As he leaves public life, Indian Country Today salutes the career of veteran congressman Richard Gephardt (D-Missouri), whose record on tribal issues is exemplary. While his call to the presidency was not destined for victory, Gephardt's 30-plus years in public office followed the turbulent years of Indian militancy and the rise of a national sovereignty movement that has spawned an economic revolution. Throughout that time, his understanding and active support for Native peoples' fundamental positions in American public policy has been superb.
A member of the Congressional Native American Caucus, Gephardt consistently voted in the best interests of tribal nations, urging the recognition and support for tribal sovereignty as "cornerstone upon which U.S. - tribal relations must be built." He often forcefully criticized the "disastrous federal policies - including forced relocation and the termination of tribal governments," under which Native peoples suffered greatly. He consistently urged the most encompassing of dialogue with the tribal leadership as they have sought, "quality education, health care, and housing - along with the tools necessary for economic development."
Gephardt trained as a Democrat of the old school - the historical 20th century core sector of the Party that rejoiced at and shaped the country's social programs from the1930s to the 1970s. The greatest of union supporters, he was of that time and element and, beyond being the consummate negotiator-politician, he has been clearly driven by a strong moral sense of what constitutes a fair shake for the working class families, ethnic minorities and American Indian tribal nations of America.
Gephardt has been particularly critical of America for shirking its doctrine of trust responsibility to the tribes. This important recognition of the Native peoples' land and property contribution to the development of the United States, he says, "has been weakened by executive branch and federal court action." He promised to work to "strengthen this doctrine." He also focused on the measurable economic revitalization of tribes during the past 30 years, which coincides with the policy of tribal "self-governance and self-determination." A generous approach to trust responsibility in this context is the best position for the United States, he has long asserted, because it is "morally and legally correct." Gephardt consistently pushed for increased funding of housing, the Indian Health Service, education programs such as Head Start, Impact Aid, and BIA schools and scholarships. He has understood and supported the need for more infrastructure development on reservations.
Gephardt was seriously instrumental in the fight against anti-sovereignty measures in Congress. Particularly during the heady attacks led by Slade Gordon, the former Senator from Washington State (later pushed out of office, in great measure, by very competent Indian opposition), Gephardt vigorously opposed and led in the defeat of some of the most destructive legislation ever aimed at American Indian freedoms. In 1997, Gephardt's valuable support as Democratic leader led Congress to defeat the hard-fought "Istook amendment," which intended to limit the authority of the Secretary of the Interior to take land into trust for tribes. In 2000, Gephardt led the Democratic caucus to a 90 percent vote against the "Weldon amendment," which sought to prohibit gambling on Native American lands pending court cases.
He has paid close attention to difficult cases, such as the dense federal policy that divides the Tohono O'odham Nation members, on the Arizona-Mexico border, by denying some members the right to U.S. citizenship. Gephardt cosponsored H.R. 731 in the 107th and 108th Congress, a bill to make all enrolled members of the Tohono O'odham Nation citizens of the United States. "This would allow members of this tribe to travel freely through their native lands in Arizona and Mexico," Gephardt stressed to his fellow Congressmen.
As Democratic leader, Gephardt invited tribal leaders to a legislative summit on March 9, 2000. It was a great event, signaling to Native leaders the Congressman's deep and abiding respect for government-to-government consultation with tribal leaders. Gephardt told Indian country then: "With your help, we will address issues across the public policy spectrum to develop a plan which includes promoting tribal self-determination, enhancing tribal governments, increasing the quality of health care, improving employment opportunities for Indian people, boosting economic development on tribal land, and developing better educational opportunities for Indian children."
We will miss Richard Gephardt's steadfast and determined friendship in Congress. We wish this good friend of American Indian people many years ahead of continuing service in other forms of public and private life. Indian country certainly welcomes all his continued support and collaboration.