Pulling no punches and making history: John McCain's legacy in Indian Affairs
Suzan Shown Harjo.
Twenty years before his own passing four days before his 82nd birthday, Senator John Sidney McCain, III eulogized fellow Arizonan Barry Morris Goldwater (1909-1998), and his first sentence could have opened a McCain tribute: “The best thing that can ever be said of anyone is that they served a cause greater than their self-interest.”
McCain said his predecessor in the United States Senate “put his country and our founding ideals before himself, and we never had a better champion…Barry Goldwater served America, all of America….He served freedom -- a cause greater than, but encompassing his self-interest.”
Seven months later, he eulogized another son of Arizona, Morris King Udall (1922-1998), and many statements echoed in commemorations of McCain himself in 2018: “He knew glorious victories and bitter defeats, serene contentment and profound suffering…. Mo was never known to be moved by flattery, puffed by tribute, or impressed by his own success. He knew that a man is only as great as the cause he serves -- a cause that should be greater than himself.”
Udall was in his tenth year as Chairman of the Interior & Insular Affairs Committee when McCain was elected to the House of Representatives in 1983, and the elder man of the House enlisted the younger one to the work for Indian rights.
“While most remembrances of Mo focus on his grace, humor, and environmental leadership,” said Udall’s eulogist McCain, “perhaps understated is what he did for Native Americans. When very few cared enough, Mo Udall toiled in an often fruitless and thankless vineyard on Indian issues. Moved by their desperate poverty; duty bound to honor the dignity of the first Americans and the solemn commitments made to them, Mo took up their just cause. He didn't do it for praise or recognition, he did it because it was the right thing to do.”
Representative McCain’s earliest Native rights work
In 1999, McCain addressed the National Congress of American Indians Convention, saying, “With Mo's leadership and encouragement, I began what has been in many respects the most fascinating and rewarding part of my time in the Congress.”
During his four years in the House, McCain supported numerous Indian affairs laws, beginning with the last months of the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1983, which I worked on as lead lobbyist with Pawnee director John E. Echohawk of the Native American Rights Fund and its counsel for the Pequot Tribe Thomas N. Tureen. McCain spoke of the experience with fondness, laughing about Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-Massachusetts) calling up the bill for passage as the “Paraquat Act” and taking special delight in the fact that the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe turned a $900,000 lawsuit settlement into the world’s largest casino.
McCain also supported the Indian Tribal Governmental Tax Status Act of 1983 and 1985, which I worked on with Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver, Kampelman partners R. Sargent Shriver and Cheyenne lawyer W. Richard West, Jr. McCain liked that we were with the law firm of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Interior Solicitor Felix Cohen. He admired the eloquence of the “Indian New Deal” lawyer, often quoting him: "Like the miner's canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere: and our treatment of Indians reflects the rise and fall in our democratic faith."
McCain’s work on the Native rights legislative agenda also intersected with my work as NCAI executive director, from the start of 1984 to the end of 1989, and as president of The Morning Star Institute from 1984 on, and he was an invaluable champion and a solution-oriented policymaker.
Known on Capitol Hill as a contrarian, those of us from Native traditions of tricksters and coyotes recognized him simply as a Contrary, a culture figure so much a part of Native lifeways that many customary practices involve opposite advocacy and tests by argument. One present-day tribal council even has a functional position called “Critic.”
McCain the Contrary once joined forces with Representatives Dick Cheney (R-Wyoming) and Doug Bereuter (R-Nebraska) to insist that the Interior Committee could not make any more reservations. While playing to anti-Indian sentiments among their constituents, they were not against Native Peoples – just against the word “reservation.” They supported land restorations and recognitions with the same Indian country legal characteristics as reservations, but they did not want the actual word to be used, and it is missing in some fad policymaking of the time.
Chairman Udall convinced them to forego the “reservation” cosmetology and to support, for example, the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and Alabama and Coushatta Indian Tribes of Texas Restoration Act of 1987, in which “reservation” is prominent, and McCain supported the final version when he went to the Senate.
Indian Gaming Act and opponents of tribal sovereignty
McCain was in high contrary during the House hearings leading up to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, and in his oversight and legislative work on the issues long after its enactment. As NCAI spokesperson, my main role in the overall gaming issue was to stress that Native Nations had the right to have gaming businesses because of inherent sovereignty and did not need outside permission, which was in litigation and opposed by states and others with gambling income.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the Native position in 1987, ruling that the Cabazon and Morongo Bands of Mission Indians’ inherent sovereignty was the foundation of their businesses and that California was not the authority or source. A tremendous backlash ensued, complete with rumors of organized crime in Indian country, largely manufactured by gambling competitors nationwide, including Atlantic City casino owner Donald J. Trump.
McCain repeated the rumors of widespread mob activity on reservations in an open hearing, yelling at me because I made the opposite point and put on the hearing record an hours-old FBI investigative report stating that it found no evidence of corruption in tribal gaming. He later apologized to me, but not on the public record, and I accepted his regret as sincere, and it almost took away the sting.
Later, in the Senate, McCain berated the Oneida director of the National Indian Gaming Association, Ernie Stevens, Jr., for laying out the actual background of state and private forces that led from the Native court victory to the states’ hefty cut of tribal profits in the 1988 gaming act. Stevens’ account differed from the stipulated truth of the law’s legislative history. Attacking Stevens as if he were a religious heretic, McCain demanded to know the source of his information and scoffed when the witness said, “My elders.”
Contrary McCain, in fending off anti-tribal gaming forces in 1993, told the Senate Indian panel that “the fears which have been raised over the years about the infiltration of Indian gaming by organized crime are false and unfounded.”
He quoted from 1992 testimony of Justice’s witness that “there has not been a widespread or successful effort by organized crime to infiltrate Indian gaming operations (and) there has been little evidence of criminal activity committed by criminal elements not associated with the major organized crime families. The simple fact of the matter is that there has been very little criminal activity associated with Indian gaming. In large part the reason for this has been the vigilance of the tribal governments. They know…that any criminal activity will ruin their chances to make gaming the viable economic activity which it has shown it can be on so many Indian reservations.”
McCain also quoted Udall’s House floor statement prior to passage of the 1988 gaming act: “Indian tribes, using treaties we forced upon them…sued to vindicate their right to self-government, so jealously guarded by them and so solemnly promised by us. They went to our courts to fight for their right to engage in gaming activities without hindrance by State governments. And they won. In the economic wasteland of the reservations that we have fostered, some of the tribes have found a small ray of hope for…better health, better education, better jobs, a better future. But we can't permit that. Powerful economic forces have mobilized to ensure that it does not happen.”
McCain spoke against legislative proposals that would give states control over tribal gaming because of a “law enforcement crisis in Indian gaming….There is no law enforcement crisis.” He quoted from his views in the Senate Indian committee’s report on the 1988 gaming act: “As the debate unfolded, it became clear” that the states’ “true interest was protection of their own games from a new source of economic competition....States and the gaming industry have always come to the table with the position that what is theirs is theirs and what the Tribes have is negotiable.”
He closed with Udall’s 1988 words: “I must oppose legislation damaging to Indian self-government and Indian rights. It may be that an intransigent non-Indian gaming industry has the economic power and political muscle to shove state rule over Indian governments down the throat of the tribes or to simply destroy the right by a federal ban. But it will be done without my consent and without my support.”
