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Sizing Up the Vote: The Key Races and Issues Across Indian Country, Part 1

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While most of the media attention this election cycle has focused on the close presidential race between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, there are many other campaigns and issues to be decided on November 6 that promise to make things better—or worse—for Natives and tribes for years to come. There are controversial ballot initiatives on gaming in Maryland and Oregon. Tribal ID cards are being challenged in Minnesota; water rights are being hashed out in Arizona. There are Native candidates running for Congress in Nevada, Oklahoma and perhaps even Massachusetts, depending on how you feel about Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry.

This weekend, Indian Country Today Media Network will round up the most important (or, in some cases, just most entertaining) races and issues that have bearing on Indian country, and broken them out by region and state. Today: The Northwest, East Coast and Midwest. Tomorrow: The Pacific, Plains and Southwest.

We compile, you decide.


Four states in the Northwest—Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Alaska—comprise Region 10 of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and many of the issues on the minds of the voters in those states are environment-related.

In Alaska the environmental issues are salmon fishing—be it elders’ rights to fish for sustenance, support for a bill to prevent the collateral capture of salmon in commercial pollack-fishers’ nets, or offshore drilling. People in Oregon and Washington are concerned about the health of the Columbia River Basin, most notably relating to rail lines and terminals that are being proposed for shipping coal to Asia. A major concern of Idaho’s Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in the southeastern part of the state is how to clean up an EPA Superfund site that is leaching volatile elemental phosphorous and radioactive gamma rays into their groundwater.

Washington and Oregon voted Democrat in the 2008 presidential election, and Idaho and Alaska voted Republican. Native groups in all four states have strong get-out-the-vote initiatives carrying the message, “Your vote matters.”


In Oregon the overriding concerns for tribes are three referendums. Two of them would allow nontribal casinos, and the other is intended to preserve the environment by prohibiting gillnet fishing.

Measure 82 would amend the state constitution to allow nontribal gaming and open up the field for enough competition to threaten the livelihoods of tribes that depend on gaming revenue. Oregon has nine casinos, and tribes have spent millions attempting to defeat this initiative. Measure 83 would allow a single casino, The Grange, to be constructed at the former Multnomah Kennel Club in Wood Village, just outside Portland. It would be the biggest casino in the state.

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) and its four member tribes oppose a ballot measure that would ban nontribal commercial gillnet fishing in the lower Columbia River. Proponents of Oregon’s Ballot Measure 81, primarily sports fishing groups, argue that gillnet fishing indiscriminately catches wild salmon, steelhead and ESA-listed fish, and is detrimental to sustainable fisheries management. CRITFC opposes the measure, characterizing it as having little to do with conservation and everything to do with reallocation of resources to powerful sports fishing groups. They fear it would inhibit the return of salmon populations that have steadily been replenished over the past few years.


Key Race: District 5A, Paulette Jordan (D) vs. Cindy Agidius (R)

In the state legislature: Coeur d’Alene tribal member Paulette Jordan may become the first Native to serve in the legislature. Running as a Democrat, she honed her political skills rising in the tribal council ranks. “I put tribes in the forefront with everything I do,” she says. ICTMN’s Gyasi Ross says Jordan “is a traditional woman, a great mom and a heck of a basketball player.”


The governor’s race is one to watch now that an activist has come out with a report saying that the Republican candidate, Rob McKenna, has ties to anti-Indian groups. In late October, polls had McKenna tied with Democrat Jay Inslee.

An overriding concern for tribes in Washington is a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point, near the Lummi Nation’s reservation. Besides putting pristine areas in danger, the terminal could destroy a sacred site. Some other tribes are supporting the Lummi in opposing this and five other proposed terminals in Washington and Oregon.


Alaska Natives are a blue-state people living in a red-state world. John McCain took 59.8 percent of the state’s vote in the 2008 election, and Obama 38 percent. Redistricting has pitted an incumbent Democratic state senator, an Alaska Native known for advocating on behalf of rural residents, against a Republican incumbent who has long-standing urban ties and a huge constituency.

In Alaska there are 228 federally recognized tribes, most of them small and remote, and the focus among Native groups has been to get those people to vote.

Key Race: District Q, State Senator Bert Stedman (R) vs. State Senator Albert Kookesh (D)

Albert Kookesh, a Democrat who has a reputation for championing rural Native issues. He is running against State Senator Bert Stedman. Kookesh is from the Tlingit Nation. The two are running for a State Senate seat in the newly created District Q, which represents Sitka, Ketchikan, Prince of Wales Island, Angoon, Haines and other municipalities.



Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation & Mohegan Tribe: Connecticut has the two largest casinos in the country: Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun—which have the most gaming machines among all casinos in the U.S. with 6,500 and 6,405, respectively. Each pay the state 25 percent of their slot revenues. In 2011, Foxwoods total revenue was $1.17 billion; Mohegan Sun brought in $1.23 billion.


