Indigenizing impeachment

Early morning lines to witness impeachment inquiry. (Photo by Kolby KickingWoman, Indian Country Today)

Indian Country Today

Last Week on Capitol Hill: Congressional inquiry sets up a historic showdown

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye and Kolby KickingWoman

Indian Country Today Washington bureau

The public hearings for the impeachment inquiry into President Donald J. Trump were held last week by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill. This comes after weeks of closed-door testimony.

Our editor asked Tuesday if we were going to cover the hearing? It was a no brainer answer: Yes. The Washington bureau had to be in the hearing room for this action.

The tricky part of the process was figuring out how to make sure we got into the hearing room. The Longworth House Office Building opened at 7:30 a.m. Kolby KickingWoman got in line around 6:30 a.m., before the sunrise, and in 30-something degree weather.

The scene: Throngs of people lined up in the early morning hours outside the House Committee on Ways and Means room inside the Longworth House Office Building, some lining up as early as 3:00 a.m. to be able to get a seat for these historic hearings. The hearings were held in the Ways and Means room to accommodate the large number of people expected to attend between members of Congress, the media and the general public.

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye stayed outside of the building to capture the happenings, such as talking to impeachment supporters and opponents, looking at the media frenzy, hearing from tribal leaders, and more. Our goal was to let Indian Country feel like they were there with us witnessing history.

What Indian Country didn’t see ... was how tired, thirsty and restless we were after each hearing.

KickingWoman said eating a Cliff Bar before the hearing tied him over. Bennett-Begaye wasn't as fortunate. No food or drinks were allowed in the hearing room. You can’t blame them for wanting clean carpet. Plus any food and drinks makes you feel out of place where a chandelier hangs in the center of the room. The furniture wood with comfortable cushion, eagles and faces carved into the meeting of the white ceiling and walls, and large blue curtains hanging in the front and back of the room. Did we mention that we couldn’t leave the room once there? We would have to go to the back of the line if we did. And from what each of us saw, that line was long even hours after the hearings started.

On Friday, we heard there were approximately 50 seats for the public. We got there early, around the 25th or 30th person in line.

This is the fourth time an impeachment inquiry has taken place against a president. Previous presidents threatened with impeachment were Andrew Johnson in 1868, Richard Nixon in 1974 and most recently, Bill Clinton. (Only Johnson and Clinton were actually impeached. Nixon resigned instead.) Impeachment, if the House votes that way, is a political charge by the House of Representatives; it would be up to the Senate to decide if that charge merits removal from officer (and by a two-thirds majority vote).

Related: A tale of ‘what if’ … impeachment and Indigenous policies

This time around it was Trump. 

So why should Indian Country care about the impeachment proceedings? Why should we watch, read, and digest hours and hours of impeachment-related articles, podcasts, and newscasts?

Robert Hall, Blackfeet, was walking into the legislative building for a meeting with a representative and he explained why Indian Country should follow the impeachment proceedings.

"The reason why Indian Country needs to pay attention to the impeachment hearings is because, for federally-recognized, our sovereignty relies on this. We have someone in office who could care less who we are, who could care less who anybody is. And it's important because who sits in this house may or may not be our ally. You do not want them to be your enemy," Hall said.

His second reason: The government-to-government relationship.

"And the reason why Indian Country needs to pay attention is we have an intimate government-to-government relationship with the United States and who sits on that high office directly affects Indian Country. Policies that are passed will affect Indian Country before it affects anywhere else in America because we are the most vulnerable population," he said.

Related: Live feed: Impeachment hearings, day one

His last point was Trump only talks about Native Americans when it involves Sen. Elizabeth Warren -- and even that is controversial in Indian Country.

"It's highly disrespectful. The only time he talks about Native Americans is to mock a white person," he said.

It’s obvious that Trump’s actions and history with Native people already show his relationship with Indian Country. It’s a toxic. And Indian Country sees it and expresses it via social media and in person.

When the “most powerful person on the face of the Earth” shows his treatment toward Native Americans publicly, it affects the larger society’s perception of us. If he mocks Warren, each Native person or the large group of us are mocked. The Covington incident in January is an example of that.

Another example is his discontinuation of the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference that former President Barack Obama started. Each tribal leader was invited and most attended this annual event along with Native youth. There was a greater respect developed and held with tribal nations.

This presence of Indian Country in the nation’s capital, at the federal level has a domino effect. Over the last year in Washington, we constantly heard that the district and life of Indian Country was “bustling.” It was alive. Why? There were more Native people present. That lead to more actions, collaborations, more networking -- just more.

When Trump came in, it died down. People started to trickle out of the district. That has a great effect on the policies because if there is no one on the Hill, who knows how Indian Country works, there is no one advocating for the needed policies Indigenous people desperately need. Indian Country issues are far different from American society.

When Trump came in, the energy quieted. Very little Native representation exists within this administration compared to previous ones.

Tyler Fish, Cherokee and Muscogee (Creek) Nation, is the only Native person at arms length from the president. He’s been serving as the White House senior policy advisor and tribal liaison since July. In the Obama administration, there were a handful of Native people serving in significant roles making sure that Indian Country had a voice in the decision-making process.

The point being if there is little to no representation in government, people who know how Indian Country works, then there is very little advocacy from within. Of course, there are the plethora of national tribal organizations around Washington but that's not the same as being on the inside.

