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Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

The mood was cheery as Donald Trump Jr. took the stage this week at an outdoor rally in Arizona marking the launch of a Native Americans for Trump coalition.

Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer led the crowd in a chant of “Yeego, Trump!” which roughly translates to “Way to go,” as he introduced the president’s eldest son.

Trump Jr. reminisced about camping and fly-fishing in the region, and described a meeting with several Native elders when he first arrived in the state.

“It was so awesome from a group that has been tied to the Democratic Party, a party that has left them and taken them for granted, shipping their jobs to China,” he said.

Donald Trump Jr. speaks to the crowd Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, at the Williams, Arizona, rodeo grounds. (Photo by Carina Dominguez, Indian Country Today)
From left, Navajo siblings Roland Denetso, Shauntay Denetso and Tyler Denetso, members of the Standing Horse Dancers. (Photo by Carina Dominguez, Indian Country Today)

According to the National Congress of American Indians, more than 60 percent of Native people vote Democratic.

A soon-to-be-released survey of 6,400 Native Americans across the country found only about 7 percent identified as Republicans. The remainder identified as independents and Democratic socialists, according to the Indigenous Futures Survey, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley, in partnership with the Center for Native American Youth, IllumiNative and the Native Organizers Alliance.

It’s those kinds of figures that make gatherings like the one held Thursday in Williams, west of Flagstaff, so meaningful for people like Robin Briggman, Hopi, of Sedona, a lifelong Republican and President Donald Trump supporter.

“It was very exciting and so great to be in a group of people who are all on the same page,” said Briggman, 64. “It makes my heart feel happy. It made me smile.”

Briggman expressed confidence that under Trump’s leadership, Native people can expand infrastructures and business on reservations that will help provide jobs and homes.

Robin Briggman, Hopi (Video by Carina Dominguez, Indian Country Today) 

“Once our kids finish school, they leave and they don’t come back because there are no jobs. I’m worried that our traditional ways will be lost,” she said.

Roughly 200 Native and non-Native Trump supporters attended the rally, where cowboy hats seemed to outnumber masks. Republican U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee, of Oklahoma, joined Lizer in firing up the crowd with chants of “Four more years!” A phalanx of American and Arizona state flags lined the stage, flapping smartly in the breeze.

Some of Trump’s other prominent Native supporters include Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, Chickasaw, of Oklahoma; Crow Tribal Chairman Alvin Not Afraid Jr.; Karen Bedonie, former U.S. congressional candidate for New Mexico; and Elisa Martinez, former Republican candidate for U.S. Senate for New Mexico.

Lizer previously endorsed Trump during the Republican National Convention, and Not Afraid at a Montana campaign event attended by Vice President Mike Pence.

A GOP rally held Monday afternoon in Belgrade, Montana included Vice President Mike Pence and Crow Tribal Chairman Alvin Not Afraid, Jr., among others. (Photo from Mike Pence, Twitter)

Yet not all Native Trump supporters are quite so vocal.

Briggman was one of a handful contacted by Indian Country Today who agreed to speak on the record; several others shared experiences of being shamed and attacked by family, friends and other Native people for choosing to support Trump and his policies. One source later changed her mind about being named as a source over fears of negative responses.

Common threads among supporters included a sense of mistrust and betrayal by Democratic politicians and the press, estrangement from mainstream politics and weariness with the stagnant nature of social and economic growth in Native communities.

Overall, they maintained Trump has done more for Native people than any other president. All sources credited Trump with creating jobs and improving the economy, the leading reasons for their endorsements.

President Donald Trump speaks from the South Lawn of the White House on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Gains cited

The Biden-Harris campaign has actively targeted Native voters in recent weeks, hiring a national tribal engagement director and holding a string of virtual outreach events. This month, Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris visited with tribal leaders in Arizona and released a detailed plan to uphold federal trust responsibilities with tribes by addressing health disparities, restoring tribal lands and providing economic opportunities.

While the Trump campaign has released no such plan, his supporters say he has already done much for Indian Country.