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In the race between Senator Scott Brown (R-Massachusetts) and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren, issues have been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding her claim to Delaware and Cherokee ancestry. Together, Brown and Warren have raised more campaign money than in any other U.S. Senate race in the country, the Associated Press reported. Aside from waging political wars against one another, Brown has pushed his image as a man of integrity, while Warren has promoted her commitment to fight for the middle class. But according to Time, Brown’s focus on Warren’s ancestry could prove the “campaign detour that cost him his place in the Senate.”

New York

New York, home to nine tribal casinos, ranked third among U.S. states in total gaming revenue in 2010. New Jersey dropped to fourth place in 2010, with Nevada holding the top spot, followed by California, which has 66 tribal casinos. In 2011, the Oneida Indian Nation paid its 4,500 employees in Central New York $6.2 million every two weeks.

The same year, the tribe donated $1 million to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, nearly $32,000 to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, $30,000 to the Oneida Nation Foundation to local and national charities, and $5,000 to Oz-Stravaganza! festival in Chittenango, New York. The tribe’s annual NB3 Foundation Challenge also raised $500,000 for the NB3 Foundation, which works to improve the health and wellness of Native youth throughout Indian country. Since 1993, the nation has spent more than $2.2 billion on goods and services. In fiscal year 2011, it spent more than $294 million with 3,472 vendors.

In 2010, the Seneca Nation of Indians had nearly $1 billion in revenue, had 4,400 employees and produced an annual economic impact on New York state of $640 million.

North Carolina

Harrah’s Cherokee casino, owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, attracts 3.6 million guests each year. Visitor-generated revenue was $386 million in 2010, after peaking at $449 million in 2007. In 2009, the casino’s economic impact on Jackson and Swain counties in Western North Carolina was estimated to be approximately $300 million, and capital investments by the tribe added another $82 million.


The Seminole Tribe owns seven Class III casinos in Florida—including the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino complexes in Tampa and Hollywood—which generated about $2 billion in revenue in 2009. Under a compact signed in 2010, the tribe guaranteed to pay the state at least $1 billion over the next five years—with $150 million paid annually for the first two years; this year, the payment increases to $233 million.

Seminoles Start PAC-ing: In June, the Seminole Tribe of Florida launched an employee-funded political action committee to ward off expanded gaming in Florida. A memo was distributed, with a contribution form, to the tribe’s 10,000-plus employees. It states, “The money you donate will be used to protect the interests of our business and serve to protect our jobs and futures” and “participation is voluntary.” As of September 28, the Seminole Tribe Employee Political Action Committee had $3,144 in contributions.

Thus far in 2012, the tribe has spent $260,000 on lobbying to prevent the expansion of commercial casinos in Florida, according to

Companies interested in developing large-scale casino/resorts in Florida include Las Vegas Sands Corp., Wynn Resorts, MGM Resorts International and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia–based Genting Group. In May 2011, Genting acquired 13.9 acres of waterfront property in Miami for $236 million.—Michelle Tirado



Key Race: Second District, Rob Wallace (D) vs. Markwayne Mullin (R)

With the resignation of Congressman Dan Boren (D), Oklahoma’s Second District faces an uncertain future. The district is nearly 20 percent Native American, the third highest concentration of Indians in any district in the country, and has voted Democratic for many years. That might change this November, however. Wallace opposes the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes in their legal battle concerning water rights to Sardis Lake; Mullin is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation. Even so, Wallace is getting more campaign dollars out of tribes than Mullin, with even the Cherokee Nation backing him. Polling suggests the tribes’ efforts may be in vain and that the district is likely to elect Mullin, which would make the state all Republican, from the House to the Senate to the governor’s office.

To Dig, or Not to Dig?

President Obama delayed a final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until after the election, and there is still debate over whether the proposed pipeline will create a meaningful number of jobs or bring gas prices down—but for Indian tribes in Oklahoma there is an added layer. The existing Keystone pipeline cuts through three tribal jurisdictional areas: those belonging to the Ponca, Otoe-Missouria, and Sac & Fox. Additionally, there is a pump station in the Ponca area and the town of Cushing—a massive tank farm—is on Sac & Fox land. The extension south passes through more Sac & Fox area, and then the Muscogee, Seminole and Choctaw areas, with one pump station on Muscogee land and two on Choctaw. With so much digging to do, the pipeline’s builder will need to convince the tribes it is taking every precaution not to destroy sacred sites or burial grounds. TransCanada is talking a good game, but many Natives are nervous. “All we know is that it’s coming through our tribal jurisdiction, They say they will stop digging if they hit something,” Sac & Fox Principal Chief George Thurman told The Washington Post, “but there is no guarantee that they are going to stop.”


Republican Steve Scalise, an incumbent destined for re-election to the House out of Louisiana’s First Congressional District, toes the party line on many conservative issues, but he has a chance to do massive environmental good for the town of Houma and, along the way, the state-recognized tribe for which it is named. Scalise was lead House negotiator on the recently passed RESTORE Act, which ensures that the Gulf states will receive the lion’s share of fines or settlements to be paid out by BP over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The state will get a few billion dollars, and possibly much more—possibly enough to kick-start a $50 billion state plan for coastal restoration and hurricane protection. For citizens of the United Houma Nation, whose land is eroding beneath their feet, restoration of marshes and wetlands cannot come soon enough.