There was a lot of excitement and vigor in government circles from 2008 to 2016; now it's the polar opposite. 

This is where the impeachment inquiry fits in.

There is bar around the corner from the National Indian Gaming Association called the Capitol Lounge. It launched its full impeachment cocktail menu one hour after the first hearing started.

Indian Country is watching

Others, such as journalists, try to keep a light-heart in a tumultuous time. (It’s a marathon for media.)

Not everyone in Indian Country sees the impeachment inquiry the same way. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee Nation, R-Oklahoma, said Wednesday just as the first hearing was finishing up, “There’s really nothing here.”

Of Taylor and Kent, Mullin said “neither one has first-hand knowledge” and “neither one was on the phone call.”

“There was no quid pro quo. There was no crime committed. It’s all still yet Adam Schiff in search of a crime,” Mullin said.

The representative did point out that this impeachment process does put a lot of programs and issues that need attention in Indian Country on hold, such as roads, bridges, opioids, and more.

“Nothing is being done,” he said. “Everything is being paused. There is not one single thing we’re doing up here in Washington D.C. except trying to impeach the president of the United States for the last six weeks. They’re going to continue this shame of a process all the way through December it looks like.”

But there were people in the public viewing seats who didn’t think this was a “shame of a process.” It particular after Marie Yovanovitch testified and the gavel went down, the public stood up and applauded her courage.

We’ll see what happens next week with three public hearings. The Washington Bureau will definitely eat more and stay hydrated this time around while everyone outside the Ways and Means room watches with popcorn in hand.

Below you will find recaps of the hearings, who the witnesses are and any noteworthy moments and interactions between committee members and those who testified.

Wednesday: Hearing One (Nov.13)

Who: William “Bill” Taylor, Acting U.S. Envoy To Ukraine and George Kent, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs.

What Happened: Both men have had long careers in foreign service on behalf of the United States and each have served under both Republican and Democrat administrations. Additionally, during each of their respective opening statements, Taylor and Kent spoke to the importance Ukraine has to the national interests and security of the United States.

“Europe’s security and prosperity contributed to our security and prosperity,” Kent said at one point. “Support of Ukrainian success also fits squarely into our strategy for central and eastern Europe since the fall of the [Berlin] wall 30 years ago this past week.”

Throughout the hearing, Republican members of the committee stuck to main GOP talking points. They called the depositions and hearing process unfair, said President Trump never explicitly stated there was a “quid pro quo” and railed against their Democrat colleagues for relying on hearsay and witnesses with second or third-hand knowledge of facts they were presenting.

On multiple occasions, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio called for Chairman Adam Schiff, D-California, to bring in the anonymous whistleblower to testify to the committee behind closed doors. Jordan also alleged that Schiff and his staff were the only people in Congress to know the whistleblowers identity, which Schiff denied.

At one point during the five-minute questioning session amongst the committee, Jordan asked Chairman Schiff to bring “the person who started all of this” in front of the committee to testify, referring to the anonymous whistleblower. A moment after the comment, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, retorted that President Trump is welcome to testify before the committee whenever he pleases, which garnered a chuckle from the those in attendance. Watch the moment here.

Overall, not much of the testimony of the was new compared to the transcripts of their closed door depositions.

All things considered, the hearing lacked any true blockbuster moments and despite a few tense back-and-forths between committee members, the hearing was rather civil. Although, the hearings importance can’t be understated. This hearing was historic and a step forward in the newest phase of the impeachment inquiry into the president.

The impeachment hearing can be rewatched in its entirety, here.

Friday: Hearing Two (Nov.15)

Who: Marie Yovanovitch, former United States Ambassador to Ukraine.

What Happened: Yovanovitch served in the foreign service for 33 years. She was the only ambassador to be mentioned in the July 25 call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.

In the transcript, the president said to Zelensky of Yovanovitch that “She’s going to go through some things.” During the hearing she said it sounded like a threat to her.

Today, she told Americans of what the State Department and U.S. foreign policy relationship looked like recently. As the Washington Post put it, this relationship was “held hostage by the whims of the president.”

The former ambassador was trying to get support from the State Department but they told her it could be “undermined.” The State Department was afraid that “the president might issue a tweet contradicting that.”

She also held the leadership in the State Department accountable. When the smear campaign happened.

“I remain disappointed that the department’s leadership and others have declined to acknowledge that the attacks against me and others are dangerously wrong,” she said.

Then there was the two tweets from the president that came in real time during the hearing. Trump said, “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad.” He referred to her foreign service career in different countries.

The committee Yovanovitch the opportunity to respond to the tweets and called them “very intimidating.”

Later, Trump said, “I’m allowed to speak up.”

In the end, Rep. Denny Heck left the room and America with a lingering question (and his anger) that perhaps many wonder about too.

“In fact, I’m angry about how it is the most powerful person on the face of the Earth would remove you from office after your stellar service and somehow feel compelled to characterize you as ‘bad news’ and to ominously threaten that you’re going to ‘go through some things,’” he said. “So I am angry, but I’m not surprised.”

You can watch the entire impeachment hearing here. There will be three public hearings next week. 

Comments (2)
Horsecreek Steve
Horsecreek Steve

As Native American Indians we have to work with both political parties. There are checks and balances on the government as well as public opinion working through the representatives of Congress. This country is in sad shape if people are guilty until proven innocent. Nothing of what is going on in the House is right. Especially when it is not bipartisan and you see both sides of what is going on.