Courtesy Tom Cole’s Twitter
Chickasaw Nation citizen Tom Cole and former Osage Nation Chief Jim Gray at White House Tribal Nations Conference.

Tom Cole Forges the GOP Case for Tribal Sovereignty

Mark Trahant

TRAHANT REPORTS—Early on I decided to focus this #NativeVote16 project on American Indians and Alaska Natives running for office. (Instead of a broader look at the election and its impact on Indian country.) That’s made it easier for me to ignore so much of the nonsense that’s surfaced in this presidential election year. From time to time I still write about the White House race, but it’s through the lens of a democracy that must include more Native voices.

Oklahoma’s Tom Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Tribe, is one such voice. It’s not that I, or even we, always agree with him. I sure don’t. I see the world from a different perspective. He is a conservative Republican and represents his constituents world view (and as such often tries to dampen the concerns about harsh Republican budgets, Paul Ryan, or even Donald Trump.)

Mark Trahant

He told CHNI Oklahoma News recently that he was “absolutely appalled” by Trump’s comments on tape. “It’s disgusting. It’s crude. It’s vile. There’s no defense for it whatsoever. People shouldn’t be shy about saying that.” However, Cole said he would not back away from supporting the GOP nominee. And that position he’s been steady ever since Trump won the party mantle. He also said there are people “of good character and good opinion” on both sides of the presidential race and questioning Trump’s fitness is a fair concern.

When the issues involve tribes, and especially, tribal sovereignty, Cole has been one of the most important members in the history of Congress.

What makes Cole so important? He can argue the case within the Republican caucus, and, even better, with the House Republican leadership. He is a measured, reasoned voice, not just for Indian country, but for his idea of what a conservative party should be. And that means being inclusive.

So Cole has history of being the consistent inside-the-party voice calling for more money for the Indian Health system. “We have a lot of people on both sides of the aisle who recognize the Indian country has been historically underfunded,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network in 2012. He’s sided with tribes over Democrats on the issue of labor unions and government operations, pointing out that a lot of states run businesses from hotels at parks to insurance programs. Yet it’s only tribal governments that are pressed to allow union representation in tribal enterprises. And, most important, he was the architect of building a coalition in the House of Representatives to enact the Violence Against Women Act. He told WNYC radio that bill was “a very, very difficult issue because there were divisions within his own conference that prevented (then Speaker John Boehner) from getting to 218.” So Cole found enough Republicans and Democrats to pass the measure into law.

Cole once again makes the case for tribal governments in the Winter edition of Oklahoma Humanities. “A tribe is a living, breathing entity that exists organically. Its purpose is to improve the lives and preserve the identities of its members. If a tribe fails at this, it eventually ceases to exist. Tribes are recognized as sovereign entities in the U.S. Constitution. That means that membership in a tribe gives one a political identity as well as a cultural heritage,” he writes. “It is an extraordinary time in which we live— for Indian country and the broader culture of our nation—a time of tribal renaissance and self-determination. In Oklahoma, tribal governments are helping drive the economy, creating tens of thousands of jobs, and generating hundreds of millions of dollars for the state government. There is amazing vitality in Native American culture and a great deal of interest and respect for Native Americans that is uncharacteristic of our history. Without question, I believe tribal sovereignty must be defended; but more than that, it often needs to be explained. As I remind my fellow lawmakers in Congress, the same oath we take to uphold the Constitution is an oath to defend tribal sovereignty.”

Powerful words.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On @TrahantReports" target="_blank">Twitter @TrahantReports.

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