WASHINGTON – There are some sentimental reasons for American Indians to feel good about U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, as Mitt Romney’s running mate for the White House, but those who have studied his economic plans say his unfettered budget-cutting desires could be harmful to federal Indian programs and tribes.
When Romney chose Ryan as his vice presidential pick on August 11, few details were immediately apparent about his views on Indian country, but some key indicators – on family, gaming, and policy realities – have since emerged.
In his home state, Ryan hasn’t done much work on specific Indian issues while serving in Congress since 1999, but he notably asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) during the George W. Bush administration to approve an off-reservation casino for the Menominee Nation. The administration ultimately rejected the plan in January 2009, but the situation showed that Ryan is perhaps a quiet ally of Indian gaming, especially when it comes to the interests of his constituents.
In recent sessions of Congress, he’s voted against the Indian Health Care Improvement Act as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; against the Tribal Law and Order Act and the Cobell settlement as part of separate bills; and against some Indian water rights settlements that were part of a relief package for Chile and Haiti earthquake victims. In most cases, his votes against Indian legislation came in instances where such legislation was attached to larger bills that had little or nothing to do with Indian affairs—a growing concern among some tribal advocates who say that Indian issues deserve to be voted on their own merits as stand-alone bills, which would make it easier to understand where legislators truly stand on such issues. This year, he voted in favor of the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership Act; in favor of the Indian Tribal Trade and Investment Demonstration Project Act; and voted with his party in favor of a Violence Against Women Act reauthorization that failed to include Senate-passed tribal provisions that would increase tribal court jurisdiction authorities, but did allow for a battered Native woman – or a tribe on her behalf – to file in U.S. District Court for a protection order against her alleged abuser, whether Indian or not, who committed the abuse on Indian land.
On the family front, Ryan’s wife, Janna, is some part Chickasaw, according to press reports, although she’s not enrolled in the tribe due to lacking historical evidence, and more research is needed to back up these claims. In the age of Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren’s unsubstantiated claims of Cherokee ancestry – and her reliance on family folklore without any background of having reached out to tribes or Indians, while claiming Indian heritage at institutions of higher education – Janna Ryan’s path here is likely to be scrutinized much more in the days leading up to the November presidential election.
If Janna Ryan is indeed Native, the situation would seem reminiscent of GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2008, whose husband, Todd is Yup'ik and whose children are Alaska Native Corporation shareholders. Evidence currently supports the notion that, like Palin, Ryan has paid attention to his spouse’s heritage, and it seems to inform at least a small part of his outlook.
What is known for sure is that Janna Ryan’s family has deep roots in Oklahoma’s Democratic and Indian-focused politics, with her first-cousin Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., set to become president of corporate development with the Chickasaw Nation at the end of his current term. While Boren is a Democrat, he has put out a statement supporting his cousin, as well as her husband, in the race against President Barack Obama: “Janna and I grew up together and I couldn’t be more proud of my cousin. Like my late mother after whom she is named, Janna is a wonderful parent to their children and will be Paul’s strongest supporter on the campaign trail. Paul has a firm moral compass and has always approached his job as a congressman with diligence and honesty. Having many friends on both sides of the aisle, he is an effective and talented leader. Although we belong in different political parties, I see Paul as a friend, a fellow hunter, and most importantly a family man.”
Boren’s office also shared that he, like his cousin, has family members who have Chickasaw ancestry. “Congressman Boren has a cousin, Judd Little, who has Chickasaw heritage from his mother who married into the family,” Sloan Armstrong, a spokesman for Boren, said. “In addition, the Congressman’s stepmother is Choctaw. Some family members have Native American heritage, but they are not card carrying members because they cannot trace their lineage back to the Dawes Rolls.” To be an enrolled citizen of the tribe, familial lineage must be able to be traced back to these historical federal rolls.
Armstrong later clarified, "The congressman is not blood related and therefore does not have that Chickasaw lineage." So it remains to be seen if Janna Ryan is related by blood to any Chickasaw relatives.
