Tribal members push less government, more sovereignty to conservatives


Participants gather in a hallway at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, which annually draws top conservative speakers - and this year drew some tribal leaders. (Photo by Keerthi Vedantam/Cronkite News)

By Keerthi Vedantam

WASHINGTON – The audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference had heard the message of low taxes and local control from speakers before.

But they had never heard it from one group of speakers who showed up Thursday to the annual gathering: Native Americans who called for less government oversight on reservations and greater tribal sovereignty.

“Try to build a road in a national park,” said U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Oklahoma, and a member of the Cherokee Nation. “Try to put a Denny’s in a national park. It doesn’t happen.”

He and others said that’s because excessive government bureaucracy in Indian Country makes it all but impossible for tribes to push infrastructure and economic development projects in light of the “barriers put in place.”

“Paperwork on paperwork on paperwork” that Mullin said gets in the way of what could otherwise be an economic engine driven by natural resources in Indian Country.

“We can’t achieve that financial freedom because … I have to ask Big Brother for permission,” he said.

Dwight Witherspoon, a legislative assistant to Navajo Council Speaker Seth Damon, said tribes and conservatives have to recognize their “commonality, because it absolutely does exist.”

While that may be, James Adakai said there are other concerns that Native voters need to keep in mind. Adakai, a Navajo who is chairman of the Democratic Party in San Juan County, Utah, points to environmental policy.

“There are a lot of values we share as a Democratic Party with the indigenous communities, starting with protecting lands and protecting the Earth,” said Adakai, who described himself as a lifelong Democrat. “It’s not perfect but it comes close to our beliefs.”

Adakai criticized what he called a Republican approach to the environment that prioritizes oil and gas drilling.

“The land is the way of life to Native American communities and the Republican agenda, when they look at the land, is they want to extract it for mineral development. Whereas from a Native perspective we want to preserve the land,” he said.

-Cronkite News video by Alyssa Klink

In Congress, there’s an even split between Native American members. Democratic Reps. Sharice Davids of Kansas and Deb Haaland of New Mexico made headlines when they became the first Native American women elected to Congress last year. They joined two Republicans, Mullin and fellow Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole.

That shouldn’t be surprising, said Brandon Ashley, a Navajo who serves as a senior policy adviser for Sen. John Hoeven, R-North Dakota.

“A lot of this stuff is kind of the basis of what conservatism is all about,” Ashley said of the topics covered Thursday at CPAC. “Being self-reliant … less government regulations.”

Gavin Clarkson, a New Mexico Republican and member of the Choctaw Nation, said tribes face other government challenges, like businesses having to pay both federal and tribal taxes.

“For example, there’s not Walmart on the Navajo Nation,” Clarkson said after the CPAC discussion. “The dual taxation and the oppressive federation regulation makes it impossible to do business on the reservation relative to doing it off the reservation.”

He echoed the panelists who said Native Americans have much to gain from supporting Republican-backed causes and vice versa.

“A lot of people at CPAC don’t fully understand that tribal sovereignty and private property rights are two sides of the same conservative coin,” Clarkson said. “Unfortunately, far too much of Indian Country supports Democrats even though it’s against their sovereign interests.”

That’s puzzling to Mullin.

“How does Indian Country line up with conservatives? We’re fighting for the same things,” he said.

And Clarkson, who hopes to help flip New Mexico’s 2nd District seat in Congress back to Republican control, said the Native American vote cannot be ignored.

“New Mexico has a large Native population. Arizona has a large Native population,” he said. “We need to educate each other and work together.”


  1. 1924 that’s 90 years ago Congress made American Indians citizens unless they lived on reservations so the act of 1934 which was 80 years ago they became citizens. It would be 1968 that’s 46 years ago they gained the right to vote with-out testing first, and a year later 1969 which is 45 years ago gaining the Right of Freedom of Religion.
    Less than half of all the Tribes have Federal Recognition. From the BIA there are 566 Tribes that have it along with 54 that have only State. 2378 have none with 798 that have applied for Federal right now which includes the 54 that has only State. At this time American Indian or Native Americans make up less (just under) than one percent of the population of this Country. Only Federal can have anything on the Reservation to generate funds, but it has to be approved by the State who also gets a cut from the profits, then Both Houses of Congress, the BIA along with the BLM. If any of them say no then it doesn’t happen, and you apply again.

  2. America has been oppressing Native Americans for 100 years – by giving them stuff.

    The same thing happened with President Johnson’s “Great Society” – that’s when the huge ghettos of the late ’60s and ’70s formed.

    But after World War II Japan and Germany got to have economic rebuilding to quickly become two of the most powerful economies in the world. Native Americans should have had that economic building 100 years ago so they could be independent and free Americans.

    This is plain history that everyone can see – if they look.

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