To a certain species of political observer, the popular impulse when confronted with ideological complexity is to see past any suggestion of nuance to a profitable corollary. To wit, two incumbent Representatives in South Dakota and California are contending with reductive charges of disinterest and misguidedness vis-a-vis the Native American community. Such manifestly misleading characterizations degrade the collective discourse with their speciousness and obscure commendable records of engagement with respect to indigenous affairs and policy.
A freshman lawmaker from rustic Hamlin County, rancher Kristi Noem upset the scion of a local gubernatorial dynasty, three-term Democrat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, in a hotly contested 2010 race. Noem had previously ascended the ranks of the state legislature, where she served as assistant majority leader of the Republican caucus, and toppled two financially flush opponents in that year’s primary. Shortly after her election, she demonstrated fluency in the grim statistics crippling the population of surrounding reservations in an interview with Native American Times, asserting, “I am aware of the numerous challenges that the nine tribes . . . face, and I am committed to helping them tackle [the obstacles].” And, true to her vow to advance economic expansion for the Indian landscape, the Congresswoman subsequently introduced legislation to guarantee tribal sovereignty from the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. She lobbied for an increase in the funding directed toward Natives in the Workforce Investment Improvement Act, and authored a provision in the House iteration of VAWA ensuring recourse for women on reservations or their respective Nations to petition the federal government for restraining orders. She has advocated for the creation of a permanent Office of Tribal Relations within the Department of Food and Agriculture to provide guidance on initiatives impacting indigenous peoples and their access to USDA programs.
Not to be deterred by cataloged reality, Noem’s detractors have painted her as a vacuous “beautiful smile,” an “inexperienced” and “uneducated” coquette who implicitly traded on her looks to achieve political success. The problem with such patronizing arguments is that they insult not only the object of their sexist and elitist derision, but also the constituency that sent the Congresswoman to Washington in the first place. As a prevalently rural municipality, South Dakota understands that practical concerns, economic constraints, and geographic isolation often prohibit or delay formal academic pursuits but also engender intellectual creativity and didactically pragmatic enrichments all their own. And, as clearly as they can discern aesthetic attractiveness, constituencies can just as quickly recognize the platitudinous vacancy that defines Matt Varilek’s vague and nebulous nods to Indian concerns. The former Senate staffer succinctly outlines ideals and issues, but all too often displays an aversion to specific solutions and detailed objectives.
In the arithmetic of this Mount Rushmore showdown, documented overtures resoundingly trump ambiguously articulated hollow talking points. Noem has earned a second term, and voters should not hesitate to extend her tenure for another two years.
Meanwhile, several thousand miles to the southwest, controversy has engulfed the contest for the Congressional district anchored in Palm Springs. After recordings emerged of Raul Ruiz proclaiming solidarity with Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal at a 1999 rally, supporters of the Coachella Valley physician hastened to position the good doctor as a champion of Native Americans and vilify his opponent as an antagonist to indigenous rights. Ruiz limned the tightrope of electoral calculus, expressing sympathy with Indian men and women, but simultaneously disavowing his prior homilies on minority fellowship. After conflating the plights of two discrete ethnic communities and disparate legal incidents thirteen years ago as a 27-year-old medical student, the Democratic nominee said this weekend that he was “embarrassed” by his “youthful” indiscretions, and hadn’t even familiarized himself with the cases of Peltier or Abu-Jamal until the recent firestorm.
Conversely, although she has provoked backlash from the Cahuilla and TASIN for highlighting her challenger’s disingenuousness, Rep. Mary Bono Mack boasts a sterling history of attention to indigenous issues. A vice-chair of the House Native American Caucus, the Congresswoman aided in the facilitation of a summit between Mitt Romney and tribal leaders earlier this cycle. And in addition to promoting the inclusion of Indian perspectives in the public dialogue, Bono Mack has embraced an array of bills structured around maintaining funding for Indian-related causes and encouraged a legislative correction to Carcieri v. Salazar. She delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Agua Caliente chairman Richard Milanovich this past March.
Such efforts undermine the facile narrative bolstered by the Congresswoman’s adversary and his backers. The inconsistencies in the Ruiz’s rhetoric shatter the contention that he has established himself as a hero of red power; after all, support is meaningless if retracted at the first indication of personal inconvenience. Natives and California’s 45th alike are better served by reliability and experience than craven doublespeak, and Mary Bono Mack is the proven voice for Riverside County residents of every background.
Educated at Darmouth College and Columbia University, Cole DeLaune is a native of Oklahoma and Tennessee. He currently resides in Atlanta, and has contributed editorial content to Vogue and Elle, among other publications. He is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma.