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The Elusive Dream of a Functioning Native Caucus

Can the current ideological split among Native members of Congress—and electoral hopefuls—lead to anything like a unified front on issues impacting Indian Country?

Rudy Soto, a Shosone-Bannock citizen running for a House seat for Idaho’s First District, had to remind me of something that can be surprisingly easy to forget: There is, technically, already a Native American Caucus in Congress.

This is not a setup for a commentary on the visibility of the four Native representatives in the House: Deb Haaland, Tom Cole, Sharice Davids, and Markwayne Mullin. Individually, each representative has undeniably used their seat to help tribal communities since being elected. But taken together, as the chairs and vice chairs of the sole caucus dedicated to serving Indian Country, their collective legacy, and the future direction of the caucus, is a bit more muddled.

Part of this can be attributed to the caucus’s makeup. Its membership, along with several chair positions, continues to be filled by non-Native politicians of different ideological stripes, some of whose districts include tribal communities. In their press releases, the caucus members often underscore the nonpartisan nature of the issues they’re hoping to address. And this makes a certain kind of sense: There is obvious potential in using the caucus to establish a steady network of allies on both sides of the aisle. Throughout the pandemic, as an example, the caucus has worked with leaders on the Appropriations Committee, helping ensure that Indian Country programs and tribes are allocated funding in stimulus bills—albeit with mixed results.

But as Soto noted, the big-tent nature of the caucus more often limits its potential to act as a cudgel for tribal communities. And that’s really what’s needed here: a caucus that can fight to secure a holistic set of policies that strengthen tribal communities and enforce treaty and trust responsibilities. “You have a lot of Republicans that are in the caucus that don’t allow it to really take a stand on much that impacts Indian Country,” Soto said. “They throw their name on it just because they have some tribes in their district. And it looks good for them. They show up, they say a few nice things here and there, and that’s it. It really isn’t active.”

The effectiveness of any caucus will always be determined by its members and the policies they go hardest for, not by a loose creed, pledge, or promise to serve an amorphously defined community. A Native caucus does not necessarily need to model itself after the Congressional Black Caucus or the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, nor does it need to confine itself to a single party. What it does need, though, if it ever wants to wield legislative power, is clarity for the moments when congressional politics conflict with Indian Country policy. As more Native candidates become Native members of Congress, the caucus they join will need to find a long-term fix for the complications caused by its bipartisan makeup and, increasingly, splits among Democrats about the party’s future. This is not an academic inquest or some cute political gaming exercise. If the Native caucus cannot come together to serve Indian Country, then the future of tribal communities and their members, as well as the sovereign tribal governments that oversee them, will continue to be in the hands of people who hardly understand, or care about, either. Stakes are high.

Soto is a self-described “different kind of Democrat,” which, when teased out, means that he’s a nonwhite moderate candidate with an unconventional path to public service. He’s not yet on board with single-payer but supports Medicaid expansion and a public option, having lost his father prematurely to cancer after he was laid off from his job and had his health insurance cut off; he is in favor of immigration reform but says he still believes in a strong review process; he grew up in poverty and bounced in and out of juvenile detention as a teenager and now, having served as both a congressional staffer and a legislative director for the National Indian Gaming Association’s nonprofit wing, stands out as one of the most well-prepared freshman Native candidates for D.C. politics.

He is one of eight Native candidates running for Congress this year and is among the four potential newcomers. Joining Soto in his attempt is Republican Yvette Herrell, a Cherokee Nation citizen who supports, and is supported by, President Trump. Herrell is riding a hard anti-immigration line in a hotly contested race for Representative Xochitl Torres Small’s seat in New Mexico’s Second District. (Herrell was Torres Small’s challenger in 2018, losing by just two points.) The group is then rounded out by the campaigns of progressive Democratic candidate Paulette Jordan, a Coeur D’Alene citizen who is challenging Republican stalwart Jim Risch for one of Idaho’s two Senate seats; and Danyell Lanier, a Cherokee Nation citizen and moderate Democrat challenging the only other Cherokee citizen in Congress, Republican Markwayne Mullin.

To get it out of the way, only the four incumbents have a great shot at making it to the other side. Haaland and Cole, of the Laguna Pueblo and Chickasaw Nation, respectively, along with Democrat Sharice Davids, of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and Mullin are all expected to cruise to reelection. The prospects are rougher for the newcomers: Soto, Herrell, and Jordan all face uphill battles against incumbents of their own.

