Sen. Heidi Heitkamp: “I think there probably will be a learning curve [for the Trump administration] on what treaty rights are.”

Trump Can’t Touch Indian Gaming, Says Sen. Heitkamp

Rob Capriccioso

Indian Country Today Media Network recently interviewed U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and an advocate for Native American youth issues, about the incoming Trump administration and its lack of expressed Indian policies to date, her expectations for continued bipartisanship in Congress on Native issues, and her desires for the Commission on Native American Children. One message that the senator made sure to repeat: If the Trump administration were at all inclined to hinder Indian gaming, she would work long and hard to explain how tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, and case law would prevent such an action.

I want to start off generally, getting your impression of how Indian country will fare given the makeup of the new Senate/Congress as well as the incoming Trump administration. Is it all going to be doom and gloom, as some tribal leaders fear?

Given the businesses of President-elect Trump, which [includes] the casino business—there is a lot of concern about whether Indian gambling will be curtailed in any way. You know, we have to be mindful that it wasn’t Congress that gave tribes the authority to engage in gaming; it was, in fact, their sovereignty and the Supreme Court. I think there probably will be a learning curve [for the Trump administration] on what treaty rights are, a learning curve on case law regarding tribal sovereignty and treaty rights, and I expect that is going to present some challenges. I don’t think that there will be challenges in the Congress because there hasn’t been a lot of turnover, nor an inability to understand these issues at the [Senate] Committee [on Indian Affairs]. The committee has always worked in a bipartisan fashion. I think you’ll see a lot of continuation of that. You can’t really address problems of rural poverty without having a discussion of treaty rights and Native Americans, so I hope that instead of [Indian affairs] being an asterisk and being kind of relegated to the Department of the Interior, that we talk about this in a broader fashion.

If bipartisanship continues to be the norm on Indian issues, can you all work together to influence the administration to understand why it is important to do right by Indian country?

It’s always a challenge, even for people who are inclined to be incredibly sympathetic about past [injustices]. If you are from a place like North Dakota or Wyoming or Alaska or New Mexico, and you have been at all involved in public policy in your state, then these are issues you have been involved with. And so, it’s really incumbent upon those of us who have those special relationships and who have treaty tribes to continue to speak about the necessity of understanding what those treaty rights mean. And it’s also incumbent upon the tribes themselves to engage at a very high level on a lot of their concerns.

It sounds like you are fully confident that you will be able to continue to work in a bipartisan manner on Indian issues.

That’s always been the tradition of the committee. And we can go back throughout history and look at [positive] things that have happened for Indian country. Nothing has ever happened when it hasn’t been bipartisan.

Do you have any personal insights on how President-elect Trump feels about Indian policy and American Indians in general? He has testified before Congress in the past about Indian gaming in ways that many in Indian country felt were misguided at best, perhaps racist at worst.

Instead of sounding the alarms without knowing exactly where we’re headed, I like to believe that there’s an opportunity to educate. One of the things that I’m going to be very clear on: If you repeal the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, you haven’t changed outcomes for the tribes. The tribes still have the authority through treaty rights and sovereignty to engage in gambling. It can’t be touched by any administration. I think we need to be clear on the extent of the authority. To understand this, you have to understand the unique relationship between the federal government and treaty tribes.


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