Contrary McCain pulled no punches in dealing with real estate mogul Trump on the record when he attempted to undo tribal gaming law. And, he didn’t shirk responsibility as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to expose lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his public and private cohorts for bilking Native Nations out of more than $80 million for illegal “pay-to-play” political gifts and campaign donations, shoddy representation and unethical methods to eliminate tribal competitors, sometimes representing both sides at the same time to drive up Team Abramoff’s fees.
I always appreciated that McCain supported Native rights when we had no money (as remains the case with most of us), and when all we could offer was the opportunity to be a statesman. He continued to his last year to help Native Peoples who did not have the good fortune of gambling or any other lucrative enterprise.
Indian Health Care, from 1984 in the House to thumbs down in the Senate
Among the first and last bills McCain worked on was high on Udall’s priority list, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act of 1976, as amended in 1980, which was set to expire in 1984, shortly after McCain’s arrival in the House.
He also made lasting friendships with policymakers across the aisle, including two who were key to his work on health issues and the entire Native rights legislative agenda, Senators Joe Biden (D-Delaware) and Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts). Their lives were intertwined around the rare type of brain cancer that took the life of Biden’s son Beau, Kennedy and McCain. McCain died on the same date as Kennedy had six years earlier.
The main purpose of the Indian Health Care Act was to raise the health status of Native Peoples to a level comparable to that of the general U.S. population. Federal data showed then and shows now that Native health is poorer than the general population, with higher rates of diabetes, influenza, pneumonia, tuberculosis and other diseases; and with infant mortality, teenage suicide and overall morbidity off the charts in comparison with other segments of society.
McCain worked with Udall on a number of short extensions and then on health care amendments of 1987, which was one of the first bills McCain championed in the upper chamber. He worked with many others to lift the sunset provision on the Indian health law, which was made permanent in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.
I have no doubt that part of the senator’s reason for his dramatic thumbs-down vote in 2017 against undoing the affordable care law was that the Indian health law would be wiped out with it. That vote helped every Native family and all Americans who are ill, infirm and poor, and McCain is rightly celebrated for it.
But, his vote’s derision seems an obsessive default position in the White House these days. And, the world was aghast that its occupants, so quick to tweet and wrap themselves in the flag in the service of bigotry, would be so very slow to lower its mighty symbol to mark the passing of a lifelong military and civilian veteran being mourned as a valiant public servant and hero.
Even heroes have their heroes
McCain had his heroes, too. He often spoke of his admiration for two Native military strategists and leaders, Chief Joseph, Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, Nez Perce Wallowa Band; and Geronimo, Goyathlay, Warm Springs Chiricahua and Mescalero Apache. He studied their brilliance, as had his namesake father and grandfather, both four-star admirals, at the U.S. Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Maryland, which now is his final resting place.
I had to disagree (well, argue) with McCain about one of his hero choices, President Theodore Roosevelt, who rivals President Andrew Jackson for the distinction of most anti-Indian racist of all the past presidents. McCain loved Roosevelt’s bully attitude and actions as a conservationist, as do many. What he didn’t know was that Roosevelt set policy that bullied Native children with unspeakable tortures in federal boarding school and bullied their families with the Civilization Regulationsthat criminalized Native traditions, ceremonies, cultures and people.
Roosevelt bullied Native Peoples with reservation lockdowns that did not allow for travel to burial grounds or any of the sacred places that were declared in the public domain, because they were “not being used,” and confiscated these places of prayer that are the public lands system for which #26 is so revered today.
But, McCain gets no quarrel from me about his congressional heroes, Goldwater and Udall. Goldwater was the first senator who ever told me his reasons for supporting Native rights: 1) the example of his mother, who took him to visit Hopi land and people, and where he was in awe of the customs and even received a ceremonial marking from the Kiva men; and 2) the U.S. Constitution, which all senators, representatives and federal and state legislative, executive and judicial officers vow to uphold, and which mandates that “all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land….” (Article Six, Supremacy Clause)
Goldwater had served in the Senate for five terms -- 1953-1987 with a break to run for president -- when he retired and McCain won his seat and inherited his desk. McCain would follow in Goldwater’s steps as chair of the Armed Services Committee and as a six-term senator active in Indian Affairs legislation. Both Udall and McCain followed Goldwater with unsuccessful bids for the White House, leading Udall to say that in Arizona “mothers no longer tell their children that some day they can grow up and be President of the United States.”
Udall did so much good for Native Peoples that I was moved to tell him so in public, in the hearing where he announced that his Parkinson’s disease would not permit him to continue to serve. I told him he was our Atticus Finch on the Hill and he began to cry. One churlish staffer told me afterward that I was wrong to make him cry in public, but I don’t think his boss would have liked that.
Udall was influenced by his mother to respect Native cultures and rights and introduced him in his formative years to Hopi people and ways, which were subjects of a book she authored. He understood Native protocol and priorities, and instructed McCain to always remember the Indians.
American Indian Religious Freedom and Repatriation laws
Udall and Goldwater were two of the champions of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, a policy to override the half-century of civilization practices that killed some of our finest leaders and drove Native religions and languages underground, some never to reemerge. Goldwater and Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) were its conservative and liberal bookend sponsors. Their stamp on protection for traditional American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Aleut religions and collective rights, as well as for religious freedom and the rights of Native persons, made it possible for all other senators to place themselves inside the Goldwater-Kennedy political spectrum and support the act, too.
Udall carried the religious freedom act in the House and protected it from Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Foley (D-Washington), who was going to kill it for the Forest Service, which was keeping Native practitioners from accessing ceremonial grounds in Northern California so a private logging road could be built there. Udall correctly pointed out that the act was a declaration of U.S. policy to protect and preserve Native traditional religions and religious freedom, but that it was not a specific cause of action for sacred sites, and Foley did not make the objection that would have kept it from becoming law. Udall committed to amending the law later, but the time was never right.
When I met McCain in 1982, he reminded me that we had met once before, at the Pentagon, in 1978, when I was briefing Navy Deputy Under Secretary Mitzi Wertheim and her staff on the process and schedule for the religious freedom act’s implementation; the agencies’ consultations, reviews and recommendations; and President Jimmy Carter’s report to Congress on religious freedom, which was provided in 1979. Wertheim, the first woman to hold that high position in the Navy, was a member of the 50-plus federal agency task force that I was coordinating.
McCain was the Navy’s Liaison to the Senate. I was a Carter political appointee and had served on his campaign and coordinated his meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with tribal leaders the week before his election. Candidate Carter made commitments to what became his Indian legislative agenda: child welfare, land and water rights, tribal colleges and other acts, including a promise to sign the religious freedom act, which had met resistance in the Justice Department, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the Nixon and Ford Administrations.
The Navy was the best of all the agencies for Native consultations, response time and actions, a fact I testified to and repeated often. McCain wondered if I said that because the President was a Navy man. I had not, but I wondered if Under Secretary Wertheim and her crew were such go-getters on the law because they wanted to do a good job for the Navy man in the White House.
At the Naval Air Weapons Station in the Mohave Desert at China Lake, California, the Navy weighed national security interests and religious freedom interests, and accommodated access to Coso Hot Springs (a spiritual center for healing and restoring life) and other Paiute and Shoshone ancestral lands and sacred places, which are part of an ongoing effort to protect and repatriate.
