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'I would have a cabinet department for Native American affairs'

A conversation with presidential candidate Bill Richardson

Editor's note: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in January began his run for the Democratic presidential nomination, betting on a solid record and his longstanding relationships with the Indian and Hispanic peoples of his region. Indian Country Today's special correspondent, Sonny Skyhawk, sat down with Richardson to discuss his relationship with the Native peoples of New Mexico and his plans to continue improving that relationship if he were president. Following Skyhawk's introduction are excerpts from their conversation.

SANTA FE, N.M. - I'm an elder of sorts and have worn out a few pairs of moccasins in this life. Not much by way of politics piques the interest of this old warrior, let alone state politics. But Gov. Bill Richardson's second term finds me paying attention. I talked with him in his office in Santa Fe about his ideas on improving the relationship between New Mexico and the American Indian people of the state.

Sonny Skyhawk: How was it possible for you to establish such a strong rapport with the Pueblo population in New Mexico, and yet many other governors are having difficulty addressing the Native population in their own states?

Gov. Bill Richardson: Since the beginning, since I was a congressman, [the] Secretary of Energy, United Nations ambassador, I felt that our Native American people have not gotten the priority attention they deserve, so I've made them partners.

I've treated them not just with respect, but I've also used deeds. When I was in Congress, we passed a lot of legislation [that involved] returning lands to the Pueblos, respecting religious beliefs, Indian religious rights, national parks, [and] joint efforts between the Pueblos and the federal government. When I was [the] Secretary of Energy, we returned millions of acres to the Utes in Utah for energy development, and then at the United Nations I very proudly presided over a conference on Native peoples from around the world. [...]

As governor, I've had two cabinet members [who were] Native Americans; I've elevated the Indian affairs to cabinet level - it never used to be cabinet-level. I've appointed Native Americans to not just jobs in the administration, but commissions that deal with water and infrastructure.

We just negotiated a gaming pact, an Indian gaming agreement, with all the pueblos for 45 years from now and it was built on trust; the Native American people get assurance and exclusivity in their gaming for another 40 years [and] the state gets more revenue from the casinos and that's a fair arrangement based on respect.

I've never felt that it is a matter of just trying to get votes or feeling good, but that the Native American people are real partners; and if you want to resolve problems in New Mexico involving land, water or energy, you got to have the Native people with you. [...]

If I'm elected president, I would propose to make the cabinet secretary of Indian Affairs the Secretary of Indian Affairs; I would make it cabinet level. I would try, because I believe within the Department of the Interior it does not get the attention it deserves. I would have a cabinet department for Native American affairs. [...]

In terms of being governor, we have said that we recognize all tribes as equals, self-determination and government-to-government. And a Pueblo governor is equal to the governor of New Mexico. They're citizens of New Mexico. I just feel very strongly about it and I'm going to continue doing that if I'm elected president.

Skyhawk: I know you have a good relationship with Joe Garcia [president of National Congress of American Indians] ...

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Richardson: He swore me in. No governor in New Mexico has ever been sworn in by a Pueblo governor. It's traditionally the Supreme Court, the chief justice; but I said no, I'm going to break tradition. I want a Pueblo governor.

Skyhawk: What kind of message would you give Indian leaders throughout the United States as to how you would like to see the government-to-government relationship continue?

Richardson: [As president] we would deal with each tribe as a sovereign entity, we would respect that; we would have a cabinet-level agency that dealt with Indian affairs, we would upgrade it and it would be a relationship of respect and consultation. I would probably be the first president to have a Native American in the cabinet ... I would be inclusive; I would have, in my administration, a cabinet that looks like America.

Skyhawk: As a candidate that is running for the highest office in this land, can you see the relationship with American Indians as being not only vital to the presidency but vital to the point that you try to acquire the acceptance of Native Americans throughout America?

Richardson: Yes, I would consider it a vital relationship and today it's not considered that. I'm very concerned about the lack of commitment by the federal government, not just in the area of health care but also education. This is why in New Mexico, because there is no strong federal commitment, we have the statewide Indian Healthcare Act where the state, not takes over, but supplements the health care that is not happening [on the federal level].

I'm particularly concerned about the plight nationally: not just of reservation Native Americans, but urban Indians. Many are living in our cities, off the reservations, and they are not getting health care - they are not getting assistance. We need to develop some better delivery systems for urban Indians throughout the country in our major cities. I would consider it vital. I would make it a government-to-government relationship.

I would include also a number of initiatives that would bureaucratically elevate that status, such as a cabinet agency; such as an effort to deal with each tribe as a sovereign nation and I would try to resolve this Indian trust fund issue. I would try to resolve some of the issues related to waters and public lands and the disputes that exist.

First, I would fully fund the Indian Healthcare Act. There would be a stronger budget in my administration on Indian health care. When it comes to education and when it comes to childhood obesity, the highest suicide rate is among Indian kids. I would try to set up on the reservations, as I have here in New Mexico, school-based health clinics: health clinics in schools that are able to work with kids, counsel them and give them early intervention.

I would change the way the federal government deals with Indian people by giving them more priority and more funding, but also giving them more access and more respect and trust.

Skyhawk: How would you ask for help from Native Americans?

Richardson: I would ask the Indian people for help because I would say, ''Look at my record. Look at what I've done, not just the speeches I'm giving or the votes I've cast. I've actually done things, in New Mexico and as a congressman, that have helped Indian people. Look at deeds, not words.'' I've had a long record with Indian people and they would be very much a part of my administration.

I would not forget that I was elected in 1982 because of the Indian vote, because I had a very strong Hispanic candidate and I'm Hispanic, too; but it was the Indian vote that went with me and I won very narrowly to become a congressman. I remember my debts. But I also ask for the help of the Indian people because I believe I'm honest, I'm passionate and I've got a proven record with Native Americans.