"Together we will beat Donald Trump": Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Photo: Biden for President

'She was not good for Indian Country': Kamala Harris back in spotlight as Democratic vice presidential pick

A prominent U.S. Senator with a record of going against tribal interests is the running mate of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

When Kamala Harris served as attorney general of California, she opposed at least 15 tribal land-into-trust applications. Her actions undermined the ability of Indian nations to reclaim lands they lost to theft, fraud and other negative policies.

Using her position as the state's top legal official, Harris also went against tribes in two prominent sovereignty cases. Her arguments put her out of step with legal doctrines that were reaffirmed by the nation's highest court in a historic decision just last month.

"She was not good for Indian Country here when she was attorney general," asserted Rick Cuevas, a California resident who has used his OriginalPechanga.Com website to repeatedly call attention to Harris and her record in a state that is home to more than 100 tribes and the largest population of American Indians and Alaska Natives in the nation.

But Cuevas, who was victim of disenrollment by the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, isn't the only one in Indian Country who has raised concerns. When Harris was seeking the the Democratic nomination for president last year, she was asked about her tribal homelands record at a roundtable with tribal leaders and again at the historic Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum.

On both occasions, Harris tried to deflect from her past. She blamed her stance on the land-into-trust applications on the California governor, arguing that she was required to take action at the behest of another state official.

"Why did your office oppose these applications?" Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe asked at the forum.

"I was the lawyer for the governor, and the governor made decisions about fee-to-trust applications by California tribes," Harris responded a year ago this month. "As the lawyer, the law officer for the governor, we had to file those letters."

"But that was never a reflection, and has never been, a reflection of my personal perspective," said Harris, who prefaced her remarks by stating that the U.S. government "stole land" and "took land" from tribal nations.

"There must be a restoration of that ownership," she added, embracing the fee-to-trust process that she attempted to undermine in California.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Kamala Harris - Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum #NativeVote2020

Reporting by Pechanga.net, an independent, Native-owned outlet, offered a different account. The governor had no idea Harris was sending opposition letters on attorney general's letterhead to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the site disclosed.

"Until she addresses these Native issues, I won’t be voting for her," Aaron WhiteBeaver Scott, who is Winnebago and Spokane, told Indianz.Com. He pointed out that his sister met Harris last year and voiced concerns about her record as well.

But as Democrats across the nation focus on defeating Donald Trump at the polls this November, they are rallying behind Biden and his historic pick, who is the first African American and South Indian woman on a major party ticket. In contrast to the current president, whose handling of tribal matters has been dismal and has been characterized by antagonism toward Native people, they are highlighting their party's platform, which emphasizes restoring land to Indian nations, among other key priorities.

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, made history by becoming one of the first two Native women to serve in the U.S. Congress. She is embracing Harris, a fellow trailblazer.

"Today on this historic day, we must come together to support this ticket and commit to doing all we can to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris!" Haaland wrote on social media.

Today our nation made history when Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris as his running mate. For the first time in our...

Posted by Deb Haaland for Congress on Tuesday, August 11, 2020

"An excellent choice!" added Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas), who is a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation. "We all need to be united in defeating Donald Trump this November, and with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on the ticket, that’s exactly what we’ll do."

"All I can say is I got your back @KamalaHarris and you are gonna make a great VP!" Rion Ramirez, a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and chair of the Democratic National Committee's Native American Caucus, said on social media.

The highly-anticipated vice presidential selection comes a week before Democrats open their national convention -- virtually, of course, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The party was set to meet on Potawatomi homelands in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, before concerns about health, wellness and safety prompted the cancellation of in-person events.

In the weeks leading up to the gathering, Ramirez and other members of the DNC's Native American Caucus have been reaching out to Native voters with a series of virtual forums and roundtables. They've brought together Native women advocates, business development experts and other leaders to talk about advancing tribal issues in a Joe Biden administration.