The Navy also accommodated Native Hawaiian access to their sacred places at Kaho’olawe Island, Hawaii, a military bombing target since WWII. The Navy began to clear unexploded ordinances and to plant trees in 1981; President George H.W. Bush ended live-fire training in 1990; and a Defense commission transferred the Island to Hawaii in 1994. The Navy controlled access until environmental restoration completed in 2003, when Hawaii took control. Kaho’olawe and the ocean to the two-mile limit are reserved in perpetuity for preservation and practice of all rights customarily exercised by Native Hawaiians for cultural, spiritual and subsistence purposes, and commercial use is not permitted.
Goldwater and Udall championed follow-on legislation to the religious freedom umbrella policy, including the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989 and other repatriation languages laws, as did McCain and Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) and many others. The last sacred place law I worked on with Goldwater was the Zuni “Heaven” Reservation Act of 1984, especially to convince Navajo County to forego the $6 million payment it had sought for taking the area off its tax rolls.
Initially, our opponents to laws to protect Native burial grounds and to return Native ancestors, sacred objects and cultural patrimony, were auction houses, private collectors, most archaeologists and physical anthropologists, the Smithsonian and the “10 majors” (museums, educational institutions, agencies and other holding repositories with the largest “Indian” collections in the U.S.). As we gained traction in our negotiations in Washington, we picked up even greater opposition from collectors and financiers who wanted to acquire ownership and/or control of the vast collection of the Museum of the American Indian in New York, including the American Museum of Natural History, or who wanted to exhibit part of the MAI’s collection in their facilities, such as at Trump Tower.
As NCAI, MAI and Morning Star were making headway in Congress and with the Smithsonian on an Indian museum and repatriation policy, our opponents tried to slow us down by convincing McCain and Udall to sponsor a National Dialogue at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. The talks were not going anywhere and some of us intensified our work in D.C. to achieve the agreement with the Smithsonian, which we did, and the law was signed in November 1989. After that, we returned to the Dialogue and writing the report for Congress.
McCain held a press conference in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing room and formally received our Report of the Panel for a National Dialogue on Museums/Native American Relations (February 28, 1990) for the Committee. The scientists had disassociated themselves, by name and footnote in the final report, from the term “human remains” (presumably favoring their “scientific” terms: bones, skeletons, specimens and grave goods), but it didn’t matter. Congress accepted our legal lexicon for repatriation, including human remains, cultural patrimony and funerary and sacred objects.
Our opponents tried to convince McCain to make us define “sacred,” “ceremonial” and “object” which we would not do, because no other religions have to define sacredness or detail or itemize religious objects. McCain agreed with us. The Dialogue Report was a basic blueprint for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, which became law eight months after we delivered the Report and eleven months after enactment of the historic repatriation agreement with the Smithsonian. But, even today, 28 years later, throwbacks in some museums attempt to overwrite the law and impose conditions and tests of “sacredness” on Native Peoples.
Mount Graham’s desecration and blame all around
Following the lead of Goldwater, Udall and Inouye, McCain protected sacred places of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, Tohono O’odham Nation and others, including specific sites and viewscapes in the Grand Canyon of the Hualapai and other Tribes and Nations.
However, at the same time, he and Udall helped pave the way for the University of Arizona, the Vatican and others to build seven giant deep space telescopes of the Columbus Project atop Mount Graham in the Sonoran Desert, within U.S. Forest Service jurisdiction.
A holy landscape of the nine Apache Tribes of the Apache Nation, Dzil Nchaa Si An is where the Gaan or Mountain Spirits live and ancestral Apache rest, a place of ceremonies, medicine plants and millennial religious history. It is home to the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel, whose numbers fluctuated between 100 and 350 since the 1970s, but now only 35 are believed to be living at home and there are five in the Phoenix Zoo in a less than successful breeding project.
The Mount Graham Coalition describes the environment in this way: “The Pinaleño Mountains or Mount Graham is the tallest mountain in southern Arizona and encompasses six different life zones from the valley floor to its peak at 10,720 feet. Called a "Sky Island" ecosystem, the old growth forests at the summit are the Arizona equivalent of rainforests. The abundant springs and high altitude meadows have offered sustenance and a source of healing to Apache people who live in the desert. The cool moist characteristics of the mountain have nurtured 18 different plants and animals found nowhere else in the world.”
For decades, Apache Peoples have resisted the desecration of Dzil Nchaa Si An, the Great Sitting Mountain. The University of Arizona hired high-powered lobbyist Thomas Hale Boggs, Jr. (1940-2014), to work with then-University President Henry Koffler to hold its European and American investors and partners, and to get support from the Arizona congressional delegation. Well-liked in Washington, Boggs was from a powerful political family, the son of parents who represented Louisiana in the House for 26 years, Thomas, Sr. (1914-1972), and Lindy Boggs (1916-2013), who was President Bill Clinton’s Ambassador to the Holy See, 1997-2001, and brother to Cokie Roberts, an author, pundit and longtime gateway producer at National Public Radio.
The Vatican’s local priest in Arizona declared that the holy mountain was not sacred, which was echoed by scientists, educators and officials of the University of Arizona and the Smithsonian Institution (an early partner, along with many others that later dropped out of the Columbus project).
A San Carlos Apache leader, Buck Kitcheyan, Sr., told Boggs, McCain, Udall and others that the mountain was not holy and that Apache Peoples had no ceremonial practices or religious interest there, even though the San Carlos Tribal Council, including himself, adopted four resolutions against the Vatican’s Columbus observatory.
The Arizona delegation sponsored a 1988 “conservation” act and numerous appropriation riders in later years, directing that the Columbus telescopes would be constructed, with public permitting and funds, “notwithstanding any other provision of law.” That meant that no laws intended to protect or give voice to anyone or anything could stop the telescope project – not Native religious freedom or repatriation law; not public, private or worker health or safety; not laws for endangered species, historical, environmental, archaeological resources or fire protection.
Chairman Kitcheyan (1936-2010) told the University of Arizona, Boggs and the Arizona delegation, and anyone else who would listen, that two of the main Apache defenders of Mount Graham were lying when they testified and otherwise stated that Dzil Nchaa Si An is a holy mountain where important ceremonies mark passages of life and renewals of earth and water. He was slandering two friends of mine, both San Carlos Apache and highly respected among traditional Native Peoples: Ola Cassadore (1923-2012) and Wendsler Noise, Sr. She was a respected spiritual leader and founder of the Apache Survival Coalition. He conducts spiritual runs at Mount Graham and elsewhere, and has since served as San Carlos chair, vice chair and council member.
The Apache Coalition sued the Forest Service in 1991 to block the telescopes on religious freedom grounds, but the suit failed and ended at the appellate level in 1995.
Former Secretary of Defense and Rep. Leon Panetta (D-California) was involved in the Mount Graham issue as President Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff, 1994-1997, during the period when an increasing number of anti-environmental riders were being tacked onto funding bills and Clinton threatened to veto the appropriations unless the riders were removed. An NCAI attorney and I went to a series of White House meetings, urging that the Mount Graham rider be added to the veto-bait list. We found agreement up the chain, except with Panetta.
