The late Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) is seen at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing in Washington, D.C., on September 27, 2017. Photo: SCIA

Richard Monette: John McCain has been a genuine hero for Native America

John McCain: The Great (Counter)Balancer
By Richard Monette

Senator John McCain’s passing has many of us wondering aloud whether the balance of America’s history will ever again produce such a giant spirit.

As the old axiom holds, the true test is what a person does when the world is not watching. The young fighter pilot’s decision to forego early release from POW captivity shall be the standard-bearer, but in my own little corner of the world, Senator McCain’s actions loom almost as large.

Senator John McCain has been a genuine hero for Native America.

First, my own caveat: when Senator Dan Inouye passed, I wrote a short tribute, eliciting responses that went something like this: it must have been nice to have worked so close to Senator Inouye. Well, I didn’t. Even in our small Native American corner of the world, quite a few Natives worked with Senator Inouye far more closely than I did.

The same goes for Senator McCain. But truly great leaders can change a young life with a handshake – along with a pelting of sharp criticisms and witticisms. Having the good fortune to simply be in their presence can inspire awe.

When I first became a U.S. Senate staffer, I worked for Senator Dan Evans, a Republican from the state of Washington. I didn’t then, and don’t now, consider myself Republican. A kid from “the Rez”, especially an isolated Native reservation surrounded by North Dakota, had his own “tribe” to worry about, one of those actual “Indian tribes” to which the U.S. Constitution expressly refers. I didn’t need a surrogate tribe, even in Washington D.C. (These days, I cringe when political pundits and media increasingly disparage political parties as “tribal”; they should stick to what they know.)

Richard Monette. Photo: University of Wisconsin Law School

Nonetheless, as an erstwhile Republican, one of my proudest moments was listening to my boss, Republican Senator Dan Evans, oppose a Republican initiative – a federal death penalty – on moral grounds. Flouting both Republican and Democrat is central to the story of John McCain; being American is what matters.

On my first Senate committee assignment I sat in Senator Evans’ chair next to Senator McCain, who leaned toward me and politely said, “Good morning, Richard.” For the life of me, I don’t know how he knew my name.

Just then Senator Harry Reid ambled behind to the Democrat wing of “the shoe” and McCain snorted, less politely but with his signature impish grin, “Harry, sit your ass on this side of the aisle where it belongs.” I will never forget it.

I’ll never forget the base humanity of his remark, and the camaraderie, the boyish jesting, and the power of it all. McCain earned that stature, or statures, unlike President Trump, whose lack of couth called McCain “foulmouthed,” squeezed between his own “locker room” vulgarities.

I witnessed McCain championing meaningful political recognition for certain Native Nations, such as the Pascua Yaqui. I heard McCain quip that the practice of so-called “termination” might be unconstitutional. I had never heard that from anyone, even the most radical of Native advocates.

Perhaps most important of all, Senator McCain, along with Senator Evans, championed implementation of the Indian Self-Determination Act and authorization of the Indian Self-Governance Act, espousing that “the Indian tribes,” like the states, were better equipped to govern locally and address matters confronting their respective citizenries.

Then there’s the poignant story of Arizona Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, perhaps acknowledging another one of America’s errant experiments on Native America, this one involving surrounding the Hopi Tribe with the Navajo Nation, and coaching a younger McCain to “protect the Hopi.”

So, McCain’s sharing a vodka with Hillary or sponsoring a campaign finance reform bill with Russ Feingold shouldn’t surprise anyone. Perhaps it also shouldn’t surprise that McCain championed Native America often without regard to Republican or Democrat politics.

Sometimes his maverick nature earned him distrust, such as when he proposed a better Indian gaming bill than what finally was enacted into law, or when he offered an early Cobell settlement more than double the amount her attorneys subsequently settled for. Other times, Native America has only John McCain to thank for stifling yet another misguided policy toward Native Nations.

And so I write this for John McCain. I also write this for me, as a gesture of personal gratitude.

I write this for the youth of Native America, especially those who hail from the Rez. You can work yourself, as I did, into the presence of a hero like John McCain.

More importantly, because of John McCain, and the likes of Dan Inouye and Dan Evans, Native American youth hold a glimmer of hope that America will recognize the distinction that Native American Nations hold in this country’s history: this isn’t about a racial minority, affirmative action, mascots, gambling, or welfare checks.

Rather, this is about sovereignty; this is about treaties; this is about distinct peoples with cultures worthy of making their own path.

This is about America.

Richard A. Monette is a former chairman and chief executive officer of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, a sovereign nation based in North Dakota. He also served as a staff attorney to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. He currently serves a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin Law School and as the director of the Great Lakes Indian Law Center. This opinion is his own.

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