But let’s say we are giving ourselves a moment to imagine a different kind of world, one where the steady increase of Native representation in Congress was not an abstract and oft-repeated goal, but a very real thing. Let’s say, even, that Soto and Herrell win—a good test case given their respective political leanings. With their inauguration, the number of Native representatives in the House would instantly grow by 50 percent, and the caucus would likely soon add two new vice chairs. Those are significant numbers, but would it make for a more effective caucus?

If, at this point in the hypothetical, the caucus decided to reorient its membership rules to include only tribal community members or enrolled citizens while maintaining close relationships with the current non-Native members, the caucus would be evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, three to three. The main issue that then arises—the same one that has hung over the current caucus the past two years—is whether party loyalty can be put aside long enough to maintain a functional, effective caucus. And even if it is, the caucus would still need to clearly define what it means to serve Indian Country in Congress given the broad ideological range of the group. Does it mean protecting Chaco Canyon and supporting a Green New Deal, or does it mean opening up tribal lands for the gas and oil industry as a way to secure these jobs for Native workers? Is it a Medicare for All proposal that increases Indian Health Service funding and helps tribes assume control over their local facilities? Stand against the desecration of sacred Indigenous lands, or cheer on the construction of the border wall that purportedly protects tribal citizens?

The political spectrum among the hypothetical incoming Native delegation would range from two far-right conservatives, in Mullin and Herrell; one moderate Republican, in Tom Cole; two moderate Democrats, in Soto and Davids; and one progressive, in Haaland. This breakdown might raise some non-Native eyebrows, given that Native voters tend to lean Democrat when Republicans aren’t suppressing the vote. But as Phil Deloria, a professor of Native Studies at Harvard University, told me—and as I’ve covered in the past—“It’s really not surprising to see Native Republicans or people that are further right on the spectrum.”

This is where it becomes difficult to ignore the past two years.

Individually, the current group of Native legislators have all managed to bring notice and awareness to a multitude of issues and policy needs for people in Indian Country. Davids has called on House Transportation and Infrastructure leadership to consult tribal leaders on federal infrastructure projects. Haaland has been combatting the lack of tribal consultation by the Trump administration and the ignorance of her own colleagues. Mullin pressed the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee to call a tribal witness to discuss the pandemic-related health disparities in the Indian Health Service. And when I spoke to Haaland earlier this spring, she praised Cole’s record unprompted. “He’s been fighting this fight pretty much on his own for a very long time, God bless him,” she said. “He cares deeply about tribes, and I’m so grateful to have him as one of my colleagues.”

Deloria said the same. “You wouldn’t see Tom Cole as an ally in many instances,” he told me. “But there are other moments, where Native issues really do kind of come to the fore, and those moments seem to confound those political lines a bit—in ways that are really kind of something of a relief.”

As sweet as that relief can be, it has also been fleeting. Partisan parlor games have routinely caused political skirmishes over what should be straightforward policy proposals for Indian Country programs. “Part of the issue is that everything is so absolutist,” Deloria said. “Look at the Senate—nobody can talk to anybody else or work together at all. Who was it possible to imagine rallying in the Senate for Mashpee, for instance?”

Even among the current four Native members of the House, it has been incredibly rare for them all to agree on a single piece of legislation. The most glaring instance came when Cole joined Davids and Haaland in voting for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, calling attention to the fact that, despite his criticism of a ban on gun sales to those convicted of misdemeanors related to domestic abuse, the bill was ultimately “consistent with my own views and my own voting record on tribal sovereignty and protection of Native women.” Meanwhile, Mullin was the only tribal citizen in the House to vote against the bill—this fell in line with his “No” vote against reauthorization in 2013, explaining then that he opposed the LGBTQ protections in the bill.

Cole is a dependable aisle-crosser for Indian Country legislation regardless of its origin—GovTrack found that 26 percent of Cole’s sponsored bills were related to Native issues, far and away his top focus. But Mullin, whose sponsorship rate of Native legislation rests closer to 15 percent, prefers to reserve his hard-line stances for issues that align with the Republican program—unsurprising, given his adoration of free markets and his time serving as the chair of the Trump campaign’s Native American Coalition. This isn’t to discount the work he has done, which includes introducing the NATIVES Act, a bill designed to boost tribal tourism campaigns, or co-sponsoring the Stigler Act amendment, fixing an outdated blood quantum law, among others. But this year alone, the caucus has failed to take a unified stand on three of the year’s major issues to arise in Indian Country: the destruction of Tohono O’odham land for the border wall; the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation being taken out of trust; and the controversy regarding the appropriation and distribution of the pandemic relief funds to tribal governments and organizations.

