Donald Trump's Interior pick offers mixed record on Indian issues

Members of the Spokane Tribe celebrate after winning approval of long-delayed casino in Airway Heights, Washington. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington), whose district includes the reservation, opposed the project for years. Photo courtesy STEP Spokane

The announcement isn't official but Republican president-elect Donald Trump is expected to nominate a member of Congress with a mixed record on tribal issues to head up the Department of the Interior.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington) quickly embraced Trump after his historic win on November 8. She herself emerged victorious in defending her Congressional seat from Democrat Joe Pakootas, a former chairman of the Colville Tribes.

But Indian Country wasn't a major issue on the campaign trail despite the Republican lawmaker's outspoken opposition to a new casino for the Spokane Tribe. She argued that the long-delayed economic development project would encroach on the nearby Fairchild Air Force Base even though the military did not share those concerns.

"As Eastern Washington’s representative in Congress, I take seriously any threat that would impact Fairchild’s current training, base operations, and readiness. More important, I want to ensure that Fairchild continues to have opportunities to expand its missions and capabilities," McMorris Rodgers said in a June 2015 statement after the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the casino.

Although the 145-acre site was already in trust and falls within Spokane aboriginal territory, the tribe also had to secure approval from the state governor. That historic decision came in June 2016 and the tribe broke ground on a $40 million casino just a day after the election.

If McMorris Rodgers is nominated and confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, she would have direct authority and influence over similar projects. Gaming applications are reviewed in Washington, D.C., where they are subject to the political whims of top officials and even of members of Congress, and any shift in policy could derail or delay future casinos even as tribes work desperately to secure economic opportunities for their communities.

"The Spokane Tribe Economic Project (STEP) Development will be built in phases to include; casino, retail and commercial development, resort hotel, entertainment, Tribal Cultural Center and much more," a post on Facebook read. "The Spokane Tribe will bring over 5,000 jobs to the region."

Beyond gaming, McMorris Rodgers has a shaky record on other tribal matters. She supported a version of the Violence Against Women Act that did not recognize tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians who abuse their partners, independent journalist Mark Trahant reported on Trahant Reports.

"VAWA should protect every victim, regardless of their tribal affiliation. Instead, this bill endangers Native victims who are abused by non-Native Americans and leaves tribal courts without proper authority to protect victims and create safe communities," then-Rep. Janice Hahn (D-California) said on the floor of the House in May 2012.

McMorris Rodgers eventually relented and voted in favor of S.47, the 2013 law which recognizes the "inherent power" of tribes to arrest, prosecute and punish non-Indians for certain domestic violence offenses. But it took Native women several more months of difficult and emotional work to convince Republicans to include them in the measure.

And it would take another two years for McMorris Rodgers to support Indian Country in another crucial area. In 2015, for the first time, she signed on as a co-sponsor of H.R.812, the Indian Trust Asset Reform Act, a landmark measure that encourages tribes to take greater control of their own trust funds and trust assets.

"As a cosponsor of this legislation, I believe that the tribes, not unelected D.C. bureaucrats, should be able to decide how to use Native lands," McMorris Rodgers said in June after President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.

The Colville Tribes, whose reservation lies within McMorris Rodgers' 5th Congressional district, and other tribes in the Pacific Northwest were major backers of the initiative. One of its most significant provisions requires Interior to prepare a report that could lead to the return of functions performed by the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians back to the BIA.

The Obama administration has already started consulting tribes about the potential transfer, which tribes support because they argue it would strengthen the BIA. But it's nowhere near complete so it would be up to the next Interior Secretary to make it happen.

Colville leaders believe McMorris Rodgers would be helpful on the matter. In a statement issued on Friday, they said H.R.812 represented how they have "worked cooperatively" over the years with the lawmaker, who is the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress.

"While we have not always agreed with Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers on every issue, she has always listened to and considered our perspective," the tribe said in urging her "swift confirmation" by the Senate.

Confirmation hearings for Trump's emerging Cabinet are slated to begin in early January. The Interior pick is just one of several high-ranking jobs that the incoming president will be choosing as he builds his team.

Trump also has to nominate someone as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, which oversees the BIA. Historically, the job has gone to someone with close ties or a good relationship to the Interior Secretary. There's been no significant speculation so far about a potential pick.

According to, at least one person with experience in Indian issues is assisting the Trump transition at the department. Scott Cameron, who works at Tuknik Government Services, a subsidiary of Koniag Inc., an Alaska Native regional corporation, is part of the "landing team" at Interior, where he once served as an official.

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