This week's hearing on a bill to overhaul the $20 billion tribal casino industry again highlighted the rift between Indian County and Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), who has long been considered an advocate for tribal issues.
Since he took over as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee a year ago, McCain has primarily focused on two controversial issues: the Jack Abramoff scandal and Indian gaming. The fallout from both has been negative, with tribes scurrying to defend their right to participate in the political and economic systems.
"The current political and often difficult media environment we find ourselves in today in the wake of the Abramoff scandal makes it even more imperative that we make our presence known in Washington," Joe Garcia, the new president of the National Congress of American Indians,
said last week.
Tribes consider a slate of issues, such as education, health care and law enforcement, to be worthy of attention. But of the 27 hearings McCain has held in Washington since February 2005,
half of them have dealt with Abramoff, gaming and the closely tied federal recognition and land-into-trust processes.
The record stands in marked with that of retired Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado),
the former chairman and a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana. Of the 51 non-confirmation hearings held during the 108th Congress in 2003 and 2004, only five dealt with Abramoff, gaming and federal recognition.
In the coming weeks, McCain will be paying attention to two issues high on the tribal agenda:
methamphetamine at an April 5 hearing and child welfare on March 15. But his mind is set on other matters -- particularly his expansive amendments to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act -- even if tribes don't like it.
Comments McCain made to a tribal leader at Wednesday's hearing underscore his drive. He abruptly cut off the testimony of Ron His Horse Is Thunder, the new chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, even as he let other witnesses go past the time constraints. In the past, the committee has allowed Indian witnesses great latitude to share their views.
But when it came time for the question and answer session, McCain refused to give His Horse Is Thunder an opportunity to respond. Instead, he rebuked the tribal leader for the comments he made on the IGRA amendments in his oral statement and written testimony.
"Since your statement said that this legislation is based on anecdotal anti-Indian press reports on Indian gaming, the overblown issue of off-reservation gaming and the pin the blame on the victim reaction to the Abramoff scandal I have no questions," McCain said. "We're too far apart in our views of what this committee is trying to do in the 20-some years I've been involved on behalf of Native Americans."
At other hearings, McCain clashed with Ernie Stevens, the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, and Kevin Washburn, a former federal government official and Chickasaw tribal member, when they offered views on the history of IGRA that conflicted with his recollections. A former Congressional aide close to the senator said some Indian gaming leaders have "lost credibility" in McCain's eyes so he won't invite them back to the committee or sit down to meetings with them.
His handling of the Abramoff affair has been questioned by members of some of the tribes involved as well. Activists of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe who oppose their leaders for cutting ties to Abramoff called the hearings a political witch hunt and frequently bash McCain on their website. Abramoff and his allies campaigned against McCain during the 2000 presidential primary with George W. Bush.
Some members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians scoffed when McCain refused to seek the testimony of Chief Phillip Martin and instead heaped praise on a man who eagerly promoted Abramoff and recommended him to other tribes. "Nothing has changed really [for our tribe] because
they hired some of the very same people who worked with Jack Abramoff previously," Bobby Thompson, a tribal member, said in an opinion published by Indianz.Com.
Even when McCain has tackled non-gaming issues, he has bristled with the reaction he has received from Indian Country. At a hearing on trust reform last July, he criticized Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the landmark Indian trust fund lawsuit, for comments she made in the press about a bill he introduced even though she apologized for them.
"Leave the rhetoric to others," warned McCain, who has previously said he will only give trust reform "one good shot" before moving on to other items on his agenda. "You won't have this opportunity again any time soon."
And at a hearing on tribal campaign contributions -- another subject tied to Abramoff and gaming -- McCain said he would consider changes to the way tribes do business in Washington. "I understand that there is a widespread fear in Indian Country of losing a seat at the table," he said last month. "I understand these concerns, but feel it is appropriate to examine how and why
tribes, which truly are unique entities, are treated the way they are under the Federal Election Campaign Act, and whether the law should be changed."
Publicly, tribal leaders heap praise on the Arizona Republican, who has challenged his own party on its record on Indian issues. During an appearance at NCAI's winter session in Washington last week, McCain was warmly received and hailed as the "next president" of the U.S.
"You have my vote," said Vivian Juan-Saunders, the president of the Tohono O'odham Nation in Arizona.
Privately, tribal members who live and work in Washington have taken to calling McCain the "Great White Father" -- a historic reference to federal government paternalistic treatment of Native Americans -- both in jest and in derision. As a Republican in a Republican-controlled political environment, they feel he isn't doing enough to hold the federal government to its trust responsibilities.
"He could change things with a stroke of a pen but he doesn't," a tribal member who works as a consultant in Washington said in a private discussion recently.
When McCain assumed the chairmanship of the committee, he made it clear that he was only going to serve two years. He will be stepping down later this year as he prepares for his 2008 presidential bid. Some political observers have said his focus on hot-button issues like Abramoff and lobbying
reform will make him more attractive to voters who see politicians in a negative light.
Senate Indian Affairs Committee - http://indian.senate.gov
Sen. John McCain -