Does Warren’s Plan for Native Americans Add Up?


The Seattle City Council has passed an (unfunded) resolution, calling on the city to consult with tribes, appoint a liaison, and collect more data on the — dreadful — problem of missing and murdered  indigenous women and girls. The United Indian Health Institute says Seattle leads the nation in such cases. The institute looked at 506 cases in 71 cities. Council member Debora Juarez who sponsored the resolution, suggested that “we’re invisible,” and that’s why the problem hasn’t attracted more attention. That’s certainly plausible, but if there’s such a glaring lack of data, who knows?

At any rate, while gathering data doesn’t equal solving the problem, it seems a reasonable place to start.  And it’s not a novel idea: In fact, the council’s call for more data echoes part of Elizabeth Warren’s plan for “honoring and empowering tribal nations and indigenous peoples,” released a week and a half before her Seattle Center campaign rally.

Warren says she’d set up a Justice Department task force, create a nationwide alert system, and launch “a fully-funded independent national inquiry.”  But she suggests or implies certain things that she doesn’t support with information and that seem undercut by the acknowledged lack of data.   Her section on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls refers in one place to domestic violence – is Warren saying that domestic violence plays a large part in the murders and disappearances?  Is this just a parallel problem?  It’s unclear.  

 Warren is, or course, running second in most polls by now, and one assumes that her plans for virtually everything have at least not hurt her standing with potential voters. But do people like the existence of the plans or the content?  Does anyone actually read them carefully?  

For instance, anyone who does check out her statements on foreign policy quickly finds that she doesn’t have a lot.  She’d double the size of the Foreign Service, bring the troops home, house them better, refuse to sign Trump’s NAFTA 2.0 unless it does more for American workers. That’s about it.

She says less about how she’d deal with foreign nations than how she’d deal with Indian tribes.  For the latter, she proposes a kitchen-sink collection of new legislation, old legislation, legislative carve-outs, sweeping ideas to solve the problems and swell the coffers of Native American tribes. Some of it goes so deeply into the weeds that it sounds like a compendium of some tribal officials’ wish lists. Her big idea is a new entitlement designed to bypass the chronic underfunding and Congressional oversight of Indian healthcare, education and infrastructure. This sounds suspiciously like a blank check. It would be a prescription for corruption – not because tribal leaders are Indians, but because they’re human. This would come on top of the new entitlement assumed in Medicare for All, for which she reiterates her support. It’s not clear why she would keep Indian Health Services if we really had Medicare for All, but she doesn’t suggest taking anything away from anyone.

She doesn’t incorporate the Cherokee Nation’s recent push for a non-voting delegate to Congress, which the Cherokees claim was promised in a treaty signed by the United States during the administration of Andrew Jackson (a treaty that helped send their ancestors on the “Trail of Tears”). She would, however, create a new cabinet-level council that would presumably argue for Native American interests.

She would give the tribes more independence and also more money. Doesn’t that sound like a kind of oxymoron?

Of course, her proposal would cost a lot of money, and she neither suggests how much nor explains where the money would come from, which means the whole thing is less than a real plan. Yes, this is the time for big ideas, not bean counting, but sooner or later the beans will have to be counted, and odds are they won’t add up. 

To its credit, Warren’s plans do focus on real problems, many of which exist largely outside the sight and consciousness of urban “progressives.”

A lot of problems on reservations are, as Warren points out, basically problems that afflict much of rural America: crappy infrastructure, spotty healthcare, lame internet connections, a sense that decisions are being made far away by people who don’t get it. Yes, recognized tribes have unique legal standing, but maybe the tribes could be part of her broader approach to the problems of rural America. 

Long distances and low population densities didn’t matter when no one expected paved roads or reliable cellphone reception, or access to MRIs. Now,these are rural problems that no one has come close to solving. If the nation really embarked on a big-budget effort to rebuild old and create new infrastructure – what are the chances? – will Indian Country require a separate effort? And what really would make sense to build?

Legally, the tribes are sovereigns, but they are not entirely sovereign.  Their powers on their own reservations are limited.  Warren says she’d provide a “full . . . fix” for Oliphant, a United States Supreme Court decision lost by Washington’s Suquamish tribe in 1978. The Oliphant court ruled that tribes had no criminal jurisdiction over offenses — which in this case included assaulting a tribal officer and speeding — committed on reservations by non-Indians. The court made it clear that Congress could grant jurisdiction, but Congress hadn’t done so. Congress still hasn’t.  Warren mentions Oliphant when she talks about  missing  and murdered indigenous women and girls.  It’s not clear why.  Is she suggesting that non-Indians drive onto reservations to commit crimes against women and girls?  That tribes catch them but can’t prosecute?  Whatever she means, the fact that Oliphant was decided more than 40 years ago suggests that a lot of people in Congress would just as soon leave it unfixed

Off reservations, she’d make it a good deal harder to build anything that impinged on traditional Native American sacred lands. Do we really want more consideration of religion – anyone’s religion – in public life? On the other hand, if we’re going to have more, why not show some respect for religions beyond fundamentalist Christianity?

She’d also revoke permits for the Dakota Access pipeline (already built) and Keystone XL pipeline (not yet and possibly never to be built, although its would-be builders just won a big victory in the Nebraska supreme court), which tribes have opposed. There are plenty of reasons to dislike either or both. But vowing to revoke permits should make us all a bit uneasy. Do we need another erratic chief executive hell-bent on undoing what her predecessor did? That has been one of the (many) arguments for getting rid of Donald Trump.

Politically, it’s hard to separate this proposal from Warren’s claims of Native American ancestry — Trump’s taunting her as “Pocahontas,” the DNA test she took to show that she really did have Native American genes, tribal leaders dissing her for that, her subsequent apologies. She has now apologized twice, most recently at the Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City. After apology number two, Jennifer Rubin wrote in The Washington Post that Warren had just “[p]ut a neon light around her biggest misstep,” reinforcing the suspicion that “she’s a naive candidate who plays into Trump’s hands.”

Trump has told supporters he’ll “revive” the “Pocahontas” taunt.  Why not?  It may not rank up there with “crooked Hillary,” but it’s certainly one of his greatest hits. Still, how bizarre is it for the President of the United States – or any other adult — to boast that he will revive a playground insult?

Maybe Warren can get people to talk a little more about the problems of Native Americans, as Jay Inslee – kind of – did with climate change   Sanders and Castro have Native American policy proposals, too, albeit less extensive ones  Maybe Warren and her rivals can raise the profile of tribal issues. That would be good. But you probably shouldn’t bet on it.

 Still, these policy proposals aren’t just do-good rhetoric.  Tribes have become a well-organized interest group to which some state politicians have been appealing for years.  This primary campaign seems to be taking that local political reality to a national level.  That may turn out to be a bell not easily unrung.


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