Boggs had gotten to Panetta first, apparently thinking the Chief of Staff was going to meet with Ola Cassadore, and warned that not only was she lying about the sacredness of the mountain, but also she was totally crazy and perhaps dangerous, none of which was true. We found that both Boggs and Kitcheyan were burning up the phones, as they had in the late-1980s (even convincing some NCAI leaders who helped them), and word spread quickly on the Hill and in the media. Many who were normally courteous behaved as if we were trying to subject them to time with the Madwoman of Chaillot. As the San Carlos elected leader, Kitcheyan’s word was given great deference.
Unbeknownst to most Apache Peoples, the San Carlos Council had ousted Kitcheyan as chair in 1990 and the Tribal Court convicted him of 14 counts of theft and embezzlement of tribal funds. Charged in federal court with one count of conspiracy and eight counts of embezzlement and theft, he entered a plea and was sentenced to prison time and restitution, but then appealed on jurisdiction grounds to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the lower court’s decision in 1995. Even through his legal woes, Kitcheyan continued to make “ceremonial” appearances for the University of Arizona, including blessing the telescopes and other parts of the construction site.
A secret source of Kitcheyan’s income came to light in the litigation’s discovery process: he was on the University of Arizona’s payroll for many years, in connection with his tenure in San Carlos government. It is not known if he was paid by others to undermine the Apache religious interest in Mount Graham, or if there were other Apache people who were paid by the University during the same time or since then. There also is no known evidence that the University, the Forest Service, the Vatican or the Arizona delegation ever attempted to correct the record to reflect any of this duplicity.
In 1995, there was an All Apache Summitin Albuquerque, New Mexico, where tribal, spiritual and cultural leaders of the nine Apache Tribes signed and blessed the historic Inter-Apache Policy on Repatriation and the Protection of Apache Cultures****.**Mount Graham was specifically referenced as an Apache sacred place. The Summit was organized by attorney and professor Carey N. Vicenti, the former Jicarilla Apache Chief Judge, and ceremonies were conducted by Ola Cassadore and other Apache medicine people.
Protecting and desecrating other sacred places in Arizona
The Forest Service has been one of the most resistant of all the federal entities to protecting sacred places from physical damage, and has barely considered spiritual impact and desecration as reasons to limit or forego federally subsidized private development.
In 1978 while the agency supposedly was in the first year of implementing the religious freedom law, Hopi Elders traveled to Washington to ask for protection of the San Francisco Peaks, which are in the Coconino National Forest north of Flagstaff, Arizona. In one consultation, a Forest Service official tried to get the Elders to say they only needed a small part of the Peaks, and said, “So, you say your gods walk around the mountains. How big are their feet?”
The Forest Service permitted and supported private commercial development at the Peaks, a sacred landscape to Apache, Hopi, Hualapai, Navajo, Yavapai and other Native Nations. That development and expansion of the Arizona Snowbowl – a ski resort that uses artificial snow made of reclaimed wastewater -- have been the subject of 40 years of Native entreaties, testimony, protests and litigation to protect the home of many sacred beings, medicine places and origin sites and the place of myriad site-specific ceremonies, including for the world’s water and life cycles.
One case was brought by the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, White Mountain Apache Tribe and Yavapai-Apache Nation and others to stop the Forest Service from permitting a 2005 expansion of the Snowbowl and increased amounts of reclaimed effluent, which violate the sanctity of the holy place and threaten the health and safety of the people and other life there. They argued that the Forest Service did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits government from burdening a person’s exercise of religion.
A federal judge ruled against the Native side in 2006; the Ninth Circuit ruled against the Forest Service in 2007; the federal government’s petition for rehearing en banc was granted, and the case was decided for development in 2008. A petition for U.S. Supreme Court review was made, but not granted in 2009.
The Hopi Tribe is involved in a current case, the third it has brought since 1981, this time suing the Snowbowl itself in state court. The Arizona Court of Appeals opined in February 2018 that snowmaking with reclaimed wastewater causes “special injury” to Hopi sacred and cultural places. The Arizona Supreme Court held oral arguments on September 4, 2018, and a decision could be made at any time.
In another ongoing case against the Forest Service, the Tohono O’odham, Hopi and Pascua Yaqui Nations sued in April 2018 after the agency approved the proposed $1.9 billion Rosemont Copper Mine in the To:wa Kuswo Doʼag (in O’odham), the Santa Rita Mountains, largely in the Coronado National Forest near Tucson, Arizona. The Nations believe the mine and mining would damage their ancestors, burial grounds, ongoing ceremonies and gathering of plants and grasses and other items. They cited the federal agency’s own words, in its 2013 final environmental statement, that this open-pit mine’s damage to cultural and archaeological sites would be “severe, irreversible and irretrievable.”
McCain and Udall, along with Native Peoples, were ill-used by the Forest Service, but also by the federal and state fish and wildlife agencies, private developers, unethical educators and scientists, corrupt politicians and influencers to oppose protections for Native sacred places, to put Mount Graham and Native religious rights in jeopardy, to clear cut old growth forests and to push the red squirrel to the edge of extinction.
In 2017, McCain stood up for the little squirrel and called for more to be done to save it. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is partnered in habitat restoration with the University of Arizona, even as both of are prominently at fault in the damage to people, plants and animals at Mount Graham.
McCain’s life in a sacred landscape, but many Native places in danger
I would like to think that senator would have done something to halt the harm to Native Peoples and sacred places, had he not run out of time. Since moving to Arizona -- where he lived along Oak Creek, in the shadow of magnificent Sedona – McCain’s understanding of Native Peoples’ generational attachment to homelands grew, as did his appreciation for the sacredness of the land and features surrounding his own home.
The Sedona area is marked by pools of healing waters and towering red rocks resembling splendid sentinels shaped by Giacometti that spire to the sky and open it at sunrise and sunset. The only thing that was out of place in McCain’s exquisite Cornville home, and not in keeping with the Sedona setting, was the family’s goofy-looking, old-timey cigar-store wooden “Indian.” We had a good laugh about its future place at a museum, in a landfill or as kindling.
Sedona and its public lands and monuments contain and protect physical evidence of Native Peoples’ millennial civilizations of ancestors of the O’odham and Hopi Nations, which are in Arizona today, including Tohono O’odham, whose reservation in the U.S. near Tucson is the size of Connecticut and whose lands and people also are in Sonora, Mexico. The Pueblo of Zuni, with lands in both Arizona and New Mexico, and other Pueblo Peoples that moved to lands now in New Mexico, continue to use sacred places in Sedona and Arizona.
The later arriving Yavapai and then Apache Peoples lived in the Sedona area until the late 1880s, when the U.S. forcibly removed and confined them to reservations elsewhere in Arizona, with the Yavapai-Apache Nation returning and reorganizing in the Verde Valley in the 1930s. Navajo Nation has lands bordering Arizona and three other states.There are 21 Native Nations in Arizona today, and they own over one-fifth of the land within the state’s borders.
McCain’s skepticism of the sincerity of the views of many on the sacredness of place seems to have developed during the lead-up to the “Harmonic Convergence” in August 1987, when thousands of new-agers flocked to Sedona, but did not help in the Native effort to protect these ceremonial places and sacred landscapes. He often mentioned his distain for those who care more about Sedona vortexes than ways to protect the sacred.
He did not have kind words for Native people who were cultural props for “kooks” and was glad to know that many of our traditional leaders shared these concerns and had experiences with everything from vandals defacing messages of the ancients to rock climbers disturbing ceremonies and harming fragile places, as well as picnickers, campers and naked people trashing and performing rituals at medicine wheels and other sacred places.
