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Russell: Presidential snakes on the Indian plane

It’s hard to write about presidential politics from an Indian point of view because if you intend to be honest, you have to admit that a candidate who is good for Indian country is not always good for the United States of America. Richard Nixon is a great example. He abused power in ways that stood out in a pre-George W. Bush world, but he also completed Lyndon Johnson’s turn away from termination as federal Indian policy and signed the Indian Civil Rights Act.

I like to think that my dual citizenships could not conflict because all I want when I wear my tribal hat is fair dealing, and when I wear my American hat I do not want my government associated with thievery and cheating.

A position paper circulating on the Internet is an example of where I just don’t see any conflict between citizenships. Authors Lloyd Miller and Heather Kendall-Miller fault Gov. Sarah Palin’s administration in Alaska for going to court in opposition to Alaska Native subsistence fishing and hunting rights.

Subsistence fishing and

One of my students told me the other day that the presidential race makes her feel like she’s living in a B movie.

hunting rights just don’t seem to me anything controversial to fair-minded people. Yes, game animal and fish populations must be managed, and yes, sometimes a total ban on taking endangered creatures is necessary. But, seriously, what harm is there in Natives having the first chance to take when they are not taking on an industrial scale? Somebody will have first rights. What is the argument for first rights going to factory fisheries or sport hunting tourists before the people who have lived off the land from time immemorial?

Another issue on which the Millers gig Palin is that the governor had to be ordered by a federal court to provide election assistance in the Yup’ik language. Palin represents the political wing of American politics that is all “English first!”

This argument got started when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Chinese-speaking children had a right to begin public education in their language. No doubt, the court chose the Chinese case to keep a distance from the hot political papas: accommodating the Spanish language.

While I personally favor accommodating both the Chinese schoolchildren and the Spanish-speaking voters in the Southwest (who have an arguable treaty entitlement to their language under Guadalupe-Hidalgo), I cannot see that these are the same issues as are raised by indigenous languages. However, they get treated that way.

One of many issues where I agree with Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith is when he opposes all state policies in Oklahoma intended to dump on Spanish speakers, because Smith argues correctly that Cherokee speakers get caught up in the propwash of these misguided and racist policies.

English is the language of commerce and of education and we don’t need any government language police to insure that status. English is in fact first and it will stay first while most people speak it in important business. Can somebody ask Gov. Palin how it harms English if Yup’ik speakers get help when voting, any more than it harms English when the Cherokees sponsor Cherokee immersion classes in public schools?

These arguments over indigenous rights seem to me, well, a little nutty, if not quite as nutty as the general campaign discourse has become. You want examples?

McCain approved an ad that juxtaposes Palin’s “pitbull-hockey mom” joke from the Republican National Convention with an unrelated Obama speech in which he referred to McCain’s promise to change Bush policies as “lipstick on a pig.” The conclusion the ad draws is that Obama called Palin a pig when – even if he had been talking about Palin – she would have been the lipstick, since there was no question that Bush policies are the pig.

McCain approved an ad that claims Palin opposed the “bridge to nowhere.” ABC’s Charlie Gibson asked Palin how she could claim to publicly support the bridge but then never gave back the money even when she finally withdrew her support. She replied that all this was done openly and that her actual objection was conducting the business through lobbyists. Gibson did not follow up by asking why she employed a lobbyist to seek earmarks when she was mayor of Wasilla, but that did not stop the McCain camp from blasting the interview as unfair to Palin.

McCain approved an ad that accuses Obama of supporting explicit sex instruction for kindergarteners, a tactic recycled from Alan Keyes’ run against Obama for the U.S. Senate. In fact, the “sex education” for kindergarten was limited to “stranger danger” – keeping safe from pedophiles, reporting inappropriate actions to parents or teachers.

One of my students told me the other day that the presidential race makes her feel like she’s living in a B movie, and Samuel L. Jackson is about to step out and deliver his famous and profane line about the snakes on the plane. Indeed.

We are in a war longer than World War II with no end in sight and an economic downturn directly caused by federal policies, and we are supposed to care whether one candidate did or did not call another candidate a pig? Those are just the mainstream issues; the tribal issues are as urgent. Thinking of tribal issues, my best guess for the last time Indian policy moved a presidential election would be William Henry Harrison, who ran as the killer of Tecumseh.

I was discussing the idiot level of the campaign ads with my 80-year-old mother and I remarked, “If the American people are fooled by this nonsense, they will get the government they deserve.”

“Maybe so,” she said, “but we will also get the government they deserve!”

Right. So maybe when mainsteam Americans feel this way in this election they will understand how Indians feel in every election.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and an associate professor of criminal justice at Indiana University. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today. He lives in Bloomington and can be reached at