After what seemed like a never-ending election season to many Americans, the results came in on Nov. 6, and are about to be implemented in the form of the newly installed 113th Congress. Thanks to the hard work of tribal leaders, community organizers and advocates, Native Americans made it to the polls in record numbers. Our voice was heard loud and clear, and we made a difference.
At the top of the ticket, President Obama was re-elected to a second term in office. His initial term produced historic firsts for Indian country, unprecedented outreach and hard results in the form of the long sought reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, the Tribal Law and Order Act, and several other important policy achievements for tribal communities. Many in Indian country look forward to building on the success of the president’s first four years. At NIGA, we look forward to continuing a productive dialogue with the current NIGC and newly installed Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, as they visit with tribal leadership to plan priorities for the president’s second term.
In Congress, Indian country lost some true champions, most notably Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), a tireless advocate and the only indigenous member of the U.S. Senate, and Congressman Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), the founder of the House Native American Caucus and a determined educator of Indian affairs for his congressional colleagues.
However, tribal communities have much to celebrate as we look forward to the 113th Congress. There are a number of new faces that will soon become future champions for Native rights on the federal level. Some of these soon-to-be members of Congress have proven themselves by fighting for Indian country during their careers in state and local government. Others have reached out to tribes during their campaigns for federal office, knowing the strength of the Native vote.
In the U.S. Senate, Senators-elect Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and several others made tribal community outreach an integral part of their campaigns. In the House, Oklahoma’s 4th District elected Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), a businessman and enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, to replace retiring Congressman Dan Boren (D-Okla.). In addition, incoming Congresswoman Michelle Lujan-Grisham (D-N.M.), Congressman Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), Congressman Rick Nolan (D-Minn.) and other members of the freshman class of the 113th Congress, all secured victories in part by reaching out early to tribal communities in the course of their campaigns.
When the 113th Congress convenes early this month, more than 80 new members will be sworn into the House and Senate. All members of Congress will swear to uphold the U.S. Constitution, which acknowledges that Indian tribes are separate governments within our federalist system of government. That document also recognizes that Indian treaties, and the promises made to tribal communities in return for hundreds of millions of acres of tribal homelands, are the supreme law of the land. All tribal leaders must use this brief “honeymoon period” before the 113th Congress goes into full gear, as an opportunity to meet with these incoming members, as well as to continue to build on relationships with existing delegations. We must educate them all about the constitutional status of Indian tribes as separate distinct governments, as well as the United States’ treaty and trust obligations to tribal governments.
Our vote is our voice. Because our lands are held in trust by the United States for the benefit of tribal governments, federal laws and policies impact Indian country like no other community in the nation. Participating in the political process is vital to holding the federal government accountable to Indian country. It also ensures that the United States better understands and meets the solemn treaty and trust obligations to Indian people. The thunder of Indian country’s voice in the 2012 election will echo for years to come, and I’m confident that it’s only the beginning.
After a brief well-deserved rest during the holiday season and celebration of New Year’s Day, NIGA and our member tribes are prepared to march Indian country forward. We have already planned meetings with the Obama administration and members of Congress on the important issues of Internet gaming, tax reform and improving economic development on Indian lands to put Native Americans to work. We look forward to working with the growing number of champions and advocates for Indian country in the 113th Congress and beyond.