Native Americans Finally Have a Cabinet Nominee. Will an Adopted Tlingit Take Her Down?

As Congress ponders Joe Biden's nomination for Home Secretary this week, Joe Williams Jr. will be closely following the Saxman, Alaska process. Committee hearings are usually off the radar in this small town more than 3,000 miles from Washington, DC. At this time of year, the 353 residents tend to pay more attention to the sea lions. And Williams, a retired, 76-year-old, Conservative, born again Christian, doesn't usually draw for Democrats.
But that candidate is Deb Haaland, the second-term congressman who represents New Mexico's first district. If this were confirmed, Haaland, a tribal citizen of Laguna Pueblo, would become the first Native American Cabinet Secretary in United States history. Williams was also an indigenous first, albeit on a smaller scale: in 2005, he became the first Alaska-born mayor of Ketchikan Gateway Borough, the state's second largest district.
And like many Native Americans across the country, Williams, a Tlingit tribal elder, is all-in for Haaland. For the past two months, he and thousands of others have phoned, emailed, and written letters telling their tribal leaders and congressional officials to support the democratic decision to oversee states, natural resources, and Native American affairs. "I support her appointment 100 percent," Williams said of Haaland, although she is progressive and he has been a Republican since the Reagan years. "And the reason is, I don't have to explain to her what it means to be an Indian."
Domestic nominations are usually fairly uncontroversial: the last six presidents had all confirmed their first choice for the job with support from more than two-thirds of the Senate. But this time it is preparing to be different. Republicans have dug in against Haaland for their environmental views. Red State senators have called her "radical" and called her nomination "alarming". They swear they will do their best to stop them from getting the job.
But being against Haaland could come at a price. Native voters are an often overlooked but surprisingly important constituency that is less reliably partisan than other racial groups in the United States. They helped determine the outcome of the 2020 elections in Arizona, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, and could very well help determine congressional winners in the same and other states in 2022. In the fight against Haaland, the Republicans promise to overthrow a candidate who is considered to be groundbreaking for their people.
Some GOP senators don't think twice about it. For some, however, the risk is more immediate. One of them is Williams' Senator Lisa Murkowski. In particular, if coal-friendly West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin violates Biden on Haaland's nomination - he's still publicly undecided - the moderate Murkowski could be a decisive voice. Politically, she is in a bottleneck: her state depends on drilling, and she raised nearly three quarters of a million dollars from the fossil fuel industry in 2020 - more than any other sector. But it is also closely associated with local communities. Alaska has the largest number of voting-age Natives per capita in the country. And to add another twist, Murkowski is one of the few members of Congress with family ties to a tribe. In 2011 she was officially adopted by one of the Tlingit clans in her home state.
Like many politically active natives of Alaska, Williams doesn't see his people in conflict with Murkowski, who turned down an interview for this story: If it comes down to it, the senator is likely to stand behind Haaland. With the votes to confirm Haaland, which have not yet been received, Murkowski's situation could become the hope of the Indian country.
Williams' name in Tlingit, the language of the first humans in southeast Alaska, is Kakéskée (pronounced "Ka-kish-kay"). It roughly means "dirty mouth" and describes the way a salmon, freshly fished from the sea and bloody, hangs from an eagle's beak. Among the Tlingit, Williams' name signals that, like his mother, he is a member of the Eagle tribe and the Killer Whale clan.
Like eagles and killer whales, politics runs in Williams's blood. His parents used to be grand officers in the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood - the country's oldest indigenous civil rights groups. His family received Alaska's first Senators, Bob Bartlett and Ernest Gruening, both Democrats, for dinner at their Saxman home. Like his father, Williams identified as a Democrat at a young age. However, he gave up the party in the 1980s when he went to Alaska Methodist University in Anchorage, he says, although he can't remember exactly why. The change in the party didn't change his commitment to Alaska Natives. After decades of public service and civic engagement, including a year as mayor, mayor, and tribal president - the only Alaskan to hold all of these titles at the same time - Williams achieved his lifelong aspiration to become the president of the Alaska Native Brotherhood in 2018.
Joe Williams, Mayor of Ketchikan and Saxman, Alaska, speaks to the governor and fellow mayors during a press conference in Juneau on April 24, 2007.
Murkowski's political story originated not far away and is somewhat intertwined. She was born three miles up the road from Saxman in Ketchikan. Her parents, Nancy and Frank, attended the same school as Williams and ran Peace Health, a foundation that supports local hospitals, of which Williams also served as president. Frank, who served as a Senator from 1981 to 2002, named Lisa as his successor when he won governorship and vacated his seat in Congress. When the younger Senator Murkowski lost the Republican primary to Tea Party candidate Joe Miller in 2010, she started a general election campaign. And in a state where natives make up more than 17 percent of the electorate, Murkowski needed their votes. Like her former colleague Ted Stevens, a senator from Alaska who had dined twice at Williams', and like Bartlett and Gruening a generation earlier, Murkowski's campaign committee asked for an invitation to join the long tradition of Alaskan politicians having a Williams in the town dined Saxman.
