Skip to main content

GOP toehold key to survival

  • Author:
  • Updated:


NEW YORK - U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, Republican from Oklahoma and enrolled
Chickasaw, laid it out bluntly for the Native caucus at the Republican
National Convention.

A party loyalist who recently worked in the highest reaches of the
Republican National Committee, he didn't stress the overlap between party
values of self-reliance and tribal devotion to self-determination or the
undisputed service that Republican congressmen and presidents, such as
Richard Nixon, have rendered to Indian country. Native involvement with the
Republican Party, he told the delegates and tribal guests, was a matter of

"We have to be careful," he said, advancing the Congressional understanding
of "plenary power" over tribal sovereignty. "They can abrogate sovereignty.
We lived through the Dawes Commission in Oklahoma and saw it happen to us
there. They have the power legally. We have to make it so they can't do it

Native theorists would vehemently challenge "plenary power," even Supreme
Court Justice Clarence Thomas raised significant questions about it in the
recent Lara decision. But Cole's political insight cut to the heart. In
spite of overwhelming support among Indian voters for the Democratic Party,
Indian country needs bipartisan support in Congress to fend off growing

Other speakers deplored what they saw as growing partisanship in Indian
country, in which party labels from the dominant culture were dividing
Native solidarity. Delegate John Gonzales, former governor of the San
Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico and former president of the National
Congress of American Indians, described his difficulty getting support from
the pueblos in his current campaign for a seat on the state Public
Regulation Commission.

"I'm encountering problems with a lot of tribes," he said. "I felt support
would be almost automatic.

"But it hasn't been automatic. Part of the problem is D versus R."

Speakers such as Gonzales illustrated the problems of Indian Republicans,
on two fronts. Toward Indian country, or most of it, they have to defend
involvement with a party in many locations dominated by historic enemies.
(It varies by region. In Connecticut, a liberal Democrat leads the Indian
fighters. In eastern Oklahoma, the exiles remember the ethnic cleansing of
Andrew Jackson and gag at supporting his party.) But toward the Republican
functionaries, they have to plead for attention.

At the caucus, Gonzales turned to Ruben Barrales, the White House director
of Intergovernmental Affairs, who responds to tribes, and complained about
the lack of results from his office. "A lot of tribal leaders talk to the
administration," said Gonzales, "but there needs to be something to come
out of the meeting."

The Convention itself notably neglected the Native contingent. It issued a
press release on the "diversity" of the delegates, using Budget Office
style statistics to boast of the rate of increase without giving their
actual numbers, but it did not even break out a graph line for American
Indians, listing them as "others." The release did profile candidate
Gonzales but mis-spelled his last name. No Native leaders were scheduled to
address the convention, although the Democrats in Boston heard from two.

Calls to the convention media office from this paper went unanswered for
more than two weeks. At the last minute after repeated complaints, a
contact emerged, the officer for the Asian-American press.

This neglect extended to the drafting of the Republican Party Platform.
Only an intervention by Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert two weeks
before the convention brought about an endorsement of tribal sovereignty
and government-to-government relations. (The language as finally adopted
was generally praised, although caucus speaker Ed Thomas from the Tlingit
General Council in Alaska protested that the plank appeared to accept
budget cuts for Native services.)

And yet the Republicans were glad to accept tribal money. The Mashantucket
Pequot Tribal Nation gave $20,000 to the New York Convention (the same
amount it donated to the Democratic National Convention, said a tribal
spokesman) and hosted a lunch for the Connecticut delegation. Sponsors for
after-hours parties included the National Indian Gaming Commission, the
Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, the
Jicarilla Apache Nation and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians. The
Morongo Band and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians passed out
freebies. The Agua Caliente caused something of a flap when the California
press noted their T-shirts endorsed Proposition 70, expanding tribal
gaming, which California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action hero of the
convention, is opposing.

Money, in fact, is one of the two main tribal weapons in the struggle for
the soul of the Republican Party, such as it is. Tribal political
contributions are no mean factor since they escape the limits of current
campaign finance laws. In recent elections Republicans have received almost
as much as Democrats, in spite of the lopsided Native vote for Democrats.

The other weapon is strong bi-partisan support from Congress. Republican
friends on the Hill, and notably in the House of Representatives, have so
far more than counterbalanced neglect from the White House and open
hostility from some hangers-on at the Republican National Committee. Tribal
leaders made a strong showing at the "Wild Wild West Saloon" party honoring
Richard Pombo, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and its
other Republican members. The rumor circulated that staff of his committee,
now a stronghold for Indian policy, had assisted Speaker Hastert in
redrafting the Republican platform.

The alignment suggests a strategy for Native involvement with Republicans.
Contributions should go to friends and their institutions, not to the
fundraisers who tolerate the enemies. The Republican National Committee,
for instance, had a vague connection to the lawyer who mounted the spurious
challenge to Pine Ridge Lakota voters in the 2002 South Dakota U.S. Senate
election. It should get nothing, at least until Republican Party Chairman
Ed Gillespie firmly repudiates any attempt to intimidate Indian voters,
fires whoever was behind the 2002 attempt (and turns their files over to
the Justice Department) and apologizes personally to the Pine Ridge
Reservation. On the other hand, House Republicans like Pombo and the
members of the Native American Caucus deserve unstinting support.

This is the way the game is played in national politics, and as U.S. Rep.
Cole reminded the Native caucus, the ultimate stake is survival.