Elections 2012: My Sovereign Debate, Recalling George W. Bush’s Sovereignty Speech

What would a presidential debate look like if it were held in Indian country? It could happen.

A dozen years ago the Unity Journalists of Color convention was held in Seattle. There were some 6,000 journalists in town, the Native American Journalists Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Hispanic Journalists Association and the Asian American Journalists Association.

Two Republican presidential candidates – George W. Bush and John McCain – both declined an invitation to speak. But at the last moment they showed up anyway. Bush spent about 15 minutes walking around, shaking hands with what he said were “old friends.”

McCain cancelled an event in Ohio and flew to Seattle and to the meeting as well. He said in The Washington Post: “I picked up the L.A. Times and saw that GOP candidates … had decided not be here. So I rearranged my schedule.”

Meanwhile then Vice President Al Gore had a town hall on technology. I was asked to represent the NAJA and ask him a question. I think it was about access on reservations, but I can’t be sure. It went by quick.

But the encounter with presidential candidates, both Republicans and Democrats, stuck. Five years later the same Unity convention was held in Washington, D.C. And both major presidential candidates – then President George W. Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry agreed to speak.

Once again I was honored to be asked to represent NAJA and ask a question of Bush, a rare opportunity to explore American Indian policy with a president in a public forum. I thought and thought about what I should ask. How do I tap into the president’s thinking? I wanted an answer from him, not some carefully drafted statement from a policy intern at the White House. What can I do to make my query personal? Will that help make the answer specific?

This is what I said:

“Most school kids learn about government in the context of city, county, state and federal, and of course, tribal governments are not part of that at all. Mr. President, you have been a governor and a president, so you have unique experience looking at it from two directions. What do you think tribal sovereignty means in the twenty-first century and how do we resolve conflicts between tribes and the federal and state governments?”

President Bush stared. I could see his eyes, searching for the right words to answer what must have seemed incomprehensible.

“Yeah, tribal sovereignty means that, it’s sovereign. You’re a – you’re a – you have been given sovereignty and you’re viewed as a sovereign entity. And therefore, the relationship between the federal government and tribes is one between sovereign entities,” he answered.

The audience first gasped and then laughed while the president continued, finding the right words to say. “Now, the federal government has got a responsibility on matters like education and security to help, and health care. And it’s a solemn duty. And from this perspective, we must continue to uphold that duty,” Bush continued to polite applause. But few were listening because the impression had already been struck.


This episode was instantly transmitted on the Internet. “The Sovereignty clip” was found on YouTube, e-mailed to friends, and sent around cyberspace. Even to this day it remains popular.

Four years later, again at Unity, Barack Obama was there and made news. His challenger John McCain this time didn’t show up. And this election season none of the candidates appeared at Unity.

But Obama passed on another event that same year, one that could have opened a window into his thinking about Indian country. I moderated Prez On The Rez on the Morongo Reservation in California. This event wasn’t considered a big deal because neither Obama nor Hillary Clinton participated. But then New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson did. He said when he was asked, it took him all of 20 seconds to say “yes.”

None of these forums are true debates. But there are two points to consider when watching the “real” debates Wednesday night.

First, and most important, the issues facing American Indians and Alaska Natives in this country deserve a broader forum in the national discussion. Over a shared history of two centuries, there is so much that remains unsaid. How can a nation make promises in treaties, and then fail to fund them? How can Native Americans be invited to participate in the political and judicial process – and then have no representation? What would America be without Indian country?

And, second, I cringe when I hear from the presidential debate commission that it could not find any qualified African American or Latino journalists to moderate the debate.

Frank Fahrenkopf, President and CEO of the American Gaming Association, as well as the Republican co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, told the Poynter Institute that TV was to blame. “The television industry has not done a very good job with diversity with regard to really having women, or blacks or Hispanics in leading situations,” Fahrenkopf told Poynter via telephone. He said the presidential debates have included women as moderators, and Gwen IIfill as an African American and a woman. “We have not had a Hispanic yet; we looked very hard to try to find a Hispanic that met the qualifications. I know that we disappointed the Hispanic community, but you can only do so much of this. I mean, should there be a Jewish moderator? Should there be an Arabic moderator? You can only do so much of this, and so we just do our best.”

Our best? Give me a break. Although I suspect George W. Bush would have liked Unity a lot more if I didn’t ask him a question about tribal sovereignty.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.


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Elections 2012: My Sovereign Debate, Recalling George W. Bush's Sovereignty Speech

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