It was the first day of the impeachment inquiry hearings and the media and public swarmed around and inside the Longworth House Office Building. There was only one topic being talked about on Capitol Hill, the impeachment hearings and the future of the country.
But the tribal leaders walking around that same building for other meetings had a different agenda. As one member of a tribal council said that day, "no comment." The tribal leader said there was too much at stake. The council had traveled to Washington to work on a water initiative and needed support from Republicans as well as Democrats.
The impeachment inquiry begins a new phase today, moving from the Intelligence Committee to the Judiciary Committee. This is where the articles of impeachment will be drafted for consideration by the House of Representatives. (If President Donald J. Trump is impeached by the House, the Senate will hold a trial to consider his removal from office.)
And tribal leaders are still unlikely to weigh in. But public positions or not -- Indian Country is paying attention.
Asa Washines, Yakama, understands the complicated position that tribal leaders face. He served on the Yakama Tribal Council in Washington state from 2013 to 2017.
He compares President Donald J. Trump’s situation to that of a tribal council member who’s acting badly.
“As a formal tribal leader, we’re held to the highest standard. You can get tossed out of council for things that people do like overspending on dinner. It’s about the moral of the story. Where’s the moral compass at? This is the most prestigious office that were supposed to negotiate with on issues. How can you have resolutions with the president when he’s unethical?” he said. “It’s hard for tribal council to comment because of the ongoing legislative power that they have. It’s a tough position to be in.”
He said if tribal leaders have an opinion of the president, “they get labeled as a Democrat or Republican.” Legislation that is currently moving forward could be moved to the back burner.
“It shouldn't be that way,” Washines said. “Sovereignty is nonpartisan. It’s supposed to be nonpartisan.”
Tribal leaders not only have to worry about their own nation, but others.
For example, if there is a really outspoken tribal leader in the Northwest, their opinion could impact tribes in the Southwest, he said. And they don’t want to do that.
“The bigger consequence could be a negative consequence for all of Indian Country,” Washines said.
That negative consequence was the last thing W. Ron Allen wanted as president of the National Congress of American Indians during the last impeachment process of former President Bill Clinton.
Allen was and is still is the tribal chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. He said the organization didn’t want the impeachment process to hurt tribal nations.
“Our main concern was would it taint and possibly undermine the unique relationship between Indian Country and the White House,” he wrote in an email in September. “The Clinton Administration was the first to elevate the government-to-government relationship with all 554 Tribes in 1994. It was a historic elevation in the respect for Tribes’ sovereignty and historic obligations to the Indigenous people of America.”
A Gay Kingman, Cheyennne River Sioux, works with 16 tribal chairmen, presidents and chairpersons as the executive director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association. She also understands why tribal leaders won’t talk about the impeachment.
She mentioned how Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer attended the signing of an executive order by President Trump last week. Lizer stood next to Trump and Lizer received a lot of flak. She also cited how last year men in headdresses at a Trump campaign rally in Montana received criticism.
Because of those incidents “I can see where people are careful,” she said.
When it comes to the impeachment inquiry, she said Congress is “following the law” because it’s an act set out in the Constitution.
The Yurok Tribe Vice Chairman Frankie Myers agrees with both the process and the law.
“The Yurok Tribe supports all sovereigns, federal, state, and tribal following constitutional processes. The tribe urges those involved to adhere to those laws and support democracy,” Myers wrote.
At the same time, “Congress needs to pay attention to the budget,” said Kingman.
Congress can do both, the impeachment inquiry and budget, but she’s also worried and looking out for the tribes. She wants the appropropriations passed so they can continue to operate, especially in South Dakota where are experiencing rough snow storms and are still recovering from the flooding.
Native people are “trying to survive and live and the impeachment tends to not be in the forefront,” she said.
If Trump is impeached, “his cabinet continues,” she said. It shouldn’t affect the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Education, or other federal entities that work with Indian Country.
Kingman has a lot of experience in Washington. She was there during the Clinton impeachment and where she worked as the director of public affairs for the National Indian Gaming Association and the director of the Seminar Institute. She had been executive director of the National Congress of American Indians before that.
Kingman said Clinton’s impeachment didn’t stop the federal government from doing business..
“That was another battle we weren’t part of,” she said. “It didn’t really affect us.”
Washines said impeachment does surface, as it did during the most recent meeting of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.
But such talk he said is limited because it draws attention away from issues that impact people every day such as health care or public safety.
“We have lawmakers that are focusing on the impeachment process when they could work on local issues back at home,” Washines said. “All the attention is getting sucked into the vacuum with the impeachment and it’s hard to get things done.”
One of the points that tribal leaders see is how Speaker Nancy Pelosi cites the impeachment duty as a Constitutional requirement. Yet “they should read further down and look at article 3 section 6 where treaties are the ‘supreme law of the land,’” Washines said. “And follow through on that.”
A second point that several tribal leaders raised was the idea of the vice president taking office if the Senate convicts Donald Trump.
“What does that [relationship] look like for Indian Country?” Washines said. “I know right now it’s hard to see what that would look like being that tribal issues are nonpartisan. I think tribes would reach out and try to have conversations with the White House.”
The former tribal council member said Vice President Mike Pence “seems more conservative on a lot of issues,” especially social issues.
What happens next? Washines and Kingman say they want to see the process and the law “play out.”
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