tribes from across the state and to work to further enhance relationships between the state and tribes,” his campaign document says.

His opponent, Rob McKenna, is also seeking out support from Indian country. And even though he has less of a track record, he has been able to secure support from a number of tribal leaders.

“As attorney general, he has visited every reservation in the state – an outreach effort that even a tribal leader who supports rival Jay Inslee calls “unprecedented.” Tribes have rewarded him with a share of their campaign contributions. The money he has received is far less than Democrat Inslee but still vastly more than other Republicans who have run for governor in the recent past,” according to The Tacoma News Tribune.

One issue that has divided the candidates is the Affordable Care Act. Inslee was for it and McKenna as attorney general fought the law in federal court.

A new report by civil rights activists, Chuck Tanner and Leah Henry-Tanner, say that McKenna’s record is more complicated. He attempted to impose county regulations on the Muckleshoot Tribe while he was a member of the King County Council. McKenna also appointed Barbara Lindsay to his task force on Eminent Domain.

Moreover on fishing issues – a persistent thread in Washington politics – the Tanners write: “Briefs filed by Rob McKenna’s office in Phase II of the Boldt decision promote ideas strikingly similar to those found in anti-Indian literature of the 1980s.”

The report concludes that “Rob McKenna is not the same political animal as Barbara Lindsay ...He is not an ideologically driven political activist wholly dedicated to terminating Indian Nations and abrogating their treaties. However, when legal gray areas exist (as they frequently do in federal Indian law), and Rob McKenna perceives a state interest at issue, this report has documented that he will oppose the fundamental rights of Indian Nations and ally with anti-Indian activists to achieve his goals.”

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.