“Joe stands with Indian Country,” Dr. Jill Biden, the candidate's spouse, said on a call with Native Democrats on July 21.

Before suspending her presidential campaign, Harris vowed to restore 500,000 acres of tribal homelands as part of her platform. She unveiled her plan with the help of Marc Macarro, the longtime chairman of the Pechanga Band, during the annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians last October.

Biden, with his platform, is also making restoring tribal homelands a key priority. During the eight years he served as vice president with president Barack Obama, the BIA acquired more than 500,000 acres in trust and launched a program in which millions more acres in land interests were transferred to tribal ownership.

In contrast, the Donald Trump administration has restored tribal homelands at a far slower pace. Since January 2017, only about 40,000 acres has been placed in trust and the president's political appointees have even taken steps to take the reservation of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe out of trust.

"I stand with Mashpee — and with all of Indian Country," Joe Biden said after the Trump administration started to disestablish the tribe's reservation in Massachusetts, a move that has been temporarily halted in federal court.

Despite the high-profile attention to the issue, Harris isn't among the prominent Democrats who are supporting bills that would ensure the reservation stays in trust and that would help other tribes address attacks on their homelands. Closer to home, it took her two years to support efforts to restore land to tribes in California.

"I just can't imagine her as president," Cuevas, who also has attempted to raise issues of tribal disenrollment to her office, told Indianz.Com. He said his letters and calls on the hot-button issue have all gone unanswered.

Besides opposing land-into-trust applications that were submitted to the BIA, Harris as attorney general attempted to reverse a previously approved acquisition. As part of a case involving the Big Lagoon Rancheria, she claimed the tribe could not restore its homelands because it was not "under federal jurisdiction" in 1934 -- which happens to be the same argument the Trump administration is using against the Mashpee Wampanaog people.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals slapped down Harris's efforts in a June 2015 decision. A panel of 11 judges noted that she was trying to attack a land-into-trust approval made 15 years prior, all over a mere 11 acres in northern California.

"Allowing California to attack collaterally the BIA’s decision to take the eleven-acre parcel into trust ... would constitute just the sort of end-run that we have previously refused to allow, and would cast a cloud of doubt over countless acres of land that have been taken into trust for tribes recognized by the federal government," Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain wrote for the court in a decision hailed across Indian Country.

As part of a separate case, Harris went out of her way to argue that the reservation of the Colorado River Indian Tribes had been diminished. In doing so, she sided with non-Indians who have repeatedly -- and unsuccessfully -- attempted to undermine the tribal nation's sovereignty.

The state of California was not a party to the dispute, so Harris sought approval to file a brief in support of her views. The federal judge hearing the case refused to do so, noting that the tribe's boundaries had long been established. The U.S. Supreme Court put an end to the case in 2017, the same year Harris took office.

And in a further sign that Harris was out of bounds for attempting to intervene, the nation's highest court last month made clear that reservations can only be disestablished by Congress. The appellate courts are already taking notice.

"She hasn't done anything for Native Americans in California," Cuevas said of Harris.

The Democratic National Convention opens August 17. As part of the gathering, the Native American Caucus will be meeting virtually on August 18 and on August 20. Biden is set to formally accept the party's nomination on August 20, the final evening of the convention.

The 2016 convention took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At the time, Native Democrats were organized as a "council" -- they were elevated to caucus status the following year.

The 2016 event included rising stars like Peggy Flanagan, a citizen of the White Earth Nation who was serving as a state lawmaker. She won election as Lt. Governor of Minnesota in 2018 and is the highest-ranking Native woman in a state executive office.

Deb Haaland was at the DNC four years ago too. She was serving as chair of the New Mexico Democratic Party and expressed her heritage by wearing traditional Pueblo clothing, a practice she repeated when she took office in the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2019.

"Today our nation made history when Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris as his running mate," Haaland said on Tuesday.

"Let's get to work," said Davids.

Join the Conversation
Trending in News
More Headlines