Williams housed Murkowski and more than 30 members of her retinue in his partially renovated housing and urban development home - a standard for reservations across the country - whose dining room floors are still half made of plywood. Before dinner, he sang a Tlingit greeting and prayed for a good meeting. While feeding smoked salmon, a Tlingit staple, and appetizers, they talked about their families. Williams' wife Suzi has a strict rule: no politics in her home. After dinner, Williams prayed again, this time for Murkowski's fortune and wellbeing. When they finished eating, he brought Murkowski's court signs to every house in town.
Although most of the Alaskan natives are Democrats, in villages like Saxman they chose Murkowski in November. While the Alaskans may feel they could trust Murkowski because she had taken the time to get to know them, this was also a strategic vote: Miller, their opponent, was openly hostile to the Native, and the Democrat on the Ballot stood no chance of defeating him in the conservative state. When Murkowski was only the second Senator in United States history to win an enrollment campaign, Williams and Alaska Natives across the country enjoyed their re-election. "I just have to praise God for it," he said.
Beginning Murkowski's second full term in 2011, the late Selina Everson of Angoon accepted Murkowski into the Deisheetaan (Beaver) clan of the Raven tribe, an honor that recognized the Senator's attachment and leadership to the Tlingit. At a voter thank you event at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall in Juneau, Everson Murkowski named her esteemed mother, Aan shaawaatki - Lady of the Land. Since Williams 'wife is a raven, Murkowski Williams' sister-in-law was adopted by the clan and virtually every Tlingit aunt.
Adoption, as you can imagine, is not something the Tlingit do, willy-nilly. Traditionally, Tlingit adoptions take place in different clans and tribes. So if you are an eagle adopt ravens or non-Tlingit, and if you are a raven adopt eagles or non-Tlingit. The bonds formed by the rite should endure for generations. "The consanguinity is very thick," explained Williams. “And in the Tlingit culture, the tribal relationship is thicker than blood. One comes to clans: the clan relationship is thicker than the tribal relationship, which is thicker than the blood relationship. "
"It's an honor and a tribute, unlike anything I've ever been recognized with," Murkowski said at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing in 2015. "And it's a responsibility that comes with a name, which I take very, very much. " Seriously."
The Alaska Senator has repaid the honor with political attention; In public, she speaks eloquently about the myriad of problems Native Americans face, including the disproportionate tragedy of coronavirus on reservations, the scourge of suicides in Native American communities, broken promises to Native American veterans, and the decline of tribal languages. Murkowski was the Senate chairman for Savanna's law to improve data collection on violence against local women - a bill that Haaland co-sponsored in-house. She was a co-sponsor of the Not Invisible Act to coordinate action against the murder and trafficking of indigenous people - a bill that Haaland ran in the house. She often wears native necklaces and earrings on Capitol Hill, and has worn Tlingit-themed masks during the pandemic. Even their unusual vote against the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh was in line with the preference of the Alaska Federation of Natives.
Senator Lisa Murkowski speaks at the Alaska Native Brotherhood-Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand Camp Convention October 4, 2012 in Sitka, Alaska. In her remarks, she attributed a strong and well-organized voter turnout by the indigenous people for her successful enrollment offer in 2010.
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Murkowski is the senior Republican on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs - a committee she has been on since her first day in Congress. "Even in the most partisan environments of the Senate, it is fair to call the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs one of the most productive committees in the entire Senate," she said in 2011. "The secret of our success is that we work together across party lines Well-being of the natives. "
Crossing these lines is becoming increasingly difficult, however, as their partisan tribe, the Republicans in the Senate, increasingly speak out against Haaland's confirmation as Home Secretary.
Republicans want Haaland's confirmation hearing to be turned into prime-time footage for Fox News. Wyoming Senator John Barasso, the senior member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement that the "radical views of the first nominee for the Native Cabinet" are at odds with the responsible management of our country's energy resources. Montana Senator Steve Daines, who sits on the same committee, tweeted that he was "deeply concerned" with New Mexico Congressmen's support for the Green New Deal and would try to block its endorsement. Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy, also on the committee, told E&E News that he would challenge Haaland over the Biden government's plan to stop awarding new state oil and gas well leases.
For Indians, Haaland's appointment has a special symbolic power: a local woman ready to head a department that was once headed by a man who declared his mission was to "civilize or exterminate" local people. It is ironic to some that Republicans are now describing them as an existential threat to their way of life.
Deb Haaland, nominated Secretary of the Interior, attends Joe Biden's inauguration at the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021.
"They don't know what it is to be an Indian," Williams said of these elected officials from his party. "An old Indian proverb would say," Go a mile in his moccasins. "Then maybe you would come to this understanding."