The four representatives, as a collective, have jointly introduced and passed just two pieces of legislation: Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act, a pair of desperately needed bills that addressed the federal government’s mismanagement of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis. Their passage was praiseworthy, but introducing two bills in a single full term certainly doesn’t feel like the true peak of what this caucus could, or should, produce.

This inability to present a unified front across the caucus’s full political spectrum has made it difficult to rely on Congress or, perhaps under a less vindictive administration, the White House to proactively find solutions to pressing issues regarding health care, education, and infrastructure in Indian Country, often leaving the courts as the last remaining outlet.

“There’s still some of these moments where Native issues might drag a few unexpected friends—look at [Justice Neil] Gorsuch on the Supreme Court,” Deloria said, referencing his crucial swing vote affirming the 1866 treaty between the United States and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. “But American politicians still have such a hard time understanding how you can have sovereignty and trust at the same time. When you add it all up, it’s a fairly small bit on the American political spectrum, and it’s not always clear that it actually has much impact outside of those specific kinds of issues.”

Part of grappling with what has been both a historic and frustrating term is being able to place it on a wider timeline. Throughout the entire existence of Congress, and including the four current legislators, there have only ever been 16 Native members of the House. And never before have this many sat in the chamber at the same time, which is accompanied by the acknowledgment that the past term came amid one of the most politically divisive periods in modern American history. These kinds of growing pains were expected. What the caucus has to do soon, though, as it continues to add members and accrue political capital, is clarify its intent and its purpose.

This could partially be achieved by excising the non-Native members, allowing for the current group, and any other Native candidates that join them, to hash out where there is common ground and where there are partisan gulfs. But identifying the group’s ideological lines is the easy part. At some point, if this caucus is ever to hold weight in Congress, it will have to evolve. Its members will have to commit themselves fully to being not just a proponent of a select few bipartisan bills every couple years, but a full-throated champion for tribal sovereignty, day in and day out, one that is comfortable breaking rank and heckling both parties’ leaders to uphold the federal government’s treaty and trust responsibilities.

But the truth is, short of the caucus changing its name and focus to the Congressional Tribal Sovereignty Caucus, it’s still unclear whether this group could ever be imagined as uniformly working together on the broad field that is “Native issues.” Ultimately, a Native issue is one that touches a Native person or community, including and extending beyond the issues regarding sovereignty that should already be agreed upon. And working with the conservative faction will inherently be an impediment to how far this caucus can go in fighting for Indigenous human and civic rights.

There is no meaningful way for the caucus to resolve the social, economic, and energy policies supported by Cole and Mullin. Cole whipped votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act; Mullin stood against gay marriage in Oklahoma. It is impossible, and irresponsible, to try and undersell the damage that their legislative decisions will continue to inflict on the people of Indian Country, especially for those who do not live on sovereign tribal lands, where their tribal government could ostensibly work to mitigate such policies by exercising its political power and enacting counter-legislation. For the urban Native community—and for those living in American suburbs, small towns, and rural outposts—they will have to continue to look to Congress and see a strident environmentalist in Haaland shake hands with someone who voted in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The only identifiable alternative pathway to achieving some semblance of coherency—making the caucus a partisan affair—would just thin out the caucus’s already thin numbers, weakening its legislative potential. It would also reintroduce the issue that the Congressional Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus have recently run into, wherein both progressives and conservatives have begun to knock at the door, only to have the groups close ranks in the name of ideology—often centrist. Opting for a party-driven caucus, opposed to the current bipartisan model, could, depending on the election cycle, very easily turn the Native caucus into a mouthpiece for either party’s establishment, which absolutely cannot be the goal, because neither party has proven itself a worthy champion of Indian Country.

This is a maddening problem that requires a carefully thought-out and tactfully implemented solution, yet the continued bipartisan failure of Indian Country and the resulting rolling series of crises it causes in tribal communities demands that it be addressed as swiftly as possible. If it is not, the existing fissures will only be widened as Congress continues to add Native politicians from across the spectrum, who will inevitably face moments that ask them to make a choice between the party line and the people of Indian Country. And if there continues to be hesitation or pushback instead of unified actionable demands, then this decades-long fight for Native representation won’t mean jack shit.

