U.S. Senator John McCain made some hefty promises Friday when he met with Navajo leaders during a roundtable discussion in St. Michaels, Arizona.
The hour-long discussion, organized by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, included input from U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, who serves as committee chairman. The roundtable came during a trip to the Navajo Nation, during which McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, toured a local school and sat down with the tribe’s top executive and legislative leaders.
During the public discussion, Navajo President Russell Begaye, Vice President Jonathan Nez and Navajo Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates outlined concerns facing the 175,000 Navajo citizens who live on a 27,000-square-mile reservation spread across portions of three states.
Begaye listed issues of criminal jurisdiction, youth suicide, homeless veterans, unemployment, water rights, energy development and a lack of reliable health care. He also pleaded for legislation “with teeth” to help combat broader issues of treaty violations and breaches of sovereignty.
“These are critical issues,” he said. “A lot of things that happen on the Navajo Nation impact other tribes. Things that occur here also directly impact people across Indian country.”
Calling the meeting “historic,” Begaye asked McCain for federal help with a variety of serious and timely concerns, including ongoing Paris auctions of sacred cultural items, stalled development of the former Bennett Freeze area, lasting effects from last year’s toxic spill at Gold King Mine, long waiting times to receive care at Indian Health Service facilities and companies that are violating Navajo Nation laws by ignoring Indian preference in hiring or transporting uranium across the reservation.
In short, Begaye said, the federal government is not doing enough to fulfill its obligations to the Navajo Nation.
“These are issues we face now and have faced for a long time,” he said. “We need your help with federal laws that help enforce and honor our laws. We need laws with language that is strong enough that no company can say it doesn’t apply to them.”
McCain responded with outrage and assurances, pledging to do what he can to uphold tribal sovereignty.
“It’s disgraceful,” he said of companies doing business on the Navajo Nation but violating tribal laws. “It’s a clear violation of the constitution and treaties.”
McCain called the Bennett Freeze, a 1966 policy that froze development on a large plot of Navajo and Hopi land in Arizona, a “terrible travesty” and a “violation of tribal policy.” The freeze was lifted in 2009, but development continues to lag.
McCain suggested an investigation into the Bennett Freeze and asked Navajo leaders for specific recommendations. He and Barrasso also called for an audit of the Indian Health Service, comparing its historically poor health care to the 2014 Veterans Health Administration scandal in Phoenix.
“I’m painfully aware of what you’re seeing,” said Barrasso, a former orthopedic surgeon. “It’s no different from what happened at the VA, but the outcry is different because more people know veterans.”
On the Navajo Nation, patients can wait as as long as six hours to see a physician, Begaye said. Sometimes, after waiting all day, they are sent home without care.
“This is a national tragedy,” he said. “I’m asking for the IHS to do a self-audit to determine why people sit for six hours. We need what the VA did.”
McCain pledged support for a Navajo Code Talkers museum and promised to work with the tribe to designate the Navajo Nation as a regional VA service center. He vowed to continue holding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency responsible for the August 2015 Gold King Mine Spill, which sent three million gallons of toxic waste downstream, affecting thousands of Navajo farmers.
McCain and Barrasso also assured Navajo leaders that they back a new policy to improve implementation of the Buy Indian Act of 1910. A stricter law could require the BIA and IHS – and countless other agencies – to give purchasing preference to Native companies.
“It’s central that this be done with BIA and IHS,” Barrasso said.
But the two senators admitted defeat when it came to halting the sale of sacred and cultural items in auction houses in Europe. In recent years, Navajo leaders have traveled to Paris to buy back cultural items before they could be auctioned.
Although the U.S. Department of State earlier this year claimed it lacks authority to make foreign auction houses stop selling the items, McCain said he still is seeking to curb the practice. He wants to pass legislation “with teeth” by the end of the year, he said.
McCain concluded his public discussion by praising the Navajo government and predicting a “bright future” for the tribe. But he did not escape criticism from a small group of protestors – and some elected leaders.
McCain, 80, is up for re-election in November, seeking a sixth term on the U.S. Senate. He is running against U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat who was not invited to participate in the discussion Friday with Navajo leaders.
Navajo Vice President Nez criticized McCain for failing to invite Kirkpatrick, and for his failure to maintain any regular presence on the Navajo Nation.
“It’s a rarity for Navajos to see John McCain on the Navajo Nation, except when he’s up for re-election,” Nez said. “His recent visits to the Navajo Nation have been an obvious bid for support from the Navajo voting bloc. The Navajo people deserve better than photo opportunities and empty promises.”
Nez was disappointed to learn Kirkpatrick was not invited to participate in the roundtable discussion.
“The fact that she was not invited to attend a senate hearing in her own district is beyond questionable,” he said. “It was a disingenuous attempt to garner support for McCain, who has done very little for the Navajo Nation over the span of many years.”