Michael Woestehoff, Navajo, regularly writes about it at Medium for his blog, Natives United.

Woestehoff cites the creation of the Presidential Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives; the signing of the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act; the awarding of over $273 million through the Justice Department to improve public safety and serve crime victims in American Indian and Alaska Native communities; the signing of a bill granting federal recognition to six tribes in Virginia — the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Monacan and Nansemond — as well as the Montana Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians; and other accomplishments.

“Reelecting President Trump will ensure better economic opportunities, safer communities, and a healthy environment for Indian Country and all tribal generations for generations to come,” Woestehoff wrote in Medium.

The U.S. Indian Affairs Twitter account posted a tweet and photo of Ivanka Trump visiting an opening of an MMIW cold case office. Trump has received criticism from Native leaders and other groups that the event was phony and a photo op. (Indian Affairs Twitter)

'Stop playing the victim'

Among the more outspoken, far-right Native Trump supporters online is Joseph Cody, 31, of the Yankton Sioux Tribe and Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. He calls himself “The Native Conservative.”

Cody lives near Tulsa, Oklahoma, and supports himself through the sale of merchandise from his various social media sites, including a YouTube channel and podcast espousing his beliefs and politics as a Native American political conservative. He has nearly 6,000 combined followers.

A lifelong Democrat, Cody registered as a Republican in 2018. “I figured out I was being lied to by the media and other people in general,” he said.

According to Cody, most media and the entertainment industry in the U.S. are controlled by George Soros and a small group of like-minded leftists with an agenda to spread socialism globally and promote homosexuality and transgenderism.

Cody describes life on reservations as a system of failed socialism that has served to keep Native people dependent on government programming and handouts. Overregulated by the federal government, Native people are excluded from individual property ownership and discouraged from engaging in entrepreneurship by excessive federal and tribal red tape, he said.

Joseph Cody, aka the Native Conservative, supports Donald Trump for president. (Photo courtesy Joseph Cody)
Jeremiah Mackay hosts the Facebook page, "Native Americans for Trump." (Photo courtesy Jeremiah Mackay)

Jeremiah Mackay, who is affiliated with the Navajo tribe and Taos and Santa Maria Pueblos, manages a Facebook group called “Native Americans for Trump,” with about 3,800 followers and a Twitter account under the same name with about 3,400 followers. According to Mackay, he had more than 30,000 followers before Twitter banned his account, @shisandayNDE, without explanation.

He believes the current racial divide and claims of entrenched racism have been largely created by inaccurate media reports.

“People say that White people owe the Black man and Native people for things that happened 400 years ago. You don’t owe anybody anything; you weren’t alive,” he said.

Raised in California's Coachella Valley, Mackay now lives in Las Vegas and works as a bartender.

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“It’s time people stop playing the victim, get off their asses and do something with their lives,” he said.

Cody and Mackay both cited Trump’s Operation Lady Justice Task Force and what they described as his groundbreaking work addressing the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis.

Pictured: Navajo Nation Vice President Lizer joined other tribal leaders and President Trump for signing of missing and murdered Indigenous persons executive order.

President Barack Obama also passed legislation and created a task force aimed at investigating the MMIW problem, including reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, a law that has not been reauthorized during the Trump administration. In 2016, the Obama administration commissioned research by the National Institute of Justice to explore underlying reasons for high rates of violence against Native and Alaska Native women, sex trafficking in Indian Country, the impact of the growing oil industry’s impact on violence against Native women.

Obama in 2010 also signed the Tribal Law and Order Act, which ensures tribes have access to law enforcement databases, hiring more law enforcement for Indian lands and emphasizing decreasing violence against Native and Alaska Native women.

'Long Walk in Socialism'

Lately, more conservative Republicans have been using the term “socialism” to describe much that is wrong in Indian Country.

The recently created film “A Long Walk in Socialism” provides insight into the use of this buzzword as a catchall for failings of reservation-based social and political systems that disempower and disenfranchise Native Americans from accessing the American dream.