Thinking back to that oh-so-close hypothetical reality with six Native legislators instead of four: One thing a healthy, growing Native-only caucus could accomplish, even if it remains mired in party politics and ideological splits, is the construction of a recruitment pipeline and formalizing a staff role for the caucus.

A recruitment pipeline would mirror those established by the other congressional caucuses, designed expressly to identify and support fellow Native candidates for office. Again, the effects of increasing Native representation in Congress will be blunted if half of those recruited just mirror Mullin’s political approach, but, playing the numbers game, Haaland’s and Davids’ staying power this year seems to suggest there will, for the foreseeable future, be a counterbalance of moderate and progressive Democrats in the caucus as well. And in thinking through a potential recruitment effort, it stands to reason that the caucus will be defined by the candidates that it recruits. Add two or three more Haaland-esque progressives to the bunch, or even a couple moderates willing to cross the aisle à la Cole, and suddenly the group becomes a much more capable and formidable bunch, one that could even take the lead on climate policy and Indigenous land stewardship. But toss in two more Mullin types, who will often choose conservative or nationalistic ideology over progressive policies that also happen to benefit Indian Country, and it could well fracture the caucus and reduce its production to press releases and little else.

An increase in Native candidates would, hopefully, also help boost the number of Native congressional staffers—including one specifically for the caucus. Soto, a founding member of the Congressional Native American Staff Association, told me that of the thousands of staffers on the Hill, “Native staffers aren’t even a drop in the bucket.” The numbers back him up. According to a 2018 review of House staffers by the Joint Center for Politics and Economic Study, “not one Latina/o, Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI), or Native American serves in any of the 40 committee staff director positions or in any of the 24 top staff positions in the four top leadership offices of either party.”

“Strengthening the number of Native American members of Congress will only help to make caucuses like that more functional and more of a vehicle to advance policy priorities for Indian Country,” Soto said. “For the caucus, the biggest thing now is that there’s no staff. The way caucus staffs are formed is each member has to dedicate something from their MRA—their personal office budget. So for the current caucus, it could be like each one of them throws in $500 or $1,000 out of their budget. Basically, you need to fund an intern or a part-time staffer to function.”

An increase in Native candidates, staffers, and members of Congress would also help drive Native voter participation. Speaking at a recent virtual get-out-the-vote event earlier this week put on by NDN Collective, a Native-led group that organizes campaigns for Indigenous rights and land stewardship, Haaland cheered the fact that an estimated 11,000 new Native voters have been registered this year, adding that, “the more Native voters that we can get registered now, the larger the collective voice Indian Country will have on issues that impact all of our communities.”

This is where you’re left when you try to game it all out. At the end of the day, Indian Country politics, like American politics, do not follow a straight line. There is no path to equitable representation that is devoid of conservative Native politicians, and there is no functioning caucus without either an agreement to prioritize Indian Country legislation or, much less likely, a sudden shift in the caucus’s makeup that remakes it as a one-party, uniformly progressive group.

There remains still a larger, useful question of whether Congress, opposed to one’s own tribal community and government, is the best place that civically engaged Native people can channel their energy. And a cynical internal voice does still whisper that our continued participation in the American political scene, no different from mine at this magazine, is only a further part of the long game of assimilation—that by having us compete in the institutions produced by and used to uphold colonization, we can slowly lose sight of how ghastly the American machine has been and continues to be toward Indigenous people. It is also impossible, though, to ignore how harmful these institutions were when they actively blocked our participation, returning us from the land of the hypothetical to our often dissatisfying but nonetheless still fixable reality. As author, professor, and organizer Nick Estes, a Lower Brule Sioux Tribe citizen, told me earlier this year, “You can’t turn away from the [Bureau of Indian Affairs]; you can’t turn away from electoralism, even if we want to criticize it. These are the institutions and ways most people engage politics.”

In the grand scheme of things, a Native caucus that is brimming with Native politicians will not escape the quagmires of either D.C. or partisan politics. There will always be petty disagreements, assholes in power, and unnecessary bureaucracy. It won’t draw up legislation to wipe away all of Indian Country’s problems, nor would it untangle the knots of Congress—it may even pull them tighter. But as much as it would stand for a capitulation to nontraditional governance, a Native congressional caucus serves as a constant reminder of and inspiration for the resiliency of Native people. In the long fight for sovereignty and Native human and civic rights, a group like this is not the end goal. But there’s still hope that it can be a vehicle to move us closer to it.