McCain was quick to say that environmentalists were using Native Peoples to fight developers. This was at the root of his readiness to believe Kitcheyan against Cassadore and Noise regarding the sacredness of Mount Graham. I think developers use the Kitcheyans against Mother Earth and all her children. So, we argued about that, too.
He also opposed the San Carlos Apache Tribe’s continuing effort to protect Oak Flat and the Apache Stronghold from mining by Resolution Cooper. I wondered if the Mount Graham twists and turns, Kitcheyan’s betrayal and the University-financed undermining of the reputations of Apache religious leaders and practitioners led McCain to view both Mount Graham and Oak Flat as irreparably tangled webs. I wish I had the chance to ask him, even if it meant another argument.
Hopi lawyer Diane J. Humetewa, who worked for McCain on the Senate Indian Committee, shared his political positions and belief that environmentalists in Arizona were using Indians as window dressing for non-Indian goals. McCain and Senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) supported her nomination by President George W. Bush to be U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona; the Senate confirmed her in 2008 and she served for 18 months. In 2013, after Republican senators blocked President Obama’s Native federal judge picks, he nominated Humetewa as U.S. District Judge for the District of Arizona, because McCain backed her. She is the first Native woman U.S. Attorney and the first in the federal judiciary.
In 2016, Humetewa ruled for the six-lane highway designed to cut through the southwest part of the sacred landscape and lifeway, Moahdak Do’ag (South Mountain), which is south of the center of Phoenix and surrounded by urban sprawl. The case of the Gila River Indian Community of Pima and Maricopa (Akimel O’odham and Piipaash) attempted to protect Moahdak Do’ag, cultural properties and groundwater wells from construction explosives, traffic noise, pollution and developers’ plans to sheer off petroglyphs and move them elsewhere.
The mountain is sacred to all O’odham Peoples, who say the highway will desecrate sacred place and harm the environment, but the Judge decided they did not prove irreparable harm. In 2017, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court, saying that the developers would hold harm to a minimum.
Right of Action for sacred places and traditional use of peyote
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that the First Amendment and the religious freedom act do not provide a cause of action to protect sacred places and that Congress would have to enact one. The case involved a federally funded and permitted private logging road through the Chimney Rock area of the Six Rivers National Forest in northern California.
The Forest is adjacent to the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation and is used for ceremonies and other religious purposes by the Karuk Tolowa and Yurok Peoples.
The opinion was written by the first woman on the Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a Texan turned Arizonan, who served from 1981 to 2006. Used to living on spacious ranchland, she wrote that the Native views of religion and sacred sites were simply too expansive and didn’t trump federal ownership. “Whatever rights the Indians may have to the use of the area,” she opined, “do not divest the Government of its right to use what is, after all, its land.”
In the 30 years since the high court’s ruling, Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) (1924-2012) and others have tried to enact sacred places protections and, while scores of specific sacred places have been returned or otherwise protected legislatively and administratively, no broad statutory right of action has gotten very far.
The most comprehensive and serious effort in these 30 years has been Inouye’s Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act of 1993. Inouye was joined by co-sponsoring Senators Max Baucus (D-Montana), Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D-Colorado), Cheyenne, Russell Feingold (D-Wisconsin), Mark O. Hatfield (R-Oregon), Claiborne Pell (D-Rhode Island), Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minnesota), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and James J. Exon (D-Nebraska).
The free exercise bill contained sections to protect sacred places, traditional use of peyote, prisoner rights and traditional use of eagle feathers and other animals. The Senate Indian Committee, which Inouye chaired, held a hearing on it in 1994. The bill was opposed by the Clinton Justice Department, saying it was veto-bait, and by McCain, who was the Committee’s vice chair, and it died in the 103rdCongress. Justice had asked for the peyote section, but did not want any of the protections for Native sacred places, inmate rights or the traditional use of eagle feathers.
Justice’s Drug Enforcement Administration was permitting, through an exemption to the regulations controlling drug use, the Native American Church use of peyote as a sacrament. Justice was resisting non-Native exemptions for peyote and other natural products, and did not want to wage that fight with only a regulatory exemption. A proposed statute to provide for the traditional religious use of peyote was introduced as the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994 by Representatives Bill Richardson (D-New Mexico), Ed Pastor (D-Arizona) and John Lewis (D-Georgia). The House passed it, the Senate Indian Committee and the Senate agreed to it and the President signed it.
McCain greatly admired Inouye and they usually supported each other’s priorities and found language they could support jointly, even though they were very different people. Their Indian Committee staffers were fond of explaining the difference between the two senators in this way: Inouye was an infantryman, so sometimes he plods along, but he picks up everything; and McCain was a fighter pilot, so he gets things done fast, sometimes too fast, and he misses a lot of things on the ground.
McCain investigations into corruption
His questioning of the cultural information and word of some tribal leaders seems to have grown in 1987-1989, when he co-chaired the Special Committee on Investigations of the Select Committee on Indian Affairs, with Senators Dennis DeConcini (D-Arizona), Chairman, and Thomas A, Daschle (D-South Dakota), Member. Its final report and recommendations were issued in late 1989.
The investigations uncovered, among other serious crimes, abuse of office by Navajo Nation Chairman Peter MacDonald, the most prominent tribal leader of the day. The Navajo Council removed him from office in 1989, because he was under federal criminal investigation. He was convicted and imprisoned in 1990 for taking bribes and kickbacks and other violations of federal laws.
Later, while imprisoned, MacDonald was convicted of even more crimes, including bribery, corruption, fraud and extortion. Recordings of his conversations surfaced and the Navajo leader could be heard setting bribery and kickback amounts in not-so-coded golf terms (as in, that will be 100,000 golf balls).
One Navajo woman who talked with me about her reaction to the recorded evidence against MacDonald said, “I heard it on our radio, in his own voice, in our own language, in his beautiful way of speaking our language, saying things that disgraced us, even degraded our language.” Remembering what she heard made her cry.
MacDonald tried to gain the help of McCain and others to secure his early release for humanitarian reasons. He remained in prison until 2001, when he was 74 and President Clinton commuted his sentence. He resurfaced publicly a dozen years later, during the Thanksgiving season of 2013. McDonald traveled to Washington for the Navajo Code Talkers’ meeting with President Obama, but he was not allowed into the White House because of his convicted felon status. He and a handful of Code Talkers then stood behind the despicable name of the Washington pro ball team, much to the chagrin of other Code Talkers from the meeting and most living veterans and their families in Navajoland.
MacDonald also made statements against Obama’s position that he would end the team’s name if he were the owner. While MacDonald was rewarded with travel on the Washington team owner’s jet, the Dine’ Medicine Men’s Association, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and the Navajo Nation itself passed resolutions affirming their opposition to the franchise’s name and calling for it to be changed.
In 2017, again right after Thanksgiving, MacDonald was in the news in Washington with President Trump, posing in the Oval Office in front of the portrait of his favorite predecessor, the Indian-fighting and tribal-removing President Jackson. The occasion was ostensibly to honor Navajo Code Talkers, but the headline was Trump’s disrespect for Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts). Her past “Native American” box-checking at the Harvard and Penn Law Schools led to Trump using the name of an actual Native historical figure, Pocahontas, to demean Warren. McCain had done this, as well, in 2012, when Cherokee people revealed Warren’s box-checking history during her campaign for the Senate seat.
