Kristi Noem and Mary Bono Mack Are Both Friends to Indian Country

Cole R. DeLaune

To a certain species of political observer, the popular impulse when confronted with ideological complexity is to see past any suggestion of nuance to a profitable corollary. To wit, two incumbent Representatives in South Dakota and California are contending with reductive charges of disinterest and misguidedness vis-a-vis the Native American community. Such manifestly misleading characterizations degrade the collective discourse with their speciousness and obscure commendable records of engagement with respect to indigenous affairs and policy.

A freshman lawmaker from rustic Hamlin County, rancher Kristi Noem upset the scion of a local gubernatorial dynasty, three-term Democrat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, in a hotly contested 2010 race. Noem had previously ascended the ranks of the state legislature, where she served as assistant majority leader of the Republican caucus, and toppled two financially flush opponents in that year's primary. Shortly after her election, she demonstrated fluency in the grim statistics crippling the population of surrounding reservations in an interview with Native American Times, asserting, "I am aware of the numerous challenges that the nine tribes . . . face, and I am committed to helping them tackle [the obstacles]." And, true to her vow to advance economic expansion for the Indian landscape, the Congresswoman subsequently introduced legislation to guarantee tribal sovereignty from the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. She lobbied for an increase in the funding directed toward Natives in the Workforce Investment Improvement Act, and authored a provision in the House iteration of VAWA ensuring recourse for women on reservations or their respective Nations to petition the federal government for restraining orders. She has advocated for the creation of a permanent Office of Tribal Relations within the Department of Food and Agriculture to provide guidance on initiatives impacting indigenous peoples and their access to USDA programs.

Not to be deterred by cataloged reality, Noem's detractors have painted her as a vacuous "beautiful smile," an "inexperienced" and "uneducated" coquette who implicitly traded on her looks to achieve political success. The problem with such patronizing arguments is that they insult not only the object of their sexist and elitist derision, but also the constituency that sent the Congresswoman to Washington in the first place. As a prevalently rural municipality, South Dakota understands that practical concerns, economic constraints, and geographic isolation often prohibit or delay formal academic pursuits but also engender intellectual creativity and didactically pragmatic enrichments all their own. And, as clearly as they can discern aesthetic attractiveness, constituencies can just as quickly recognize the platitudinous vacancy that defines Matt Varilek's vague and nebulous nods to Indian concerns. The former Senate staffer succinctly outlines ideals and issues, but all too often displays an aversion to specific solutions and detailed objectives.

In the arithmetic of this Mount Rushmore showdown, documented overtures resoundingly trump ambiguously articulated hollow talking points. Noem has earned a second term, and voters should not hesitate to extend her tenure for another two years.

Meanwhile, several thousand miles to the southwest, controversy has engulfed the contest for the Congressional district anchored in Palm Springs. After recordings emerged of Raul Ruiz proclaiming solidarity with Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal at a 1999 rally, supporters of the Coachella Valley physician hastened to position the good doctor as a champion of Native Americans and vilify his opponent as an antagonist to indigenous rights. Ruiz limned the tightrope of electoral calculus, expressing sympathy with Indian men and women, but simultaneously disavowing his prior homilies on minority fellowship. After conflating the plights of two discrete ethnic communities and disparate legal incidents thirteen years ago as a 27-year-old medical student, the Democratic nominee said this weekend that he was "embarrassed" by his "youthful" indiscretions, and hadn't even familiarized himself with the cases of Peltier or Abu-Jamal until the recent firestorm.

Conversely, although she has provoked backlash from the Cahuilla and TASIN for highlighting her challenger's disingenuousness, Rep. Mary Bono Mack boasts a sterling history of attention to indigenous issues. A vice-chair of the House Native American Caucus, the Congresswoman aided in the facilitation of a summit between Mitt Romney and tribal leaders earlier this cycle. And in addition to promoting the inclusion of Indian perspectives in the public dialogue, Bono Mack has embraced an array of bills structured around maintaining funding for Indian-related causes and encouraged a legislative correction to Carcieri v. Salazar. She delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Agua Caliente chairman Richard Milanovich this past March.

Such efforts undermine the facile narrative bolstered by the Congresswoman's adversary and his backers. The inconsistencies in the Ruiz's rhetoric shatter the contention that he has established himself as a hero of red power; after all, support is meaningless if retracted at the first indication of personal inconvenience. Natives and California's 45th alike are better served by reliability and experience than craven doublespeak, and Mary Bono Mack is the proven voice for Riverside County residents of every background.

Educated at Darmouth College and Columbia University, Cole DeLaune is a native of Oklahoma and Tennessee. He currently resides in Atlanta, and has contributed editorial content to Vogue and Elle, among other publications. He is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma.

