2012’s Biggest Indian Country Surprises

Rob Capriccioso
December 28, 2012


From naughty politicians to a bevy of folks playing Indian to policy predicaments and beyond, Indian country had plenty of reasons to be perplexed in 2012. But isn't that the way it's been since 1492? Here we share a few of this year's larger eye openers:


Johnny Depp Is Comanche? Long rumored to be Cherokee, but with no discernible evidence, the popular actor faced new Indian-themed scrutiny this year when the long-planned The Lone Ranger film launched production with a scheduled release in 2013. Perhaps realizing there could be some controversy about a non-verifiable Indian playing what’s assumed to be an Indian role, Depp was fortunate to be taken under the wing of long-time political Comanche activist, LaDonna Harris, who adopted him into her family and fostered a meeting between the Pirates of the Caribbean star and the tribe’s leaders. Whether Cherokee, Comanche, or altogether Caucasian, Depp always keeps us guessing.

Elizabeth Warren is Cherokee? So she claims, along with Delaware. But the Democratic senator-elect from Massachusetts has never been an enrolled citizen, her family history is murky, and she never took the opportunity to network with Natives while serving in academia, nor while running for Senate. An academic claiming Indian heritage is not necessarily a surprise – who can forget Ward Churchill? – but Warren’s continued lack of desire to having anything to do with actual Indians remains perplexing.

Rep. Dan Boren is Chickasaw? When word leaked in August that Janna Ryan, wife of unsuccessful VP candidate Paul Ryan, possibly has some Chickasaw ancestry, suddenly so did her cousin Rep. Dan Boren, D-Oklahoma. Some blogs even reported that he was related to the same blood relative that possibly shares Chickasaw blood with Ryan. But that was news to Boren, whose office soon told Indian Country Today Media Network that the congressman's cousin with Chickasaw heritage married into the family, so the congressman is not related by blood to any Indians. Incidentally, no definitive proof was ever released by the Romney camp showing that Ryan is Chickasaw.

Mary Bono Mack dislikes Indians? In this year’s seemingly never-ending election season, the Republican co-chair of the House Native American caucus made a big stink of her opponent’s support for American Indian issues when he was a college student, claiming his support somehow made him less of a real American. That opponent, Democrat Raul Ruiz, ended up defeating Bono Mack in a close race where the tribal vote and contributions mattered in a big way. Some Indians were surprised that Bono Mack would choose to go where she went, especially given her past support—and what would Sonny Bono have said? Not to mention—what does Cher think of it all?

U.S. Supreme Court gets one right. After Carcieri and a string of negative tribal rulings in recent years, who knew that the high court had it in it to rule that the federal government must treat tribal contractors the same as it does all other contractors? In June, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority: “Consistent with longstanding principles of government contracting law, we hold that the government must pay each tribe’s contract support costs in full.” Perhaps Sotomayor will work with her fellow justices to help score a few more positive surprises for Indian country in the years to come.

Larry Echo Hawk to Mormon Church. Indians generally tend not to love the Mormon Church due to some controversial teachings from the religion centered on Natives. So when Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk, a Pawnee Nation citizen, announced in the spring that he was leaving the Department of the Interior to becoming a leader with the Church of Latter-day Saints, quite a few Indian eyes got big. Those who knew him well were less shocked, as he’s long said he sees a role for more Indians in the church, and he’s working to make everyone more open to the idea.

Grumpy Salazar. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar always seemed like such a nice guy in public until he threatened a reporter in November with physical violence. The Colorado Springs Gazette shared the shocking tale in November, noting that Dave Philipps, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for the newspaper, asked Salazar at a campaign event about some controversial dealings surrounding the sale of hundreds of federally protected wild horses from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management. The newspaper reported that upon being asked the question, “Salazar approached Philipps, pushed The Gazette’s video camera aside, and placed himself within inches of the reporter’s face. Pointing at Philipps, Salazar said: ‘Don’t you ever. You know what, you do that again... I’ll punch you out.’ Salazar further told the reporter that a campaign event was no place for policy questions. Say what? Oh, and by the way, for those of you worried about the horses, the Office of the Inspector General has launched an independent investigation.

Kevin Washburn confirmed in record time. The appointment and confirmation of the new Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs was the quickest in the history of confirmation processes, Salazar shared in early December. It happened all in a few weeks before a contentious American presidential election where no one expected Senate Republicans to give any of the president’s nominees an easy pass. But it happened, and Washburn has been off and running on the job, ready to show us a few surprises of his own, we hope.

Appeals of the Cobell settlement to the Supreme Court. When Kimberly Craven and three other Indian appellants took their appeals of the settlement to the Supreme Court, quite a few legal beagles in Indian country were surprised. They knew that if the high court chose to take on the case, trust law could be impacted in ways that no one could predict. Craven and others were willing to take that risk, saying the settlement was flawed based on class-action law, fees, and other issues. In the end, the court chose not to take up the case, but we’re sure there will still be many twists in store surrounding the settlement for years to come.

The Cobell lawyers. One wanted to tarnish the Native American Rights Fund, then left the case before the settlement checks were even mailed to class members. Another wanted to take down Indian Country Today Media Network. Another was outraged that some Indian appellants said they helped shape a better overall deal. They all wanted to get their pay day—fast. No surprise there. But many in Indian country were a bit bewildered by just how poor of a job these guys did at keeping their cool as the appeals of the settlement played out. “Every American has the right to an appeal,” remarked one legal observer. “These guys want to steamroll basic American rights.” In the end, the appeals stalled, and the lawyers have received millions of dollars, while most of the tribal citizens they represented will receive less than $2,000. They may have fuller bank accounts, but their reputations are all the emptier.

Mitt Romney talked to Indians. Few in Indian country expected the Republican presidential candidate to reach out to Indians during his campaign. But he did, holding a meet-and-greet and fundraiser, answering questions from Indian Country Today Media Network (as did President Obama), and reaching out to tribal leaders and advisers. It was a welcome change from past GOP candidates. Another surprise in the 2012 presidential election was that Obama chose not to visit a reservation, as he did in his 2008 race. Many want that to change sometime over the next four years.

Interior Department ruffles congressman’s feathers. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and chairman of the House Subcommittee on American Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, was quite surprised in June, when the U.S. Department of the Interior failed to send a representative to testify at his hearing on federal tribal recognition. There was no good reason, and many Indian observers said it did the Department no favors to rile the legislator for no reason. We wondered at the time, does the long-time legislator have bad breath? “The congressman practices good dental hygiene by regularly brushing his teeth,” a Young spokesman responded.

Canada’s Clamp Down. After Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper took a step toward historical healing with a First Nations residential school apology in 2008, did it seem like the next logical step would be for his government to stamp out contemporary indigenous treaty rights? Omnibus Bill C-45, which passed through Parliament in December with a big nod from Harper, does just that—and many First Nations leaders and citizens, caught off guard, are now “Idle No More,” and have begun what appears to be a long process of protesting.

Saint Kateri. Indians have long had a complicated relationship with Christianity, and many have called on the Pope in particular to address some of the sins of the past, starting largely with the Doctrine of Discovery and the church’s long role in fostering it at the expense of Natives. So it was somewhat unexpected when the Catholic Church chose to make Kateri Tekakwitha a saint this year for good deeds and miracles she reportedly performed while living in the 1600s. It was a surprise for many, and one that hopefully fosters a greater healing process in the new year and beyond.


Submitted by Anonymous on

Nothing has changes in the 237 years since the Constitution that framed this country on the Doctrine of Discovery.

Andre Leonard

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