McCain often expressed disgust over MacDonald’s nefarious dealings, which he said did not surprise him, because he saw the former Navajo leader as a “smiling despot,” and he did not attempt to disguise his deep disappointment at such a “betrayal of trust.” In the case of Kitcheyan, McCain said he disbelieved the rumors of his duplicity and said I was quick to believe them because Kitcheyan insulted my friends Ola and Wendsler. McCain initially thought Kitcheyan was being set up, but he didn’t say who could be doing that. I do not believe he ever fully absorbed the depth of deceit, manipulation and injury by the University of Arizona, the Forest Service, the Vatican and their mercenaries.
As Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in 2005-2007, McCain investigated and exposed the pay-to-play lobbying schemes, money laundering and other crimes of Team Abramoff, which resulted in prosecutions and imprisonments of Jack Abramoff and others in both the public and private sector. As mentioned previously, Team Abramoff charged Native Nations over $80 million for work against their own interests and numerous tribal officials, attorneys and lobbyists were involved in the illegal and unethical activities.
"What sets this tale apart,” said McCain, “what makes it truly extraordinary, is the extent and degree of the apparent exploitation and deceit." McCain worked with lobbyists, lawyers and other tribal representatives to expose the Abramoff scandal and most were reputable, but some were competitors for Abramoff’s tribal contracts and some were engaged in similar practices.
McCain and my Dad – It’s a family thing
Of the many meetings and conversations I had with McCain, the most memorable was the first one he had with my father, Freeland Edward Douglas (1922-2007), over 30 years ago, in 1986. Dad was a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, whose Capitol is Okmulgee, about 30 miles west of Muskogee, Oklahoma, the home town of the congressman’s mother, Roberta Wright McCain. A tireless campaigner for her son, she outlived him and was a remarkable 106 at his funeral services.
McCain was a “Navy brat” and the son of one. His mother met and married John S. McCain, Jr., when she was in college in California. John III was born at the Navy hospital at Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone, grew up in Virginia and followed his father and grandfather to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Dad was born and raised at home, near Okemah, 60 miles west of Muskogee, on his mother’s original Muscogee allotment, which was stolen and sold by her drunken white “guardian” through a “competency” proceeding in which he was both caretaker and beneficiary of her 160 acres, where rigs continue to pump oil for non-Native families. I read that the McCain family knew little of the way his mother’s father made his fortune, which was from trading in oil leases and gambling in real estate in Indian Territory, most likely on lands taken from Muscogee and Cherokee Peoples.
Dad grew up at Euchee and Chilocco federal Indian boarding schools, near Ponca City, Oklahoma. He met Mom, Susie Rozetta Eades, Cheyenne & Pawnee, at Chilocco. When he went to WWII, she went to Haskell boarding school in Lawrence, Kansas. They married when he returned to finish high school as a decorated and disabled combat veteran. A language savant, he rejoined the Army and became a cryptographer, and learned new languages at the Presidio at Monterey, California.
I was born in the tuberculosis sanatorium in El Reno, 25 miles to the west of Oklahoma City, in Cheyenne & Arapaho Treaty territory. I grew up in part on my Muscogee grandfather’s allotted farmland between Okmulgee and Beggs -- about 30 miles west of McCain’s mother’s hometown – and with my other grandparents in my hometown.
My younger twin brothers and I were “Army brats,” even though we didn’t usually travel with Dad and Mom, but we all got to live together in two garden spots, Oahu, Hawaii, and Naples, Italy.
McCain, Dad and I found common ground around what may seem to some as an unusual set of topics: WWII, NATO, the Bay of Naples, the USS Forrestal and Vietnam.
Dad fought with the 45thInfantry Thunderbird Division from North Africa and Sicily to Monte Cassino – a long, bloody battle, with thousands of allied soldiers killed trying to take a Nazi-held monastery high on a hill -- where he almost lost his legs and carried shrapnel in them until his dying day.
In training camp and on the troop ship to North Africa, the young men of Company C, mostly boys from Chilocco – including Mom’s Muscogee classmate, Ernest Childers, who was the first Native person awarded the Medal of Honor in WWII -- made up a truly unbreakable code, using words and phrases in as many Native languages as they knew and combining them with personal references to themselves and friends. They used coordinates and hidden places of the boarding school that had tried to beat out of them the heritage languages they spoke to each other over walkie-talkies and used to help win their part of WWII.
McCain had a good laugh when Dad said he went back to finish high school because, after being at war and undergoing seven operations, Chilocco looked pretty good to him. He also got a kick out of Dad telling him that most Muscogee Creeks were Republicans when he was growing up, because Andrew Jackson had been a Democrat. (Dad later switched parties, because of President Nixon and the Vietnam War.)
Dad was stationed with Allied Forces Southern Europe, NATO, 1956-1960, in Bagnoli, Naples, Italy. Shortly after we lived there, McCain spent his early days as a Navy aviator flying missions from carriers of the Sixth Fleet, which was headquartered in Napoli. McCain was one of the biggest congressional boosters of NATO and AFSE, and he and Dad had a good exchange about both their experiences in the Mediterranean.
One of the world’s most beautiful sights is the Bay of Naples by moonlight or at sunrise, with the outlines of the Isle of Capri and the live volcano Monte Vesuvio to the south. I could see this stunning view daily from atop Posillipo, Napoli, where we lived on via Michelangelo da Caravaggio, across the street from the U.S. Navy’s Forrest Sherman School, which my brothers and I attended.
It was always startling to wake to the Bay filled with the Fleet’s floating city of 20,000 men and hundreds of ships, subs, boats and aircraft. As a pre-teen and young teenager, I was a competitive long-distance swimmer and could taste the ships’ oil in the seawater, as everyone could in the catch of the day. When the Fleet was in, our parents and teachers warned us not to go downtown or to the beach or much of anywhere, especially alone. They said it was because the sailors carried the terrible Asian flu pandemic that killed millions worldwide in 1957, and we witnessed myriad Napolitano falling in the streets.
Our family often toured and was invited for official meals on the USS Forrestal, first deployed in 1957 as the flagship of the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. We marveled at the immensity of the aircraft carrier with its gigantic rubber bands that jets would hook onto, in order to keep from falling off the deck and to remain moored after landing. I had two treasures from the super carrier: a silver bracelet with letters that spelled Forrestal, given to me and other 12-year-olds who made cookies for some of the midshipmen and sailors, and a large, gilt-edged turkey-sized platter given to Mom, who gave it to me.
In 1967, McCain flew bombing missions over Vietnam in “Operation Rolling Thunder” from the Forrestal in the Gulf of Tonkin, when an onboard “Zuni” rocket exploded, killing 134 sailors and injuring nearly 200 others. Three months later, his plane was shot down over Hanoi, where he was a famous prisoner of war for five-and-one-half years, over two in isolation, in the infamous prison camp the POWs dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton.”
McCain told us that he had a constant image in his head of Indian people surviving, after going through everything except dying. He said he kept telling himself, “Indians survived and I can survive, too.”
We were all quiet for a moment and McCain said, “Without that, I wouldn’t be here.”
I don’t know who else, if anyone, was in the room with us. I was barely there. I was trying not to imagine all that these men had gone through, from torture in school, war and prison to the lifelong physical and emotional scars and challenges. The way they embodied hope and joy was both mystifying and inspiring.
