Elizabeth Warren, Heidi Heitkamp, Markwayne Mullin and Us
To paraphrase one of the trite banalities she compulsively invoked throughout 2012, the spiritual godmother of the Occupy movement has telegraphed a definitive message to indigenous men and women since she swore the oath of her new position in January: "you are on your own." Despite insisting that an invented heritage constituted a fundamental element of "who I am" when questions about her ancestry threatened to derail her personal interests, the former Harvard Law professor suddenly decided professional statistics no longer functioned as an appropriate expression of gossamer-thin racial fantasies once she ousted Scott Brown from the Massachusetts Congressional delegation. Surprising absolutely no one familiar with Warren's demonstrated hostility to Indian news organizations — including the one you're reading right now—not to mention DNC delegates, the left-wing firebrand balked at the opportunity to identify herself as a person of color to the Senate Historical Office despite associate historian Betty Koed's assurance that, if the Warren team "wants to call and have her listed [in the formal directory], we'd be happy to do so."
After settling into her new job, the vaunted legal scholar has been far too busy grabbing headlines and grandstanding to devote substantial consideration to the frequently invisible demographic from which she once claimed she hails. She missed an important opportunity to educate her colleagues and the public at large about the significance of provisions in the Violence Against Women Act related to tribal sovereignty. Although the revisions finally passed the House of Representatives on March 1, the self-appointed heroine of the financially and institutionally abused was largely absent from any leadership concerning amendments involving the sisterhood with whom she maintained she shares a lineage.
Apparently, Warren was focused on practicing her talking points for a March 7 hearing in which she grilled Treasury officials about the historical lack of criminal prosecutions against corrupt banking officials, a practice that has allowed organizations like HSBC to avoid substantial penalties despite laundering drug money and intentionally engaging in illegal transactions with Iran, Libya, Sudan, and Cuba. This is a reasonable enough line of inquiry, to be sure, but one that a celebrated intellectual would know actually falls under the purview of the Department of Justice and culturally attuned Indians recognize has little practical bearing on concerns like the standard of living on reservations. But then, who cares about advocating for those people with "high cheekbones" when there's media attention to be courted by championing a $22 minimum wage and press releases to be issued about as-yet-to-be-written books (working title: Rigged)?
Now, even more disturbing anecdotes have emerged regarding the antagonism Warren and her staff continues to display toward Natives. According to Lisa Begay, an Arizona activist and member of the grassroots organization Reservation Rats, “Last week, six Narragansetts who helped her during the election went back and forth between Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and DC trying to meet the Senator. She did not even give them the time of day. Her staff didn't bother to reply to their emails either.”
Sadly, such disregard is symptomatic of the prevalent attitude among DC's elite when it comes to indigenous peoples. Heidi Heitkamp declared her desire to be a "voice" for "Indian Country" when she needed every vote she could muster in a hotly contested race against Rick Berg. And although her margin of victory in that election is conventionally attributed to the backing she amassed among the nations of North Dakota, the freshman Senator has largely ignored their objections to the construction of the Keystone pipeline. In recent weeks, she joined 16 other Democrats in a symbolic filibuster-proof affirmation of the TransCanada project authored by John Hoeven.
Perhaps most irresponsibly, Congressman Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma's 2nd District prioritized his antipathy toward gays, lesbians, and other sexual minorities above his support for VAWA. As a member of the CNO, the Westville rancher co-authored a resolution with Chickasaw citizen Tom Cole to strengthen language in the legislation pertaining to questions of tribal jurisdiction, but was ultimately willing to jettison what progress was accomplished for indigenous women because of "details" concerning LGBT concessions in other articles of the bill. Talk about tunnel vision.
Endowed with a curious cache in the popular imagination because of numerical rarity and the epic tragedy of our collective past, Natives are at once the most fetishized and the most expendable of political special interests — a convenient tool for pundits exploit for partisan posturing during campaign season and a fertile outlet for writers at liberal websites who like to prove how down with the struggle they are by denouncing only the most superficial episodes of racism. Until more substantial numbers of Indians familiar with their respective cultures ascend to positions of legislative influence, Warren will be right about one thing: investment on the part of leaders like herself, Heitkamp, and Mullin in issues salient to the indigenous community will end with a triumph at the ballot box.
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. Skin-walking, his first book of poetry, will be published in October.