Indian Country Today Media Network recently interviewed U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and an advocate for Native American youth issues, about the incoming Trump administration and its lack of expressed Indian policies to date, her expectations for continued bipartisanship in Congress on Native issues, and her desires for the Commission on Native American Children. One message that the senator made sure to repeat: If the Trump administration were at all inclined to hinder Indian gaming, she would work long and hard to explain how tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, and case law would prevent such an action.
I want to start off generally, getting your impression of how Indian country will fare given the makeup of the new Senate/Congress as well as the incoming Trump administration. Is it all going to be doom and gloom, as some tribal leaders fear?
Given the businesses of President-elect Trump, which [includes] the casino business—there is a lot of concern about whether Indian gambling will be curtailed in any way. You know, we have to be mindful that it wasn’t Congress that gave tribes the authority to engage in gaming; it was, in fact, their sovereignty and the Supreme Court. I think there probably will be a learning curve [for the Trump administration] on what treaty rights are, a learning curve on case law regarding tribal sovereignty and treaty rights, and I expect that is going to present some challenges. I don’t think that there will be challenges in the Congress because there hasn’t been a lot of turnover, nor an inability to understand these issues at the [Senate] Committee [on Indian Affairs]. The committee has always worked in a bipartisan fashion. I think you’ll see a lot of continuation of that. You can’t really address problems of rural poverty without having a discussion of treaty rights and Native Americans, so I hope that instead of [Indian affairs] being an asterisk and being kind of relegated to the Department of the Interior, that we talk about this in a broader fashion.
If bipartisanship continues to be the norm on Indian issues, can you all work together to influence the administration to understand why it is important to do right by Indian country?
It’s always a challenge, even for people who are inclined to be incredibly sympathetic about past [injustices]. If you are from a place like North Dakota or Wyoming or Alaska or New Mexico, and you have been at all involved in public policy in your state, then these are issues you have been involved with. And so, it’s really incumbent upon those of us who have those special relationships and who have treaty tribes to continue to speak about the necessity of understanding what those treaty rights mean. And it’s also incumbent upon the tribes themselves to engage at a very high level on a lot of their concerns.
It sounds like you are fully confident that you will be able to continue to work in a bipartisan manner on Indian issues.
That’s always been the tradition of the committee. And we can go back throughout history and look at [positive] things that have happened for Indian country. Nothing has ever happened when it hasn’t been bipartisan.
Do you have any personal insights on how President-elect Trump feels about Indian policy and American Indians in general? He has testified before Congress in the past about Indian gaming in ways that many in Indian country felt were misguided at best, perhaps racist at worst.
Instead of sounding the alarms without knowing exactly where we’re headed, I like to believe that there’s an opportunity to educate. One of the things that I’m going to be very clear on: If you repeal the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, you haven’t changed outcomes for the tribes. The tribes still have the authority through treaty rights and sovereignty to engage in gambling. It can’t be touched by any administration. I think we need to be clear on the extent of the authority. To understand this, you have to understand the unique relationship between the federal government and treaty tribes.
Staffing and funding for the Commission on Native Children—are those issues that could be addressed in the waning days of the Obama administration?
I don’t think that we can afford to wait. This was my first bill that I introduced (to create the commission). I’ve been working on this now for three years. It’s not simply about getting the pen to the paper, the signature of the president—that was just an initial first step. I can make an argument that this is the best path forward to focus collaborative interventions that will change outcomes for Native American kids. If we change outcomes for Native American kids, we will change outcomes for all of Indian country.
Are you going to make a big push to strengthen the commission during this lame-duck period, or are you going to wait to do so under the Trump administration?
I am pushing every day. We don’t know what the structure is going to look like if there is going to be a continuing resolution [to fund government programs], or if it’s an omnibus. But we are going to continue to do everything that we can to get this commission going sooner rather than later.
If there is any inclination by the Trump administration to cut Indian programs, what can you do from your position in the Senate minority?
I think a lot of people appreciate that in the Senate we have to be more collaborative and more bipartisan in order to get anything done. We started out this Congress with 46 Democratic members; we’ll have 48 when we begin again. We have some great western legislators, and we have some great allies on both sides of the aisle. I think continuing to talk about the needs, and honestly to talk about treaty obligations and treaty rights, is absolutely essential.
How have non-Indian voters in your state reacted to your strong support for Indian issues? Has it been a wedge issue in your state?
I don’t think so. I have been pretty clear. I have been doing this work for 30-plus years. My awareness of the challenges for children has only gotten more passionate, especially with what I am seeing with opioid and methamphetamine abuse, and the lack of availability of treatment. I’m a senator for all of North Dakota, and I fight for the things that I think are important. We look for ways to work together on common problems.
Race issues, ‘us versus them’ issues, played a major role in the recent presidential election. Are racial issues a big problem in North Dakota?
You need to realize that in four years the people of this country don’t change so dramatically [in terms of racism] that they would go from electing Barack Obama to electing Donald Trump. We have to quit looking at this through a racial lens, and we have to start looking at this through an economic lens. When we talk about economic opportunities and jobs and strengthening our environment for small business, that’s when we all win.
Tribal citizens, in many instances, have been struggling economically for so long. Do you think that President-elect Trump sees the work that needs to be done in terms of economic growth for Native communities?
I don’t think that he’s gotten that granular. By that I mean I think he sees certainly the work that needs to be done economically cross the board to create opportunity. One of the things that we’ve done that I think you [would] find broad support for is supporting entrepreneurship. We’ve invested a lot in entrepreneurship and small business programs. There are underutilized opportunities. I could see a path forward for strong bipartisan support to build entrepreneurship and small business opportunities in Indian country in ways that will actually create more sustainable long-term economic opportunities. I’m kind of excited about that piece of it.
Any areas that I haven’t asked about that you’d like to highlight?
I think it’s important to not assume that this person now is all powerful and can do things that he can’t do. We still are a country of rule of law. The history and treaties that we have still matter. And we have to make sure that everybody understands how they matter.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.