They hated war and loved warriors and all who served the people. Dad had taken an informed, principled position against the Vietnam War, and my brothers and I had been active in the anti-war movement, especially working with Vietnam vets against the war. McCain wanted to know about that, as well as the tradition of sacrifice warriors. He liked that Mom’s great-grandfather was Cheyenne Chief Bull Bear, who was a leader of the Dog Men Society and the Cheyenne resistance of the latter half of the 1800s. And, of course, he wanted to know about Little Big Horn.
Both men were used to taking and giving orders, acting quickly and not wasting words. Dad gave McCain some quick information about the deliberate damage to Native languages, religions and ways inflicted by federal boarding schools in his own lifetime, and why it was that, of all the languages he spoke fluently, he only stuttered in one, his first language, Muscogee.
Dad also got to tell McCain that he opposed the name of the Washington pro football team and why – it’s dishonorable to show such disrespect to us, especially in the Nation’s Capitol. They agreed on R*dsk*ns, without using the discursive terms of today: abuse, humiliation, objectification or dehumanization, with which they both had intimate experience, but avoided analyzing. Avid sports fans, they ended that discussion with quips about whose teams were better (or, actually, they traded barbs on how bad the other’s favorites were). Dad told McCain he could try to jettison the name and still root for the home team.
Later, in September 1992, Senator McCain congratulated me and Standing Rock Sioux author Vine Deloria, Jr. (1933-2005), for filing the landmark case against the R*dsk*ns, Harjo et al v. Pro Football, Inc.(1992-2009). He chided us a bit for not giving him a chance to make a press statement on the day of the filing, as we had done with Inouye. So, while many were surprised, I was not, when the senator later said publicly that, if he owned the Washington team, he would get rid of the name.
I think McCain felt safe with many Native people, because we understood the grandeur and weight of tradition, the struggle of survival and how to handle it all with dignity and a few goofy jokes. He liked our meetings because we’re always laughing about something – maybe it’s our similar gallows humor, or maybe he just liked to laugh with us. Some took advantage of that and I could see him become less open over time. He seemed to enjoy working with people who were very different from him and was interested in new ideas, even though he often dismissed them (maybe even us) as “wacky.”
More of the McCain Indian Affairs legacy
John McCain had a career-long history of supporting Indian causes in Congress. He accomplished much, always working in partnership with others. Despite his reputation as a maverick, McCain was no loner. He was a very social person and he knew that respect, good humor, camaraderie and encouragement go a long way, and that it never hurts to be direct.
In his last speech to the NCAI 2016 Convention in Phoenix, he got right to the point: “I’m here today in support of advancements in tribal sovereignty, Indian self-determination and self-governance. Over the years, we’ve made incredible strides, empowering tribes with greater control of Indian health care, law enforcement, housing and other important public services, but a great deal of work remains ahead of us.”
He associated himself with hero legislators’ effort and purpose: “Native Americans can become independent of federal control without being cut off from federal concern and federal support. My dear and beloved friend, Morris Udall, devoted his career to this effort. Barry Goldwater tried, as well. Dan Inouye tried. Ben Nighthorse Campbell tried. I continue to try…But, I’m not satisfied with our progress…If Washington is to fulfill its solemn trust responsibility, we must listen more to you and get out of the way of tribal authority.”
Many of McCain’s principled stands are well known and widely applauded. He opposed torture, championed human rights, was key to normalizing relations with Vietnam, bettered the lives of POWs and all who serve, promoted freedom and democracy in the world and stood firmly for freedom of the press, and not just when they said nice things about him.
His work for Native rights is less well known, but not less important. He worked with Representative Udall, Senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) and the rest of the Arizona delegation over a span of 20 years to achieve 10 Indian water rights settlements and one of the major water laws in any state.
He worked with Senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D-Colorado) and Kyl and with Representatives Udall and Bill Richardson (D-New Mexico) and others to strengthen the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1935, with the Amendments of 1990 and 2010, and the Indian Arts and Crafts Enforcement Act of 2000.
McCain understood the plague of pseudo-Indians, not only in the art marketplace and exhibit space, but also in higher education, publishing and politics. NCAI and others have called for further amendments to address these issues, and some had hoped that McCain might have been the champion. That request now will be made of Senator Kyl, who holds the seat left open by his dear friend, but first he will need to stop the Trump Administration from trying to shut down the Indian Arts and Crafts Board and existing enforcement mechanisms altogether, as well as its attempts to circumvent or end tribal consultation requirements government-wide.
In 1989, as McCain was poised to become Vice Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, he took to the Senate floor, pledging gratitude to Chairman Inouye and adding to the Committee’s legislative agenda: forestry programs and irrigation systems; environmental laws on Indian lands;assistance to tribal governments to improve law enforcement; administration of justice in Indian country; improvement of deplorable economic conditions on reservations; and effective ways to end the tragic physical and emotional abuse which plagues Indian children and families.
McCain was Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in 1995-1997 and in 2005-2007, and served as Vice Chairman or Member in most other years during his 31-year tenure in the Senate. He also shepherded Native matters as part of his work chairing the Armed Services and the Commerce Committees. He was the longest serving member of the Indian Committee and worked on gaming, health, museum, religious freedom, repatriation, restoration, settlement and sovereignty recognition measures mentioned previously, as well as new policies and reauthorizations. He also devoted attention to the threat of anti-Indian, anti-treaty and anti-sovereignty hate groups, and urged their activities to be monitored and investigated.
In 1999, he addressed the NCAI and reiterated the record of progress: self-determination and self-governance; protection of your cultures and languages; strengthening tribal colleges; protection of your natural resources and environment; economic development; strengthening tribal justice systems; preventing child abuse and family violence; strengthening Indian families.
He addressed the misconception that “the standard of living for Indian people is improving due to the relative economic success enjoyed by a handful of tribes.” Saying progress has been made over the past 30 years in Native health, education, housing, culture, economic development and governance, he pointed out that “the larger society has seen an incredible explosion of wealth and information. The relative gap between Indian country and the rest of the nation has grown wider.”
McCain reiterated his pledge to “stand with you in your battle to protect your treaties, your lands, your cultures and your inherent right to self-governance. Under our constitutional system of government, the right of tribes to be self-governing and to participate in our federal system must not be diminished. It is not our pride or political positions that are at stake. It is our national honor.”
Here are some of the laws, legislation and matters that McCain talked about in closed-door and public meetings and was proud to have worked on, sponsored or supported when it counted.
Appropriations and Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Acts (Indian sections).
Ashlynne Mike Amber Alert in Indian Country Act of 2018 (expanding alerts to reservations)
Buy Indian Act Amendments of 1989.
Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act of 2006 and 2009.
Fort McDowell Indian Community Water Rights Settlement Act of 1990.
Gold King Mine Disaster (investigations, EPA flushed 3 billion gallons of toxic wastewater in Animas and San Juan Rivers).
Hopi-Navajo Water Settlements (not fully negotiated by Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation).
Indian Employment and Investment Act of 1992.
Indian Finance Development Corporation.
Indian Lands Opening Dump Clean-Up Act of 1993.
Indian Tribal Governmental Waste Management Act of 1991.
Indian Tribal Justice Act of 1993.
Indian Tribes Methamphetamine Act.
