One year before winning the election of 2000, George Walker Bush, then Texas governor and Republican frontrunner in the presidential race, championed for states’ rights, which he believed trumped the rights of tribes.
During a trip to Syracuse, New York, in October 1999, Bush, already an adversary to Indian casinos in his home state of Texas, advocated a position that contradicted both the U.S. Constitution and more than 200 years of federal Indian law.
“My view is that state law reigns supreme when it comes to the Indians, whether it be gambling or any other issue,” he told the Syracuse Post-Standard on October 24, 1999.
Although Bush later reversed his stance and vowed to “protect and honor tribal sovereignty,” his initial comments set the tone for a lackluster presidency when it came to advancements in Indian Affairs. In fact, Bush spent the bulk of his two terms in office “actively ignoring” Indians and other minorities, said Scott Merriman, a history lecturer at Troy University.
Meanwhile, Bush ignored Native Americans almost entirely, said Michael Oberg, distinguished professor of history at the State University of New York at Geneseo.
“Of course Bush had the war on terror and other things that were absorbing his time, but he also was not interested in Indian policy at all,” Oberg said. “He didn’t know about the issues and had very little experience. Also, he just didn’t care.”
Despite contending with major national and international crises, Bush did take some minor steps to recognize Native Americans.
Six months after taking office, Bush led a ceremony to formally acknowledge the Navajo Code Talkers, presenting the Medal of Honor to the original Code Talkers and silver medals to those who served later. The Code Talkers’ mission was declassified in 1968, but most didn’t live to see the day the federal government officially recognized them.
Four months later, Bush declared November 2001 as National American Indian Heritage Month. In his proclamation, Bush credited Natives Americans for shaping the nation’s history and promised that his administration would “continue to work with tribal governments on a sovereign to sovereign basis.”
Bush also pledged to prioritize Indian education, honor tribal sovereignty and stimulate reservation economies. “We will work with the American Indians and Alaska Natives to preserve their freedoms as they practice their religion and culture,” he said.
As Bush campaigned for reelection in 2004, he stumbled over a question about tribal sovereignty, once again revealing a troubling ignorance of Indian issues. The comment came in August when Bush, speaking at a UNITY convention for journalists of color, responded to a question about what tribal sovereignty meant in the 21st century.
“Tribal sovereignty means just that; it’s sovereign,” Bush responded. “You’re a—you’ve been given sovereignty, and you’re viewed as a sovereign entity.” [This horrible, stumbling line is used at the start of Blackfire’s song NDN/Alien.]
The comment, itself nonsensical, set off a firestorm of protest from Native groups that took issue with the word “given.”
Bush quickly backpedaled on the sovereignty issue, and managed to do a few good things, but quickly reverted to type.
But Bush also opposed the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s efforts to prohibit Native-themed mascots and tried to cut to zero his proposed 2009 budget for urban Indian health—a loss of $21 million. In 2006, lobbyist and Bush supporter Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to felony charges for his role in defrauding tribes out of more than $25 million.
Alysa Landry’s full article is here.