Harry Reid, the Democratic leader of the U.S. Senate since January 2007, keeps copies of The Good Fight, his 1998 book about the history of his hometown, Searchlight, Nevada handy in his Capitol Building office, so that he can give them to the many visitors he greets while Congress is in session. When Indian Country Today Media Network recently visited the Senate majority leader, he was quick to point to and quote from Chapter 24, titled, “The Renegade Indian,” which highlights the life and times of Queho, an Indian who lived in the region of Nevada where Reid’s family is from, and who had been cheated by businessmen and others in the early 1900s to the point that it allegedly drove him to murder.
When asked how he relates to Indians, Reid immediately brought up Queho: “One of the largest manhunts in the history of Nevada—they could never get Queho. They couldn’t catch him.” Indeed, the body of Queho, according to the senator’s book, wasn’t found until 1940, having eluded police and others chasing him for dozens of years. In the end, he was done in by a rattlesnake, Reid said with a smile.
It is obvious that the strong-willed Reid admires the uncatchable Queho, despite his alleged crime. As the senator was recalling this tale, it was easy to think of how angry Republicans were at Reid in July after he brought up Mitt Romney’s unshared tax returns, suggesting that the GOP presidential candidate hadn’t paid taxes for 10 years. Reid had no concrete evidence to back up that claim, but he kept hammering on it—a crime, according to some Republicans (with some going so far as to label him Dirty Harry)—but one that Renegade Reid, with no rattlesnakes in sight, got away with. And he may get some of the credit for Romney finally releasing his 2011 tax returns in September.
Most people know Reid as a rich and skilled politico, but he has a background familiar to too many American Indians. He has lived through extreme poverty (his boyhood home had no indoor toilet, hot water or telephone). He has overcome meager education opportunities (his hometown had no high school, so he had to move 40 miles away to live with a family to go to school). And he has dealt with extreme familial challenges (his father was an alcoholic). During his interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, he recalled a Paiute tribal leader who attended an Indian school on scholarship to play basketball—a situation Reid identifies with: He was only able to attend Utah State University thanks to the financial assistance of a businessman who saw promise in him.
“One reason I care so much about Indians is that they remind me of me,” Reid said. “I’m able to talk to Indians about where I was born, what I came from.” He says he’s especially proud to have supported the nearly two dozen tribes and tribal organizations from his home state, while also pushing for better funding and economic development opportunities for tribes nationwide.
It is abundantly clear that roots are important to Reid—both his roots and those of the nation’s 566 federally recognized tribes. “The culture and language are so important—we have a tribe in Nevada where the elders are trying hard to work with the younger people to keep the culture and language alive,” Reid said. “That’s something we need to work really hard on. I think it would be easy to get a few dollars to accelerate that a little bit.”
Loyalty is also a trait that resounds strongly for him, and he believes President Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress have been loyal to Indians, while Romney’s attitude toward them is unknown, but suspect. “If you are Native American, and you hear that Romney only cares about half of the country, what half do you think you fit in?” Reid asked. “Do you think you fit in with the Wall Street crowd?”
In an exclusive sit-down with ICTMN, the senator discussed his legislative priorities on Indian issues, a tribal role in Internet gaming, and he shot down rumors of a contentious relationship with the current head of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
What’s your familiarity level with Indian country? You have several tribes in Nevada. How connected to them are you?
Well, this is one of the few times in my life that I boast. I try not to boast on most things; but on Indians in Nevada, I boast whenever anyone asks. I have done more with Nevada Indians than all the rest of the Congressional delegation [from the state] put together since 1864. I say that without any reservation.
We did one of the most complex settlements ever that involved two Indian tribes, the Fallon and Pyramid Lake Paiutes.
We ended a 100-year water war between the states of California and Nevada. It involved wetlands that were so important to the Indians.
We resolved all that, getting money for the Pyramid Lake Tribe. The litigation is almost complete—once it’s done, they will get some big economic benefit. The Fallon Tribe already got their money.
We also got two new schools, one at Pyramid. Previously, they had to walk across a main highway to get to a gymnasium. They now have a beautiful school.