Investigation/Expose - Pay-to-Play Lobby Scandal of Jack Abramoff and Team, 2005-2006.
National Labor Relations Board Matters (“forced subjugation and opposite of sovereignty”).
Gold King Mine/EPA Disaster (3b. gals. toxic wastewater in Animas and San Juan Rivers).
Miner Flat Dam Completion for the White Mountain Apache Tribe, 2016.
Native American Education Opportunity Act of 2016 (grants for charter/private schools).
NAGPRA Technical Correction (or/was definitional clarification, stripped, 2003-2007).
Native American Languages Act of 1990 and 1992.
Native American Technical Corrections Acts (technical adjustments to Native laws).
Protection of the Rights of Tribes to Stop the Export of Cultural and Traditional (PROTECT) Patrimony Resolution of 2016*(*condemns theft, illegal possession or sale, transfer and export of Native cultural items; calls on the Administration to implement measures to identify and stop the illegal trafficking of tribal cultural patrimony, and secure repatriation of exported items to the rightful Native American owners).
Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments (grants for Native wastewater treatment technicians).
Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act(introduced, 2017, to prohibit the exportation of sacred Native American artifacts and increase penalties for stealing and illegally trafficking in tribal cultural patrimony).
Safety to Indian Women Act.
Native American Technical Corrections Acts (technical adjustments to Native laws).
Tribal Self-Governance Act of 1993.
Water Settlement Act of 2004 (10 Nations/Tribes, Colorado River, Arizona).
Yavapai-Apache Salt Cedar Tree Removal (invasive species consumes 200 per tree per day).
Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe Water Rights Settlement Act of 1993.
Veterans Memorial, last words and a hole in the sky
The Honorable John Sidney McCain III was a patriot, who lived a life of service and who was one of the best friends a person could have, even for only for a political season. He also was a study in contradictions, an open struggle between his better angels and the tiny demons who got close enough to whisper in his ear.
In other words, he was a very human being, one of the most openly human politicians of his time. Charming and infuriating, he was really funny, but could be biting and inappropriate, and would be remorseful about that, and then would try to make up for it with humor. He was firm in his judgments, until and unless he learned he was wrong and, if he did, he would be as quick to apologize and make amends as he had been to misjudge. He respected regular order, but used unorthodox methods to achieve a fair amount of solid legislation and to gain his “maverick” status.
He was inspired, taught and befriended by Native Peoples, but he also was deeply disappointed and hurt when some Native leaders turned out to be scoundrels and liars. He made some huge mistakes and bad choices in developing Native policy, but he was open to argument and often made mid-course and post hoc corrections. I am so sad that he did not have more time, but he did great good with the time he had, and I am proud of the friendship we once enjoyed and for all his fine work on behalf of Native veterans and human rights.
The Native American Veterans' Memorial Establishment Act of 1994 was one of the senator’s favorite laws and projects. “I view this National Memorial as only a small way in which we can honor the service and sacrifice of all Native American Veterans,” he said in 1992 on the Senate floor.
McCain quoted Nez Perce Chief Joseph as he was a POW and being paraded around the East Coast, under armed Army guard, while his children were hostage/students at the Carlisle boarding school and his other family members were prisoners on the Colville Reservation and never allowed to return to the Wallowa Valley home for which they had fought so mightily.
“Let me be a free man,” said Joseph, speaking for the Dawes Act that promised Indian freedom, but resulted in the loss of one-third of the remaining Native lands, “free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself.” I learned later that McCain did not know the context within Joseph said these famous words, which make his choice of the quote even more poignant.
“From the Revolution through Desert Storm, Native Americans have served, suffered and died for the cause of American freedom,” McCain said, “Let their memory be the spirit that guides us all as we seek means to redress the disservices done to the Native American. I promise you the memory of their valor will guide me, for 1, too, want to remain a free man, and I know that they died so that we all might be free to think and talk and act for ourselves.”
He often spoke to and about Native veterans and said this to the NCAI membership in 1999: “Our founding fathers pledged that the United States would deal with Indian tribes with consistency, fairness and honor. History has proved otherwise. Too often we have failed in this responsibility and Native Americans have suffered a long and tragic course of disparate treatment, inept federal management and abysmal living conditions.
“Today, many reservations resemble third world nations. In spite of this history, the sons and daughters of Indian and Native families have served in the armed forces of our nation with honor and distinction every time we have faced a threat from abroad. And, as a percentage of your population you have sent your sons and daughters to serve in numbers that dwarf the contribution made by any other group in our nation. I am reminded of the contributions you have made each time I visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. You have my enduring respect and gratitude for the sacrifices you and your families have made to the security of our country.”
The Veterans’ Memorial is widely supported in Indian country. Many Native Nations and organizations have hosted consultations on the Memorial law between Native veterans and representatives of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes artist Harvey Pratt won the design competition this summer, and construction will begin next year.
The Memorial is scheduled to open on the grounds of the NMAI Museum on the Mall on Veterans Day 2020, between the National Air and Space Museum and the Botanical Gardens and U.S. Capitol, complete with a procession of Native Veterans, led by the Memorial’s advisors and co-chairs, Cheyenne Chief and former Senator and Korean War Veteran Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Chickasaw Nation Lt. Governor, NCAI President and former Vietnam War Veteran Jefferson Keel. A massive turnout is expected on the National Mall, and praises of myriad warriors will be sung, including Brother John McCain.
I remember so many of McCain’s speeches – the flow and the feelings more than specifics – and I thought I remembered that, at the end of his speech at the NCAI 2016 Convention in Phoenix, he seemed sad. Watching the recording of it for this piece, I could see that he read relatively low-keyed remarks, until the end, where he was trying not to show his emotions, and he said, “One of the great honors of my life has been to represent you and the Native American Tribes in Arizona, which is the heritage of our state, in the Senate of the United States of America.”
McCain was speaking right before the 2016 national election and Contrary John took over, to the delight of the audience of politicos: “I would urge all of you to make sure that, in these turbulent political times, in these unknowable times – except, of course, that we’re going to make America great again, and it’s going to be huge (general laughter) -- I urge, I urge you, I urge you to exercise your sovereign right in choosing our elected leaders and making sure every single member, every single member of your tribes gets out to vote….”
The senator’s last public statement, which was released after his passing, ends by referencing one of his finest moments as a statesman: “Ten years ago, I had the privilege to concede defeat in the election for president. I want to end my farewell to you with the heartfelt faith in Americans that I felt so powerfully that evening … I feel it powerfully still.
“Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history. Farewell, fellow Americans. God bless you, and God bless America.”
I’ll close this fond remembrance with a word about passages. Many Native Peoples believe that we leave Mother Earth through a hole in the sky and Ancestors return as wind, lightning, rainbows, rain, snow, lightning and other sky beings. When the motorcade and hearse carrying John Sidney McCain III left his home for Phoenix, television cameras caught the nearly dark sky with a blazing fiery hole in the clouds that backlit the Sedona mountains skyline. If you saw it, I know it took your breath away. I have no doubt John Sidney McCain III left with the mighty force of the life he devoted to all of us.
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee, is a writer, curator and policy advocate, who has helped Native Peoples protect and recover sacred places and over one million acres of lands. Guest Curator and Editor of the award-winning exhibition (2014-2021) and book (2014), Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, she has been awarded a 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor.