John McCain: The ‘imperfect’ servant who (mostly) championed tribal sovereignty

By Mark Trahant

How do we measure legacy? One act? Two? Can we assess the complete life or is our memory caught by the last thing we remember?

John Sidney McCain III has a legacy that defies answers to those questions. He is remembered as a patriot and a hero by many in Indian Country. Indeed, the list of his legislative accomplishments is long. Others say “no,” he forfeited being a hero when he inserted language into a defense bill to give sacred Apache land to a mining company.

McCain reflected a portrait that is America (and a changing America). He called himself an imperfect servant of the country. He was an unabashed supporter of American exceptionalism and tribal sovereignty. He wanted the federal government to spend less, yet always championed more money for Indian programs, especially health and education. (And always more money for his beloved military.) He mostly supported tribes. But then again there were always surprises. Add it up and these are classic examples of the concept of “duality,” the holding competing ideas in your mind at the same time.

“He also was a study in contradictions, an open struggle between his better angels and the tiny demons who got close enough to whisper in his ear,” recalled Suzan Harjo, Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee, a poet, writer, lecturer, curator and policy advocate. “In other words, he was a very human being, one of the most openly human politicians of his time. Charming and infuriating, he was really funny, but could be biting and inappropriate, and would be remorseful about that, and then would try to make up for it with humor. He was firm in his judgments, until and unless he learned he was wrong and, if he did, he would be as quick to apologize and make amends as he had been to misjudge. He respected regular order, but used unorthodox methods to achieve a fair amount of solid legislation and to gain his ‘maverick’ status.”

Sen. John McCain at the Capitol.                            photo

Rep. John McCain was elected to represent Arizona’s first congressional district in 1982. He was already well-known as the son of admirals and as a prisoner of war at the infamous Hanoi Hilton. Rep. Morris Udall, a Democrat, serving in southern Arizona, offered to school McCain on American Indian and Alaska Native issues.

McCain’s biographer and close assistant, Mark Salter, many years later described the relationship this way. “Udall came from, with the Goldwaters, one of the two oldest political families in Arizona. He knew the state and knew the issues -- water and land issues that were sort of unique to Western states -- that then-Congressman McCain really didn’t. And Mo Udall, in an extraordinary act, as McCain recalls it, of generosity reached out to John and said, ‘I want to work together with you on Native American issues, on land and water issues.’ And he took him around the state and really taught him his job, how to represent the state of Arizona.” Salter said “the influence of Mo Udall is sometimes overlooked, but it was a profound influence on him.

“A great honor in my life was the friendship and collegiality I shared with Mo Udall,” McCain said in October 1998. “Mo cared deeply about -- fairness and a better quality of life for Native American people. Mo’s conviction to fulfilling the federal government’s obligations to all Indian people was shared by few in the Congress. Often, he stood alone in his fight. His passion for ‘doing the right thing’ led me to share his beliefs and continue his work to uphold our fundamental responsibility toward the First Americans. Native American people have relinquished millions of acres of land for the prosperity of this nation and given their lives in defense of our national security.”

McCain went on to cite grim statistics and champion the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. “One half of all Indian children under the age of 6 live in poverty. Approximately 50 percent of Indian families headed by females live in poverty, compared to the national rate of 31.1 percent. Reports of Indian child abuse continue to increase, and unemployment rates are perpetually high. American Indians still suffer the highest mortality rates for any group in the Nation due to alcoholism, tuberculosis, diabetes, pneumonia and influenza. The number of HIV and AIDS cases affecting American Indian communities is increasing at an alarming rate. Earlier this year, at a Senate hearing on the unmet needs in Indian health and the disparity in health care funding, sad stories were told about how health care is denied to the most vulnerable.”

And, unlike many in Congress, he recognized that a lot of the action was at tribal level where health programs were being taking over from the Indian Health Service. “In an era of devolution and federal downsizing, the IHS is finally making its move toward tribal self-governance,” he said. He also understood, unlike most Republicans, that Medicaid was key to the funding picture for Indian health. “We are far short of where we need to be to ensure adequate coverage for all eligible Native Americans.”

And it wasn’t just words. McCain often pressed administrations, both Democrats and Republicans, for numbers that would match the ideal.

Many years ago, before he died, but after he was ill, I sat down with Rep. Udall and we talked about members of Congress. Udall did not hold anything back. He was candid. He talked about those in Congress who he felt said one thing and did another. It was the one time I ever remember hearing anger in Udall’s voice, especially when he talked about a senator from Montana. But on McCain? He was the real deal. Nothing but admiration. Even (or is it especially) when they disagreed.


