Panel makes the case for tribal sovereignty at national conservative conference

Andrew Howard

There is too much 'paperwork on paperwork on paperwork,' says Rep. Markwayne Mullin

Cronkite News

WASHINGTON – The audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference had heard the message of low taxes and local control from speakers before.

But they had never heard it from one group of speakers who showed up Thursday to the annual gathering: Tribal citizens who called for less government oversight on reservations and greater tribal sovereignty.

“Try to build a road in a national park,” said Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Oklahoma, and a member of the Cherokee Nation. “Try to put a Denny’s in a national park. It doesn’t happen.”

He and others said that’s because excessive government bureaucracy in Indian Country makes it all but impossible for tribes to push infrastructure and economic development projects in light of the “barriers put in place.”

“Paperwork on paperwork on paperwork” that Mullin said gets in the way of what could otherwise be an economic engine driven by natural resources in Indian Country.

“We can’t achieve that financial freedom because … I have to ask Big Brother for permission,” he said.

Dwight Witherspoon, a legislative assistant to Navajo Council Speaker Seth Damon, said tribes and conservatives have to recognize their “commonality, because it absolutely does exist.”

While that may be, James Adakai said there are other concerns that Native voters need to keep in mind. Adakai, a Navajo who is chairman of the Democratic Party in San Juan County, Utah, points to environmental policy.

Dwight Witherspoon, a member of the Navajo Nation, told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference that conservatives and Native Americans have similar values. (Photo: Keerthi Vedantam/Cronkite News)

“There are a lot of values we share as a Democratic Party with the indigenous communities, starting with protecting lands and protecting the Earth,” said Adakai, who described himself as a lifelong Democrat. “It’s not perfect but it comes close to our beliefs.”

Adakai criticized what he called a Republican approach to the environment that prioritizes oil and gas drilling.

“The land is the way of life to Native American communities and the Republican agenda, when they look at the land, is they want to extract it for mineral development. Whereas from a Native perspective we want to preserve the land,” he said.

In Congress, there’s an even split between Native American members. Democratic Reps. Sharice Davids of Kansas and Deb Haaland of New Mexico made headlines when they became the first Native American women elected to Congress last year. But they joined two Republicans, Mullin and fellow Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole.

That shouldn’t be surprising, said Brandon Ashley, a Navajo who serves as a senior policy adviser for Sen. John Hoeven, R-North Dakota.

“A lot of this stuff is kind of the basis of what conservatism is all about,” Ashley said of the topics covered Thursday at CPAC. “Being self-reliant … less government regulations.”

Gavin Clarkson, a New Mexico politician and member of the Choctaw Nation, said tribes face other government challenges, like businesses having to pay both federal and tribal taxes.

“For example, there’s not Walmart on the Navajo Nation,” Clarkson said after the CPAC discussion. “The dual taxation and the oppressive federation regulation makes it impossible to do business on the reservation relative to doing it off the reservation.”

He echoed the panelists who said Native Americans have much to gain from supporting Republican-backed causes and vice versa.

“A lot of people at CPAC don’t fully understand that tribal sovereignty and private property rights are two sides of the same conservative coin,” Clarkson said. “Unfortunately, far too much of Indian Country supports Democrats even though it’s against their sovereign interests.”

That’s puzzling to Mullin.

“How does Indian Country line up with conservatives? We’re fighting for the same things,” he said.

And Clarkson, who ran for Congress in New Mexico's 2nd district, said the Native American vote cannot be ignored.

“New Mexico has a large Native population. Arizona has a large Native population,” he said. “We need to educate each other and work together.”

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Comments (4)
No. 1-3

There is no such thing as "native peoples"! There are 565-plus separate Indian Nations (legit) and Indian Governments that represent 565-plus indian peoples that have varying views and with varying Indian Nation Flags. Mark Trahant (as an employee of the debacle NCAI-organization) represents SPECIAL INTEREST groups as those Indian Gaming Corporate Tribes with opposite Agendas!


Fake sovereignty should not be confused with actual sovereignty.

When a tribe admits that the U.S. government determines what it can do then it has fake sovereignty, and tribe members who join that group get fake sovereignty.

Some few Native tribes are working apart from the U.S. government to create their own currencies and restore their lands and languages. That is sovereignty. They don't ask 'permission' from their 'owner', they quietly strategize to rebuild what was destroyed.


Let's not be delusional. Freedom, states' rights, and local sovereignty are merely sales pitches by the Republican Party, code words for no rules and no restrictions to exploit people and resources for profit. Not for a minute would they put some notion of tribal sovereignty above their desire for money. The line from the gold that led to the Trail of Tears, the Thieves' Road in the Black Hills, and the Long Walk of the Navajo is a straight line to the Dakota Access Pipeline. They will look at any overtures by friendly Natives as nothing but an opportunity for further exploitation.