Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, Navajo, represents San Juan County in the New Mexico Legislature. She is one of at least fourteen Republican Native Americans who are running for state or federal office this year.
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Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, Navajo, represents San Juan County in the New Mexico Legislature. She is one of at least fourteen Republican Native Americans who are running for state or federal office this year.

Native American Republicans Make Their Case to Voters

Mark Trahant
8/28/16

TRAHANT REPORTS—A question I am often asked: Are American Indians and Alaska Natives only Democrats? Of course not. There are Native Republicans, Greens, Libertarians, and Independents. Yet the data show that the vast majority of Native Americans vote for Democrats. And run for office as Democrats.

Of the active candidates on my #NativeVote16 boards there are 75 Democrats, 14 Republicans, and 4 independents (or no affiliation reported). But if you look at history, there are a lot more American Indians and Alaska Natives who have won office under the Republican banner. That list includes: Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Northern Cheyenne, who joined the Republican Party after his election; Vice President Charles Curtis; as well as the only current members of Congress, Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin.

The Republican Party has its Richard Nixon legacy (even if it’s not talked about much these days). President Nixon championed self-determination, rejected assimilation, and returned land to its rightful tribal owners.

Today’s Republican Party platform continues to affirm Nixon’s basic framework. “Based on both treaty and other law, the federal government has a unique government-to-government relationship with and trust responsibility for Indian Tribal Governments, American Indians, and Alaska Natives,” the platform says. “These obligations have not been sufficiently honored.”

What do the Republican candidates say about issues impacting American Indians and Alaska Natives? How do they make the case for being Republican and Native?

Oklahoma’s U.S. Rep. Cole is perhaps the most senior and respected Republican who’s also a member of a tribe. “As an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation, I am very proud of my heritage and the tremendous accomplishments of tribes in Oklahoma and across our country,” Cole writes on his congressional website. “I am committed to advocating on behalf of Native Americans in Congress.”

Cole’s advocacy is routine and powerful. He was instrumental in the 2013 enactment of the Violence Against Women Act because he gave cover to Republicans who voted for the measure (and against an alternative bill). Cole has called for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and, at the same time, has consistently said the United States government has “fallen behind” in its funding of the Indian health system. He often advocates for spending more on Indian health throughout the budget and appropriations process.

Indeed the area of health care is often a point of departure for Native American politicians who are Republican.

Montana state Rep. G. Bruce Meyer, who represents Box Elder in the state Legislature, voted for the expansion of Medicaid in the last session because it gave more options for American Indians. He also says that the Affordable Care Act has increased costs and the Indian Health Service has not improved as a result, including inadequate facilities, inadequate care and a lack of professionalism. “If we had all three working in tandem, if we had people qualifying for Medicaid services, and Indian Health Services, combined with the Affordable Care Act, it could work.”

But he said the problems in health care at the Veterans Administration and the Indian Health Service remain serious concerns. “I hope the affordable healthcare act could make some improvements, but so far we haven’t seen it,” he said. “I want to give it the benefit of the doubt to see if all three could work together, three sources of funding, but it hasn’t happened.”

Indeed most of the Republican candidates don’t even mention the link between the Affordable Care Act and the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. Oklahoma’s U.S. Rep. Mullin says on his website that he is “a proud Cherokee citizen,” and “one of only two Native American Members of Congress.”

But when it comes to the issue of health there is only the standard Republican party lines: “I have voted over 30 times to defund, dismantle or repeal Obamacare. This terrible law imposes more mandates, more taxes and is driving up the cost of health care. Obamacare also jeopardizes Oklahoma’s rural hospitals, which are already struggling.”

Labor issues are another area where Republicans favor tribal authority over federal or state power. “It is especially egregious that the Democratic Party has persistently undermined tribal sovereignty in order to provide advantage to union bosses in the tribal workplace,” the GOP platform says. “Native communities should have the same authority as state governments in labor matters, so that union bosses and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) cannot undermine the authority of tribal governments.”

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