Rep. Morris K. Udall, D-Arizona, Library Of Congress Photo

In 1988 I was one of three reporters who worked on a massive 13-part series for The Arizona Republic, “Fraud in Indian Country: A Billion Dollar Betrayal.”

Among other issues, the series examined the underpayments of oil and gas royalties to tribes by energy companies. This was before the Internet. So each day McCain’s office had us fax the stories back to his office. After the series was published McCain wasted no time. Working with the state’s then senior Senator, Dennis DeConcini, a Democrat, they successfully demanded a special investigation. Many of the royalty issues we reported were later those cited in the 1996 Cobell case.

McCain told CBS News in May of 2000 that the government “cannot account for $2.4 billion … if $2.4 billion for any other group of Americans could not be accounted for, there would be an outcry.”

“The financial mismanagement of American Indian trust accounts has long plagued relations between the U.S. Government and American Indians,” McCain said in his news release. “I applaud Secretary Salazar and Attorney General Holder for their leadership in crafting a settlement that promises to bring closure to the Cobell lawsuit. I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to determine the next steps for Congressional action on this matter.”

Decades ago no one thought Indian gaming would be the industry it is today. This story started in 1987 when tribes won a Supreme Court decision that said states could not regulate gaming in Indian Country (but states could make it a crime across the board). States hated this decision. The gambling industry -- back then mostly Nevada -- did not like it either. In other words there were powerful interests in Congress ready to enact a law to strip away the victory that tribes had just won.

McCain, Udall, and Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye set out to get the best deal possible for tribes. The emphasis is on “possible.”

I was still writing for The Arizona Republic and I interviewed, Rep. Tony Coelho, D-California, a member of House leadership. He described to me his love for horses and the horse racing industry. He said the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act would protect that industry -- and said that is why “the Indians had better get on board.” He really said that.

Udall said there would be a deal. He was holding out for the possible. There were many compromises made.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was not something that tribes wanted. But it was legislation that tribes took because Congress has taken everything away, especially the possibility of success. The Philadelphia Inquirer described the act this way on Sept.19, 1988: “Gambling on Indian reservations, a booming business of bingo parlours and small casinos, would be subject to new federal and state regulation under a bill passed by the Senate last week.

The booming business was then a $100 million enterprise. Today it’s billions. Tens of billions. Of course not every tribe, nor even every tribal member, has benefited from the success of gaming. But without question the industry has changed the face of Indian Country.

It’s fair to say that McCain was a reluctant supporter of gaming (but like all politicians he did like the campaign contributions). To him the issue was more about sovereignty than gaming. At a hearing in 2001, McCain said: “Let me start by emphasizing the congressional declaration of policy from the act which states that a key purpose of the Indian gaming law is to: Provide a statutory basis for the operation of gaming by Indian tribes as a means of promoting tribal economic development, self-sufficiency, and strong tribal governments." “This fundamental principle is the focal point of this hearing today, and that is the need to ensure that the framework of the Act to regulate Indian gaming is sound and keeps pace with the growth of the industry. Because Indian gaming is also part of a high-profile financial and patron oriented industry, the Committee is also compelled to ensure the general public that Indian gaming remains generally free from criminal activity or other regulatory problems.”

McCain took personally that idea of a criminal element -- including the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. McCain, who was then chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, described it as a scheme to bilk millions of dollars from the tribes. “Today’s hearing is about more than contempt, even more than greed,” he said. “It is simply and sadly a tale of betrayal.”

McCain called Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians into his office, and asked her how were tribes investigating the people that were hired to represent them. He suggested an NCAI conference session on the vetting process. There was a sense, she recalls, that McCain was thinking, “not on my watch.”

But then that duality. Condemning Abramoff “is not stopping John McCain from raising campaign cash with one of Abramoff’s closest business partners: scandal-plagued conservative activist Ralph Reed,” reported PolitiFact.

Sen. Jeff Flake

The action of McCain and his colleague Sen. Jeff Flake at Oak Flat, are what many say shows his true character. The two added a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act in 2014 to transfer land in Tonto National Forest to the foreign mining conglomerates Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton. However McCain and Flake were not alone. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat, now running again for the House in Tucson, was also on board as were other members of the Arizona delegation. Nonetheless for many this is a defining issue.