The thing I’m working on now: For 47 years the Moapa Band of Paiutes and about 300 other Indians have been about two football fields away from a coal-fired power plant. Those Indians suck in over 50 million tons of coal dust and soot and everything that comes from there. I have come out very publicly saying that the power company has taken advantage of these Indians. I want a lawyer to sue them.
As Senate majority leader, you must see a lot of Native Americans. How do you relate to them?
One reason I care so much about Indians is that they remind me of me. It’s really hard to comprehend that we’ve gone for centuries and Indians are treated the way they are.
Take, for example, the Owyhee [people] in Nevada, they are in a place that is so unbelievable. They put those Indians up there to farm—it freezes about 10 months out of the year. But that’s where [the federal government] put them.
Are American Indians important in this upcoming election?
I am doing everything I can—I even helped raise a little bit of money—to help organize Indians. They are crucial in Montana—seven percent of the vote; crucial in North Dakota—five percent of the vote; they’re helpful in Nevada. They’re important in Arizona and New Mexico. They’re important because Indians vote 90 percent Democratic, and rightfully so.
Some folks will say Republicans have historically been good to Indians, such as President
Richard Nixon’s support and push for Indian self-determination.
Listen, Richard Nixon did a lot of good things. He did the Clean Air and Water acts; he redid health-care reform; China policy. He was the kind of Republican I served with when I came here 30 years ago. Forget about Watergate. Nixon really did some progressive good things. But the Republican Party of Nixon is not the Republican Party of today. The Republican Party today is—you know, look at Romney, “Whatever you need”—a plastic man. Just tell him what you need today, and he says, “Yep, you can mold me today; I’ll change whatever you need.” The Paul Ryan budget—that’s bad not only for Indian country, that’s bad for any country.
So you don’t think Indians can trust Romney? The GOP has put out a pretty strong platform on Indian policy.
If you are Native American, and you hear that Romney only cares about half of the country, what half do you think you fit in? Do you think you fit in with the Wall Street crowd?
I’m not here to boast about how great things are for Indians because they are not—we have tremendous problems. But we have done things, for example, on the Violence Against Women Act. We made sure we protect Indian women and families—even though the Republicans wanted that knocked out. We’ve done the Cobell [v. Salazar] settlement. We don’t have to talk about platitudes, or what we hope to do. We have actually done some stuff.
Many Indians are hoping for legislative action on a fix of Carcieri v. Salazar.
I think it’s something we should do, but Native Americans are not all sold on this.
Will that division in Indian country hamper the possibility of a clean Carcieri fix?
It’s certainly not going to help. We have to work our way through all this.
Are you open to a compromised Carcieri fix?
My middle name is compromise. The art of legislation is compromise and building consensus.
How is your relationship with Senator Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs? There was talk that Akaka had wanted a clean Carcieri fix attached to the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership [HEARTH] Act when it passed in July, but you moved forward with HEARTH without Carcieri. Was there tension between you and Akaka?
Senator Akaka is a wonderful person; he is truly the best. His important voice will be missed with his retirement [this January]. Congress has a solemn obligation to honor treaties, the supreme law of the land, and uphold tribal sovereignty. Chairman Akaka, who is a Native Hawaiian, is the second Native American to lead the committee. He has some priorities he would like to see [acted upon] before he retires, and I would like to help him with some of those things.
These two pieces of legislation should be passed on their own to ensure tribes not only have better tools, but good law on their side.
How do you feel about the Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill Akaka is trying to get passed this Congress?
I support Senator Akaka’s efforts on Native Hawaiian issues. We have been working on this legislation a long time, and I know how important it is to him and to the Native Hawaiian people.
Internet gaming is also something many Indians are paying attention to because you are working on passing a bill in this area—is there a role in that for tribes?
Listen, I wrote the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. I didn’t do it because I wanted to. The Supreme Court had made a decision on the [California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians] case, so I had no choice. We liked it the way it was [before that decision] with Nevada as the only place you could gamble. So I, for a short period of time, did everything I could to stand in the way of Indian gaming. But I’m a convert. I think it has been so good for Indian country. But I am totally opposed to off-reservation gaming.
With Internet gaming going forward, do you see a place in that for tribal components?
We already are doing that on Internet poker. I’m for [tribes having a role in] Internet poker.