Janna Ryan’s ties back to Oklahoma have seen her and her husband visit the state many times, according to those familiar with the couple’s travels.
The only current Native American serving in Congress, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., says that both Ryans are familiar with Indian country issues, and Cole’s office noted that Ryan recently voted in favor of the recent unsuccessful Indian Tribal Trade and Investment Demonstration Project Act that supported tribal self-determination through increased trade efforts, which was sponsored by Cole.
“[Paul Ryan] has been exposed to tribal issues and culture during his numerous visits to Oklahoma, so those are both positive signs,” Jocelyn Rogers, a spokeswoman for Cole, said. “Rep. Cole is very pleased with his candidacy.”
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and current chair of the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, said one should never underestimate the importance of family relations when it comes to the interests and support of members of Congress.
"Over our long marriage, my wife, Lu, was not only the love of my life, but she was my closest advisor – especially when it came to Native issues,” Young told Indian Country Today Media Network. “As an Athabascan and someone who grew up in rural Alaska, Lu knew firsthand the issues that Native Alaskans faced on a daily basis. Lu's unique understanding of these issues was one of the, if not the biggest factors, in the successes we've had over the years in Congress fighting for Native Alaskans. Even though my wife is looking down on me from above, I am truly blessed to have two Native Alaskan daughters who continue to make me proud day in and day out."
Beyond family, Ryan, while ever the budget hawk, has never been known to be an outspoken foe of federal Indian programs, especially in comparison to a legislator like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, who put out a budget plan last year that would have completely gutted the BIA and Indian Health Service (IHS). In fact, Ryan’s running mate Romney has been known to have a much more contentious relationship with Indians, having to live with the aftermath of an attempted tribal shakedown while he served as governor of Massachusetts. In 2003, he tried to get gaming tribes in neighboring states to pay his state to try to reduce its budget shortfalls. “If they refuse to provide at least $75 million to us, then we will engage in video lottery terminals of our own,” Romney was quoted as saying at the time—a plan he ultimately gave up on, after facing tough tribal opposition.
But Ryan’s budget proposals, while they do not outwardly attack Indian programs, do imply that their funding streams should be majorly curtailed—failing to take into account the special trust relationship the United States government has with tribes, as expressed in the U.S. Constitution and in numerous treaties.
Journalist Mark Trahant, who has closely followed the IHS in his reporting in recent years, noted that in the current daily grind of the presidential race, most of the debate has focused on Ryan’s desires to re-shape Medicare to lessen young Americans' reliance on it in the future through a voucher plan. But the “real problem” with Ryan’s heath-focused proposals would negatively impact the IHS through his plans on Medicaid, he said.
“Ryan, in all of his budgets, proposes to block grant that program to the states,” Trahant said, which would have huge negative implications for the part of IHS’s funding stream paid through Medicaid. As part of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, the agency has the authority to bill for services provided to American Indians and Alaska Natives who are beneficiaries of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. How Ryan’s plan would affect that reality is unclear, but it probably wouldn’t be good. The Romney-Ryan campaign has not responded to requests for clarification to date.
Trahant also noted that Ryan’s other proposed cuts to the federal budget would go far beyond what is currently in progress. “The January cuts coming should be 7.5 percent across-the-board under the Budget Control Act,” he said. “Ryan's cuts would be north of 22 percent.”
Unless BIA and other domestic programs aiding Indians were singled out for protection, they would all face this major cut under Ryan’s vision—and many Indian programs are already currently underfunded.
David Bean, a councilmember with the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, cautioned, “We are always on the watch for anything that might negatively affect BIA or IHS funding to tribes.”
In all, Ryan’s vision could be a dangerous one for Indian country, said Holly Cook Macarro, a partner with Ietan Consulting, a tribal lobbying firm. “The Ryan budget doesn't distinguish funding for tribal programs from the entitlement programs he is aiming for—this approach ignores the federal trust responsibility and directly threatens the neediest in Indian country,” she said. “It has the potential to bore a gaping hole in the Indian budget.”