One-hundred and sixty-seven years ago, Jacob Hamblin, a Mormon pioneer, polygamist and great-grandfather to U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., settled in Indian country in Utah.
Hamblin, a convert to the Utah-based faith, earned a reputation as a friend and missionary to the Indians, and served as a diplomat between the church and Southwestern tribes. His early relationships with Indians set the stage for one of the most prominent political families in the West.
Udall, 68, follows a long line of local, state and federal leaders who have helped shape Indian policy over three centuries. When he took office in January as vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Udall brought that experience to a post that promises him broad influence over tribes across the United States.
“A lot of what I bring to the office has to do with my family and the approach my family members have taken in the past,” Udall said during a phone interview with ICMN. “My ancestors were pioneers to the Indians, back in the 1880s, and we’ve always had lots of contact with tribes, lots of opportunities to work on relationships. This is what I grew up with.”
Udall was born in Arizona in 1948—the same year his grandfather, Levi Udall, then chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, wrote the majority opinion granting Native Americans living on reservations the right to vote. The ruling likely was the first of its kind in the country.
Udall’s father, Stewart Udall, served three terms as U.S. representative from Arizona, followed by an eight-year stint as secretary of the Interior, under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. As Interior secretary, Stewart Udall led the effort to change federal Indian policy from termination to self-determination.
Udall’s uncle, Morris “Mo” Udall, a one-time presidential candidate, served for 30 years as a U.S. representative from Arizona; and Udall’s cousin, Mark Udall, represented Colorado for 20 years in the House and six in the Senate.
“My father and uncle introduced an enormous amount of innovation and new policies to open the doors for tribes,” Udall said. “They worked on self-determination, on building the solid ground needed so that other laws could be passed later on. Working with Indians is something that’s very much part of my DNA.”
Udall began his own political career in 1991 when he took office as New Mexico’s Attorney General, a post he held for eight years. He then served as a U.S. representative for five terms and is currently serving his second term in the U.S. Senate.
Yet Udall, who has already served eight years on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said his first job as vice chairman and the committee’s top-ranking Democrat is simply to listen.
“Many of these tribal communities need a lot of help, and that’s been the case for a long time,” he said. “I think there’s been a lack of respect and a lack of understanding of Native American history and what they need. They were here first, and we need to respect that and work very carefully with them.”
Udall said he plans to focus on health care, education, housing, economic and energy development, infrastructure and public safety in Indian country. He also wants to crack down on the illegal sale of sacred artifacts.
“We’ve got to build the tribal capacity to tackle some of these huge justice issues,” he said. “We need to look at environmental protection, access to quality health care, safe housing, the protection of sacred sites and artifacts, and good education for kids.”
Udall has become a vocal critic of President Donald Trump’s early actions toward Native Americans. Specifically, he pointed to Trump’s executive order approving the Dakota Access Pipeline as an indicator that the administration’s approach to Indian country could be “misguided and cruel.
“President Trump’s decision to grant the easement and move forward with construction is deeply disrespectful,” Udall said. “When you understand tribal history, it’s very important to have the federal government at the executive level reaching out and working with tribes.”
Udall also has pledged to keep pushing for relief from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which admitted responsibility for the August 2015 spill at Colorado’s Gold King Mine. The breach sent 3 million gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas and San Juan rivers, poisoning farm and ranchlands on the Navajo Nation.
The EPA in January ruled that it would not compensate Navajo farmers and others affected by the spill. Udall, who has visited farmers who still won’t use the river to water crops or livestock, said he will continue seeking justice.
“The EPA hasn’t done enough to compensate people or give them confidence that the water is clean,” he said. “The EPA’s refusal to issue financial settlements to victims of the disaster is unacceptable. I will continue to fight to make those victims whole.”
Young Native leaders and those who know him best are applauding his appointment as vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Clara Pratte, former executive director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office, called Udall a “friend to the Indians,” much like his ancestors before him.
Pratte, Navajo, grew up in Apache County, Arizona, where she occasionally rubbed shoulders with the Udall family. It wasn’t until she was a graduate student in Pittsburgh, however, that Pratte learned about the Udall Foundation, an executive agency established by an act of Congress to award scholarships and internships to Native college students pursuing careers in health care or tribal public policy.
Pratte in 2003 was named a Udall fellow and spent three months on Capitol Hill. It was an opportunity that changed the course of her life—and encouraged her to learn more about Udall.
“The Udall family has this legacy of assisting Indians,” she said. “Their relationship with Indian country is deeply rooted, and Tom’s relationship has always been one of coming to Native people and respecting and understanding their sovereignty. He understands that Native people predate the federal government, and he bolsters that whenever he can.”
Udall’s appointment comes as Indian country faces an uncertain future, said Chris Helms, a long-time friend of the Udall family and the first executive director of the Udall Foundation. Yet the New Mexico lawmaker is perhaps the best-equipped politician for the position, Helms said.
“This is a very powerful role in the Senate, at a very important time,” he said. Sen. Tom Udall “will be leaned on by other senators because of his knowledge of Native American issues. He will be a valuable source for his colleagues and a friendly face to Native Americans when they bring issues to the Senate.”