Ordinarily, it would be a breeze for an Alaska Republican like Murkowski to vote against the appointment of a progressive environmentalist. Your state is more or less powered by oil, which for most years accounts for up to 90 percent of Alaska's unrestricted general fund. Only about 3 percent of Alaskans work in the oil and gas industry, but all residents who have lived and stayed in the state for a year receive an annual dividend based on industry revenue. In 2020 that was $ 992 in every pocket in Alaska. The Biden government's policies are in part aimed at going beyond this oil-centric status quo, and Haaland, who went to camps built on the Dakota Access Pipeline route in 2016 and cooked green chilli stew for protesters, was an outright champion of them . If she wasn't native, this would likely be an easy decision for Murkowski. However, the senator's personal connection and voters' dependency on local voters make it much more complicated.
And Indians take note of the fight. "Rejecting her appointment would send a message that we are not worthy of such high office," said Paulette Moreno, Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood. "And this message should not be shared with the world."
Haaland is loved by the First Peoples across the country. Their nomination sparked hope for representation among the indigenous peoples, and these voters will not lose the fact that the leaders of the Great Old Party are opposing them. The National Indian Congress wrote a letter to the senators asking them to endorse Haaland and created a template for tribal leaders across the country to do the same.
When a member of the Republican House asked Biden to withdraw his nomination for Haaland, five tribes in the Congressman's district wrote him a letter stating, “This historic nomination is more important to us and to the entire Indian country than any other cabinet nomination in the country recent history. ... Your opposition to the first and only Indian ever to be nominated for a cabinet position is likely to resonate throughout the Indian country. "
Gerald Gray, chairman of the North Dakota Little Shell Tribe, criticized statements by Senate Republicans, saying it was "time to put partisan politics aside, stop calling any Democrat" radical "and get things inside To bring movement. " In Daines' state of Montana, where, like Alaska, local voters make up a significant portion of the electorate, the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council put up two billboards decorated with Haaland's image last week: one in Billings and one in Great Falls. "Deb Haaland's affirmation gives hope to indigenous communities and the United States that they have a genuine natural resource steward in this high-profile position," said Ronnie Jo Horse, executive director of Western Native Voice, a native constituency that the state is active in the region. "Montana's local voters are watching," added Deputy Tajin Perez. "Senator Daines has the opportunity to do the right thing for all Montans and Americans."
Other natives, such as Williams' old friend Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam tribe and former president of the National Indian Congress who once served as an advisor to John McCain's presidential campaign, are reconsidering their support for Republicans. "My people, they would call me the symbolic Republican Indian," he said. "I would joke back with them that I switched to" I "for" Indians "." Maybe that's a sign of the times. The Native American Caucus in Congress has six members: three Democrats, three Republicans. And local voters are less likely than other races to identify with both parties. But if Republicans crack down on Haaland and the Indian country, that partisan balance could slip into the past as local voters increasingly join the Democratic Party and tribal leaders don't find their conservative friends in Washington as friendly when it comes down to it.
So far, the Tlingit and Alaska natives I've spoken to aren't too concerned about Murkowski. After all, because of them, she's a senator, outsider, and aunt. Since she voted in favor of Trump's condemnation, she has been threatened with criticism by Republicans in her home state, and former Governor Sarah Palin is reportedly considering a primary challenge.
With this in mind, the Tlingit and Indigenous insiders I interviewed expect Murkowski Haaland to ask some tough questions about energy policy, but ultimately to appreciate Biden's choice for the interior. "I believe that she is a woman of integrity and that she is fair and that she will counter the weight of the message of Sister Haaland's possible nomination," Moreno said. Even so, they do not take any chances, write and call Murkowski's office to express how important this coordination is to them.
Lisa Murkowski arrives at the Hart Building for the Republican Senate Lunch in Washington, DC on February 2, 2021.
With the Democrats in the state out of competition, the Alaskan Indians have little incentive to vote out a political ally. But for some, betrayal of this meaning could cast doubt on their ally's strength. Local voters also know that with Murkowski already risking another right-wing primary, the Senator has little incentive to insult them - many of them are independent and can vote or sit out in any of the state's party primaries if they choose - since they did likely needs their support to fight back such a challenge. Some of the Alaskan Native people I spoke to for this piece said they would be ready to withhold their votes in 2022 or could see their people do so if Murkowski doesn't vote to confirm Haaland.
"I trust she will do the right thing because she knows exactly what the Indian people have been going through for years," Williams said, referring to the long history of indigenous people insulted by the federal government and both parties that do has made many politicians suspicious.
The retired tribal leader last saw his sister-in-law from the clan in August 2019. She came back for dinner, according to Williams, and while he said he would be disappointed if Murkowski doesn't vote for Haaland, the Senator has an open invitation to return and they are not allowed to discuss such matters in Suzi's house anyway. Politics may run in Murkowski and Williams' blood, but family, tribe and clan are thicker. As for the rest of Murkowski's party, who do not share that kind of kinship, local voters may not be as forgiving.
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