“A Long Walk in Socialism” offers the following definition of socialism: “A political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole, a transitional social state between the overthrow of capitalism and the realization of communism.”

The film, created and funded by Turning Point USA, features Karen Bedonie and Elisa Martinez, both of the Navajo tribe.

Trump Rally 1 - New Mexico 2019 - Navajo Rancher
Karen Bedonie-crop

In it, Bedonie frames federal social welfare programming and the trust relationship with tribes as liberalism that functions as a stepping stone to socialism that eventually will lead to communism.

In the end, this brand of reservation socialism contributes to a culture of victimhood versus self-sufficiency, leading to despair and the escalation of drug abuse, suicide and other social ills.

Martinez said tribal governments control commerce; the federal trust relationship prevents and de-incentivizes private property ownership.

According to the Washington Post, Turning Point USA and its affiliate Turning Point Action, pays minors to send out messages that are pro-Trump and support conservative points of view and values via social media. The Washington Post characterizes Turning Point as a “troll farm,” an organization that distributes misinformation.

During his speech at the Republican Convention, Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point described comparisons of his organization to troll farms as a “gross mischaracterization.”

Turning Point USA did not respond to Indian Country Today’s email request for comment.

The Navajo Times reported that Turning Point USA paid for a massive “Navajos for Trump” campaign complete with half-page ads in the Times, a banner ad on the newspaper’s website, as well as large billboards on the reservation displaying the words, “Navajos for Trump.”

Navajo Times reporter Cindy Yurth wrote, “It’s unclear if the Navajos for Trump referenced in the ads are real or a creation of a national political action committee.”

The idea of socialism as an ideological onramp to communism is a page from the ultra-conservative political playbook emphasizing free enterprise, individual liberty, limited government control or regulation, and the belief that government programming that provides services and opportunities for the poor encourage dependence.

Screen Shot 2019-11-20 at 4.29.35 PM

Eliminating the federal government’s trust responsibility with tribes, however, would free the government from treaty obligations to protect Native lands, provide health care and other services, according to the National Congress of American Indians.

O.J. Semans of the Rosebud Sioux tribe and executive director of Four Directions, a Native voting rights advocacy organization, told Indian Country Today in a previous article, “Let’s be honest, if the United States honored their treaties as they were written years ago, we wouldn’t need their assistance.”

Semans blames the chronic underfunding of federal treaty responsibilities, rather than socialism, as underlying problems in Indian Country.

‘Conservative to the core’

There is no ignoring the impact of excessive, confusing governmental red tape and regulations in deterring economic development on reservations, according to Shawn Redd.

Redd, Navajo, is a lifelong Republican. Redd ran unsuccessfully for U.S. representative in Arizona’s First District in 2016 as well as president of the Navajo Nation in 2018.

Redd ran several businesses on the Navajo reservation, including auto parts stores and a laundromat.

“We can’t continue to exist in a communist state where the government owns and controls everything. We need to open up the reservation and start some economic development,” he said.

Shawn Redd, Navajo, is a lifelong Republican. He ran unsuccessfully for U.S. representative in Arizona’s first district as well as president of the Navajo Nation in 2018. (Photo courtesy Shawn Redd)

Redd laments a lack of restaurants, hotels and other facilities for tourists on the reservation.

“We’ve got a huge tourism demand that is being unmet; tourists have to work with businesses off the reservation. They get bussed in and bussed out,” he said.

Redd admits there are few Navajo Republicans who think as he does.

“I get teased a bit for my politics. I’m often introduced as Shawn Redd, the Republican,” Redd said.

According to Redd however, Navajos align more with conservative values than they may realize.

“Navajo people are very conservative by nature. They believe in a lot of things that the Republican platform embraces, such as strong family ties, self-reliance and liberty,” he said.

Cody agrees.

“Natives are traditional, and through our heritage, we are already conservative to the core, making Trump a perfect fit for our beliefs and politics,” he said.

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Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.

Indian Country Today newscast correspondent Carina Dominguez, Pascua Yaqui, contributed to this report.

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