In August of 2015 McCain was in Window Rock on the Navajo Nation to commemorate Navajo Code Talkers when he was confronted by people chanting, “Water is life?” And some of the messages called McCain and Indian killer and he was not welcome. A video of the encounter went viral.

“Amid all this tension, many might be surprised to learn that 26 years ago, McCain was one of the strongest congressional supporters of protecting sacred sites like Oak Flat,” wrote Julian Brave NoiseCat in the Huffington Post. “McCain claims there is no contradiction between his past support for protecting Native religious freedom and his work to surrender Oak Flat to mining. He says his stance on sacred sites hasn’t changed. “The truth is, this land exchange legislation was a bipartisan compromise arrived at after a decade of debate and public testimony in Congress. It does not involve any tribal land or federally-designated ‘sacred sites,’” McCain said in a press release in June responding to criticism of the deal.


Harjo said McCain did make bad choices, including opposing protection for Native sacred places, “to put Mount Graham and Native religious rights in jeopardy and to push the red squirrel to the edge of extinction. Not long ago, he stood up for the little squirrel and I would like to think that he would have done something to halt the harm to Native Peoples and sacred places, had he not run out of time. I am so sad that he did not have more time, but he did great good with the time he had, and I am proud of the friendship we once enjoyed.”

McCain also advocated for tribal provisions in the Violence Against Women Act. He said: “Domestic violence is a national problem and not one that is unique to Indian Country. Yet, due to the unique status of Indian tribes, there are obstacles faced by Indian tribal police, federal investigators, tribal and federal prosecutors and courts that impede their ability to respond to domestic violence in Indian Country. This bill is intended to remove these obstacles at all levels and to enhance the ability of each agency to respond to acts of domestic violence when they occur.”

John McCain during his Speech to Senate after announcing Brain Cancer

Sovereignty is an answer McCain cited again and again. In his final speech at the National Congress of American Indians, McCain found that old theme. ”We must listen more to you, and get out of the way of tribal authority,” he said.

Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said McCain’s outstanding commitment to Indian affairs was demonstrated by his long service on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, serving twice as the Chairman from 1995-1997 and again from 2005-2007. Throughout his tenure, McCain worked closely with NCAI and tribes as he advocated for tribal sovereignty and self-governance. His latest bill, the Native American Education Opportunity Act, was introduced in March 2016, and since then, he has worked with NCAI and the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) to refine and strengthen the bill which will expand authority for tribes that run and operate Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools to exercise self-determination in Indian education. Of the bill, Senator McCain said in a statement: “It is unconscionable to leave Native American students stranded in failing schools when we can create the option of expanding educational opportunities on Indian reservations now.”

“McCain was in my recollection the first really vocal Republican advocate on Indian issues --- this was late 80s, early 90s on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee,” said Paul Moorehead, a former chief counsel and staff director for the committee. “He was a good vice chairman to Sen. Inouye and a good chairman in his own right when the GOP was in the majority. He was impatient and had a temper but when you’re trying to move legislation that’s a good thing, right?”

Moorehead said he worked on the “Indians for McCain” group in 2008 and he still thinks “he’d have been a hell of a president.”

And that may be the last element of duality. McCain expected support from Indian Country in his presidential bid. And, at least I remember, a lot of such support in 2000. But by 2008 the world had changed. And McCain was running against Barack Obama who had clearly made Indian Country a priority. (And to be fair: This is a much easier feat for a Democrat before the general election than it is for a Republican.)

But there is something else about that campaign.

Country First: GOP nominee John McCain selects Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. Photo by Vincent Schilling / Indian Country Today

John McCain represents everything that President Donald J. Trump does not. He investigates issues. He takes a stand and yet remains open to those with whom he would disagree. He is thoughtful. (Exactly why the funeral service featured former eulogies by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.)

This is the era when celebrity is more valuable than experience. And that era began, or at least gained credibility, when the Republican nominee for President of the United States selected a running mate who was not ready to lead this country. McCain’s campaign manager, Steve Schmidt told The Washington Post, “there are worse things than losing … I think the notion of Sarah Palin being president of the United States is something that frightens me, frankly. And I played a part in that. And I played a part in that because we were fueled by ambition to win.”

That, too, is on John McCain. McCain won his first office, in part, because of his celebrity. But at least his celebrity was followed by an ethic of hard work and learning.

McCain in his last Senate act called for a return to “regular order,” to a past where Democrats and Republicans disagreed, but worked together. That past McCain played a role in destroying.


Mark Trahant is now editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports


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