Indian Country leaders keeping open mind with new senator
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — When Democrat Heidi Heitkamp leaves the U.S. Senate at the end of the year, members of North Dakota’s Native American community will lose a powerful friend on causes important to them, from school computers to voting rights to missing and murdered indigenous women.
Her Republican successor has close ties to a president some view as not overly friendly to minorities, and Kevin Cramer was accused of making disparaging remarks just a few years ago — words that Democrats tried to use against him in this year’s campaign. But many Indian Country leaders in the state aren’t jumping to write him off as a potential ally.
“I guess we’ll just have to get used to his style,” said Myra Pearson, longtime chairwoman of the Spirit Lake Nation.
Cramer defeated Heitkamp with 55 percent of the state vote, but in three North Dakota counties with large Indian populations — Benson, Rolette and Sioux — Heitkamp trounced him, with respective percentages of 63, 80 and 84.
That showing is not surprising — the Native Americans who make up 5 percent of North Dakota’s population tend to vote Democrat. But there’s more to it than that. They considered Heitkamp a friend and a partner, said Chase Iron Eyes, an activist and Standing Rock Sioux member who unsuccessfully challenged Cramer for his House seat two years ago.
“I’ve run against Kevin Cramer, and I don’t trust his leadership abilities,” Iron Eyes said, adding that he thinks the congressman is too close to President Donald Trump. “Kevin Cramer needs to be able to demonstrate to North Dakota that he can think independently and lead independently. I haven’t seen that. We would have definitely had that with Heidi.”
Heitkamp has said her advocacy for Native American causes was sparked by what she saw during her many visits to reservations. Her first bill was to create the Commission on Native Children, which she introduced in an emotional speech on the Senate floor in 2013, to address challenges of poverty, drugs and abuse.
United Tribes Technical College President Leander “Russ” McDonald, who was appointed to the commission by President Barack Obama, credited Heitkamp with often visiting reservations and meeting with tribal leaders to get firsthand knowledge of Native issues.
“That was helpful to any legislative work she did on behalf of those tribes,” he said.
Heitkamp’s advocacy may be best known via Savanna’s Act. She introduced the bill to combat the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, and launched the #NotInvisible Twitter hashtag to draw more attention. The bill, which recently passed the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, was named for Savanna Greywind, a slain woman with ties to both the Spirit Lake Sioux and Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.
Turtle Mountain Chairman Jamie Azure said Heitkamp’s departure “is a loss but not a catastrophic loss.”
“Sen. Heitkamp was an asset to Native nations, and I fully hope that Sen. Cramer will have that same mentality. I will reserve my take on the man until I meet him face to face. I look forward to separating some of the truth from the rumor.”
What gives some Native Americans pause are comments attributed to Cramer at a gathering of reservation victim assistance professionals in Bismarck in 2013. Cramer was reported to have said tribal governments and tribal courts were dysfunctional and questioned whether a non-Native man could get a fair trial on a reservation. He also was accused of saying he wanted to wring the necks of Spirit Lake Sioux leaders and slam them against the wall; the reported remarks were used in an anti-Cramer TV ad during the campaign.
Cesar Alvarez, lead organizer on the Fort Berthold Reservation for the state Democratic-NPL Party, recalled the remarks in a critical letter to The Forum during this fall’s campaign. “From Congressman Cramer, there has been silence — and even sometimes hostility — to Indian Country,” he wrote.
Cramer apologized for the “tone and rhetoric” of the comments in 2013, but said in a recent interview that the uproar was a misunderstanding of his compassion for combatting violence against Native women and children.
“I was expressing my outrage,” he said.
Cramer touted his work getting the Native American Children’s Safety Act passed in 2016, and co-sponsoring the Native Youth and Tribal Officer Protection Act this year. He considers himself an ardent supporter of tribal sovereignty, has Native American friends and even taught Sunday school on a reservation with his wife years ago. While he served as state tourism director in the 1990s, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation made him an honorary member.
Cramer said he inquired about getting a seat on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee but was reminded that North Dakota’s other senator, Republican John Hoeven, already serves as its chairman.
Cramer said his door will always be “wide open” to tribes. Azure, the Turtle Mountain Chippewa leader, intends to test that offer.
“I’m hoping that he’s open, I’m hoping that he listens, and then we move forward from there,” he said.