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tmsyr11's picture
the issue is not so much the IHS act but rather the Affordable Health Care Act and JUST HOW IT WAS PASSED! Rember the Nancy Pelosi remark: “But we have to pass the [health care] bill so that you can find out what’s in it....”. IF INDIAN HEALTH CARE was so important, why didn't DEMOCRATS (in charge of Federal Govt from 2008-2010) act on Indian care as a separate issue? There is so much falsehood to Democratic Party principles, it astounds me why INDIAN people allow themselves to be sucked in - never mind the wannabe columnists.
tmsyr11's picture
Or as THEY say, "a good Indian Scout" for the US Calvery.
nativewatch's picture
Yawn. The platitudinous vacancy of Cole's patronizing (see, we can use big words too) analysis is comical. First, it was not Noem who authored up the provision in the House version of VAWA, it was Issa and Tom Cole. Second, I would double-check Bono Mack's "sterling history of attention" with some actual Indians from her district - they have differed with her on such critical issues as Cobell, VAWA, and land conservation. She joined hundreds of others lawmakers in seeking a legislative correction to Carcieri - that was not a difficult one there. Which bills has she "embraced" (and what does that mean legislatively anyway?) that are "structured around" (another ?) maintaining funding for Indian-related causes? That's flowery, vague wording to cover up an empty record.
tuschkahouma's picture
please cole....with your lack of historical depth, explain to me how states rights tea partiers are good for Indian Country... they hate the federal government which protects the rights of Indians against states rights advocates like Noem and Bono amongst others. Without the federal trust and treaty relationship these states would do what Georgia did to the Cherokees in the 1830's... what Indiana did to the Indiana Miami Tribe for most of the 19th and 20th century....what Kansas did to the Wyandotte, Munsee, and Peoria and Miami Tribes...What Rhode Island did to the Narragansett Tribe in 1880 or what New York State did to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in the early 19th century. Why must people like you require so much education about history to make realize how historically inept you sound. Maybe people sound condescending because they can't believe the words and ideas in print out of some people's mouths. State's rights people try to emasculate the federal government to go after Indian Tribes and minorities. That's what the Tea Party is about in Indian Country. They use the same language as the politicians who advocated congressional termination in HR 108 in the 1950's. When they say they want freedom for you or less regulation it's because they want these regulations out of their way to steal tribal lands and mineral and resource assets. Are you really that clueless to this???
tmsyr11's picture
A couple of things to point out: I am DEFINITELY not certain EVEN AN OBAMA ADMINISTRATION would stand with Indians considering the lack of national federal resources and Obama's plan to SPEND and THROW more federal dollars at OTHER SPECIAL interests, i.e. latino, inner-cities, foreign affairs. Take a good look at the NATIONAL CATASTROPHY currently happening in New York State from Sandy aftermath. Just look at WHAT IS NOT GETTING REPORTED ON national TV; just look at WHO IS NOT GETTING questioned in federal resources. According to some people, Wal-Mart would be a far better and quicker provider of resources than the US Govt/FEMA. Indian Tribes cannot continue to rely on 'handouts' from the US Federal Govt. I say 'hand'outs' particularly in light of average tax paying US citizens are struggling in this economy and illegal alien/migrants SEEM to be getting a FREE PASS particularly to State Driver's Licenses. There appears to be far more resources available to ILLEGALs than to legitimate taxpaying US iNdian Tribes. Why are illegal getting 'hand-outs'? If the premise of this article serves constructive criticims, It is YOU the tribal member who has to to hold YOUR ELECTED TRIBAL GOVERNMENTS accountable! You elect Tribal representatives to represent YOU in Washington - you have to hold YOUR officials accountable. The responsiblity falls on YOU NOT the Federal Government and certainly NOT Barack Obama particularly as Mr. Obama has MORE IMPORTANT issues to contend with than to be a "leader" and help people who are strugglin and dying in surrounding areas of New York City. ANd to thing New york state and New York City are supposedly Democratic/progressive strong-holds in politics - you would think if they are staunchly progressive, why is federal assistance so slow?
tejas's picture
Both of these candidates are ideologues for Tea Party and will vote to form a house with Beohner as Speaker and Cantor as Leader. Given how the Tea Party voted aainst hate crime legislation and against the violence against women law, how can these two be friends of Indian Country. We remember this writer as writing apologetics for Scott Brown's war hooping attacks on the Cherokee People in ICT not so long ago.
pianoforte's picture
Actually, DeLaune wrote about why the discrepancy in the attention paid to the nominees' behavior in Mass was a problem. He didn't offer an apology for Brown because he didn't have to. The Senator had already more or less done so himself. If memory serves, you were a Warren fan because of her liberlism irrespective of her deliberate refusal to acknowledge that Indians exist. Even if the incidents that transpired on the GOP were offensive, it's nice to know that Brown respects his critics enough to address, clarify, and reprimand publicly. Warren has just stonewalled Natives altogether. It's sad that you think the perspectives and voices of Indians are of so little value that a woman running to represent all Americans can just blithely ignore them.
gizmodo's picture
uh, it kind of undermines the sarcasm when the "big words" you use are ones that you're repeating verbatim from the article. and there are a lot of media sources that credit Noem with working with Issa to write that part of VAWA. The chairman of the judiciary oversees the passage of the bill out of committee, he doesn't actually conceive of each and every item in the legislation.
bootanner's picture
Funny Mr. DeLaune doesn't mention that both want to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act which includes the Modernization of IHS provision. The Provision would provide $1.5B to improve IHS throughout Indian Country.
duwaynesmith's picture
Don't bother Cole with the facts, it gets in the way of his frequently florid message.