Slade Gorton 'collided' on tribal sovereignty

Former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton, center, is introduced at a fundraiser for Republican Senate candidate Mike McGavick in Bellevue, Wash. Gorton, who served in the Washington Legislature, and as state attorney general before he became a three-term U.S. senator, has died. He was 92. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Mark Trahant

The senator was one of Indian Country’s most relentless critics; he has died at 92

Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

Slade Gorton, one of Indian Country’s most relentless critics, died Wednesday. He was 92 years old.

Gorton was the attorney general for Washington state and argued against and lost United States v. Washington, the case known as the Boldt Decision. The Supreme Court affirmed the treaty rights of tribes to fish for salmon in usual and accustomed places.

Gorton continued his opposition to tribal sovereignty and treaty rights after his 1980 election to the U.S. Senate. He tried to use the appropriations process to strip tribes of governmental authority, shift federal dollars away from wealthier tribes and rewrite the historical government-to-government relationship.

“Gorton was our toughest opponent,” said Ron Allen, former president of the National Congress of American Indians. “He made us better, smarter and more savvy. ... He cared about the salmon and the environment and said the tribes should play a role. But when it came to sovereignty issues, we collided time and again.”

Gorton used his Senate positions, especially on the Appropriations Committee, to limit the exercise of tribal sovereignty. He supported the idea that tribes should determine the affairs of members but disagreed with the notion of tribes as governments, especially objecting to authority over non-Indians.

“Over time, Gorton settled into the style of the Senate, where tone trumps content most days of the week,” wrote Indian Country Today columnist Suzan Harjo. “He began using the scalpel more than the machete, but was ever-focused on his task: undercutting federal Indian law. He was gaining surgical precision, along with seniority and clout on key committees for energy and natural resources, budget and commerce, science and transportation.”

Another Indian Country Today columnist, John Mohawk, wrote that Gorton was an "anti-Indian activist all his political life.”

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Tribes raised money to defeat Slade Gorton in his 2000 bid for re-election. (Indian Country Today photo)

In the 2000 election, Joe DeLaCruz, then president of the Quinault Nation, announced that tribes would do whatever was necessary to defeat Gorton. Indeed, tribes raised money, worked with coalitions, and made a public case against him. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer cited treaty rights as the primary reason in its endorsement of now Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington. 

Gorton died Wednesday in Seattle, said J. Vander Stoep, his former chief of staff.

Gorton was the Chicago-born scion of the New England frozen fish family. His four-decade-plus political career began in 1958 when he won a legislative seat soon after arriving in Seattle as a freshly minted lawyer.

He went on to serve as state attorney general, a three-term U.S. senator and member of the 9/11 Commission — the last of which he considered the singular achievement of his life in public service.

Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, who overlapped with Gorton in the Senate, said they didn’t always agree, but still worked together to strengthen clean-up efforts at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, toughen pipeline safety standards and expand health care for children.

Murray praised how Gorton “anchored his leadership in honesty and honor,” such as when he bucked his party to support the National Endowment for the Arts, collaborated with Democrats on the conduct of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, and supported the impeachment of President Trump.

“Throughout his career in both Washingtons, Slade defied convenient labels and stood on principle — we need more leaders in our country like Slade,” Murray said in an emailed statement.

Former Republican Gov. Dan Evans called Gorton an intellectual giant and a strategic thinker who helped define the GOP in Washington state during a time when the party could still prevail in major, state-wide contests.

He was an independent thinker who believed in individual freedom and who distrusted concentrated power, former staff members recalled in a written tribute provided Wednesday.

They noted his willingness to take on entrenched leaders and institutions: He called on Exxon’s CEO to resign after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and he fought automakers for improved fuel standards.

He was first elected to the Senate in 1980. He won three terms. He rose in Senate seniority and was appointed to the leadership circle by then-Majority Leader Trent Lott.

By 2000, Gorton was 72 and looking over his shoulder at a challenger 30 years his junior: Democratic dot-com millionaire Maria Cantwell, who was born the same year Gorton was first elected to office. She borrowed a page from his playbook, insisting the race wasn’t about age but about “a 19th-century view of where we need to be.”

Gorton did not retire, but continued serving in roles on numerous civic boards and campaigns — most notably the 9/11 Commission.

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Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @TrahantReports. Trahant is based in Phoenix. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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