The Republican's victory on November 5, 2002 is not only historic, but also poses some interesting propositions for the way Indian country sees its participation on the national political stage. As a Republican, I welcome my party's success in this election, but as an American Indian, should I have cause for concern?
I am concerned, but not about Republican control. I am concerned about the inherent skepticism the Democratic-leaning American Indian community has for Republican leaders. Every statement made by a Republican is (often) overly scrutinized with suspicion, but invariably the conclusions, drawn in a climate of defensiveness and distrust, lead to bad decisions and political dead-ends. Ultimately, Indian country is the loser, due to its pursuit of a self-defeating national policy born of inaccurate perceptions.
Case in point: While campaigning for the 2000 presidential election in upstate New York, Governor George Bush made a remark to the effect: "... in tribal-state relations, the states have precedence..." This quote has been oft repeated throughout Indian country. Unfortunately, that statement may dog many American Indians' perceptions of the President and his intentions for the remainder of his term.
However, then Governor George Bush made up for his New York remarks in a widely circulated (but largely ignored) August 18, 2000, letter to tribal leaders, in which he emphatically supported the federal government-to-government relationship with the tribes. On November 1 of this year, President Bush, in declaring National American Indian Heritage Month, again stressed that Indian nations are self-governing, self-supporting and self-reliant. Furthermore, the Republican National Platform for the 2000 Election serves as yet another indicator for judging presidential "intent." President Bush clearly and enthusiastically adopted the Platform as his own. His campaign repeatedly stressed the commitments made to the American people during the 2000 Philadelphia convention. The 2000 Platform stated that, "tribal governments are best situated to gauge the needs of their communities, while self-determination and economic self-sufficiency are the twin pillars of an effective Indian policy."
There is a wide gulf between deliberate conduct to suppress Indian country's rightful aspirations and missteps arising from an incomplete understanding of the tribes' rights. Emotionally engendered attacks, even if fueled by righteous indignation, are not conducive to either effective negotiation or objective achievement.
Support for self-governing, self-supporting and self-reliant tribes is the official Republican position. Will it be adhered to by 100 percent of its candidates? Probably not, but not because there is intentional duplicity. This platform acts as a beacon by which the national leadership steers itself, occasionally straying off course, but always guiding itself back. Indian country and its leaders can help in this process by acting as the foghorn that calls attention to necessary course corrections.
The awareness and momentum at the federal level for Indian issues grows day by day. The Native American Caucus has increased to approximately 104 members, with many new additions coming from Republican ranks. Republicans in both houses have stood up in great numbers to defend Indian country from unfair attack (from both Republican and Democratic colleagues), while pro-Indian bills outpace anti-Indian legislation. Each legislative victory experienced by American Indians has come about through stalwart leadership and participation by Republicans in both the House and Senate.
Support for Indian country transcends the Congress. The White House has stepped up and energized its outreach to Indian country through both its executive departments as well as the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. The RNC Chairman, Governor Marc Racicot, has established an Indian outreach office, clearly recognizing American Indian contributions and impacts on the national political process. Let us also not forget that Tom Cole, newly elected to the House from Oklahoma's 4th district, is also an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation. Tom recently served as both Executive Director of the National Republican Congressional Committee and Chief of Staff of the Republican National Committee.
How can we as American Indians deal with the new Republican reality? An effective strategy is based on a willingness to engage in productive dialog and mutual compromise. Indian country must maintain and grow its relationship with the federal government, the Congress, Executive branch and regulatory agencies. Second, it must enhance internal cooperation between the various tribes and their representatives in Washington, including the various associations, offices and political lobbying law firms. Innumerable divergent interests dissipate the focus on our core issue: self-governance preservation and enhancement. By focusing on a few, but critical collective interests, Indian country can provide support, structure and leadership to their representatives' efforts.
Lastly, bipartisan political outreach, communication and education efforts in Washington help increase the number of supporters within the congressional ranks and within the Administration. Fundraising activities, briefings, conferences and seminars support friends, and reach out to members who otherwise would have little knowledge or interest in Indian matters. An informed legislative body is the best protection for the tribes' unique status, rights and liberties.
Only through engagement with Republican leadership can Indian country plant the seeds that will grow into understanding for our priorities. It is through this government-to-government relationship that specific legislation to increase Indian program funding, enhance education, provide economic development incentives and reinforce tribal self-governance can be, and has been, accomplished. There is no conceivable reason why the 2002 election results would fundamentally change this dynamic for anything but the better.
John Guevremont is a Mashantucket Pequot member and represents the tribe in Washington, D.C. A life-long Republican, he has been active in Connecticut and national politics and was a delegate to the 2000 Republican National Convention, where he was instrumental in providing the language for the convention's Native American Platform. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today.