Kari Lake, the former television anchor seeking the Republican nomination for Arizona governor, I took to Twitter earlier this year to declare she will fight to preserve the “western Arizona heritage” and won’t let the state become like the California suburbs.
In the Feb. 12 tweet, the candidate wrote that “the spirit of all the cowboys that settled here in this unforgiving desert lives in each of us.”
At a time of increasing land acknowledgments, Indigenous advocates say Lake forgets the “unforgiving desert” was already inhabited and settled by Indigenous peoples who were here long before the cowboys she praised.
Even if the wording was an oversight, it has raised the question among Indigenous voters of how Arizona gubernatorial candidates will work with tribes if they become the state’s next governor.
Lake’s tweet led to some backlash in her Twitter feed and among Indigenous advocates. The online backlash grew after a second tweet March 15, in which she referred to Arizona’s “rugged mentality” that goes back to the “Wild West,” a history she said the “radical left” wants to strip away.
Lake did not respond to the first email sent in March asking for comment. She also did not respond to a second email asking for comment, although her team said they would send thoughts on the matter.
Pima County Recorder Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, the first Native American to be elected to any Pima County elected position, said she vaguely knew who Lake was until she looked her up. If Lake is bringing up “Arizona roots,” she said, that means honoring the Indigenous people “who’ve inhabited these lands well before someone drew lines on a map and called it a territory.”
“’Keep Arizona, Arizona’ means something different to me,” Cázares-Kelly said. “There are 22 distinct tribal nations in Arizona, and more than 25 percent of lands in this state are tribal. The name itself, Arizona, Al’shon, comes from the Tohono O’odham language.”
Indigenous influence is growing
In the 2020 elections, Indigenous voters helped sway the results in some Arizona races, and the state swung from red to blue in the presidential race for the first time in more than 20 years. Tribal leaders say that hasn’t gone unnoticed by GOP lawmakers, as new voting laws, such as House Bill 2492 requiring proof of citizenship to register, are being passed and signed into law, which moves Indigenous voters to believe they are an attempt to disenfranchise Native votes.
“Ms. Lake conveniently forgets or at least brushes aside the fact that this is the traditional and current home of proud tribal nations,” said Clara Pratte, chairwoman of the Native Caucus for the Democratic National Convention. “Long after this political grandstanding is over, we will be here. Divisive politics that attempt to harken back to a time of genocide is indicative of a lack of appreciation of the true spirit of the Southwest. This ‘unforgiving’ desert has treated us just fine. May I suggest a return to Iowa?”
Lake was born in Illinois and grew up in Iowa.
Not much is said on her campaign website about any kind of initiative focusing on tribes, other than “especially working with the various tribal nations throughout Arizona,” when it comes to water issues the state is facing. But working with tribes when it comes to water is only one issue.
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Carl Slater said it’s important to ask what Lake meant by preserving the Arizona Western heritage and what is her definition of the West? Does she include tribes and tribal sovereignty, Slater asks. Does she include establishing a process through the state to reaffirm ways water rights, or looking at to potentially get land back into tribal control, he asked.
Slater said he looks at the relationship between the Navajo Nation and the governor as government-to-government and as citizen-to-government and said he is concerned with how his tribal members and others who dwell in the city are treated.
“I care about those citizens and how they’re treated,” Slater said. “We need to have leadership across the state who respect their (Indigenous citizens’) experiences and who build up their ability to prosper.”
A governor’s working relationship with the Navajo Nation and other tribal leadership should include the role of the tribal economy, such as tribally owned casinos, Slater said, because the governor influence holds over gaming compacts.
And when it comes to resources and how provisions are divvied up, the governor has a lot of sway over where those resources end up. In Slater’s opinion, state programs for the Navajo Nation are more neglected compared with those in Phoenix.
“You can help set the tone between Native citizens and the citizens of the state of Arizona,” said Slater about the Governor’s Office. “And stoking division, which is how I see that tweet, that’s not a way to build harmony and trust.”
Why candidates should understand tribal concerns
The words used in the tweet, such as the “spirit of all the cowboys that settled here,” were poorly decided, Slater said. He said when you look at the cities in Arizona, it is made up of retirees, industry, all of the things that have brought people from elsewhere to Arizona.
“They want to seem like they’re legit and they have a stake and a claim outside of the fact that they came here for economic reasons,” Slater said. “Like the cowboys.”
What Slater would like to see is a progressive governor who will defer to tribal leadership and work to build up resources. He said the fact that Lake doesn’t have anything else regarding tribes on her website is concerning.
Slater supports Aaron Lieberman, a Democratic candidate for governor. Lieberman has visited the Navajo Nation a few times and met with other local community leaders in Chinle last June. Although he expressed his ignorance about tribal issues, Lieberman supports tribal sovereignty and listening to locally elected leadership on issues they identified with Slater said.
Kris Beecher, a Navajo attorney at the law firm Dickinson Wright, where his practice areas include Indian law and business and commercial litigation, has worked to register Indigenous voters in Phoenix. He said all Indigenous voters should understand how important it is to select their state’s governor.
“The fact that tribal members get to vote for the leader of their state and the leader of their tribe lets those tribal members have a huge role in shaping how tribes and the state will interact for the next four to eight years,” Beecher said. “Selecting a governor who does not understand or even worse doesn’t care about the sovereignty of tribes can lead to very negative consequences.”
Beecher said the Native American voting base has the ability to vote and elect candidates who show a willingness to positively engage with tribes and their members.
“In Arizona’s last election, candidates will witness the power of the Native American vote,” Beecher said. “When Native American issues are not given proper attention, they can vote those leaders out or pick candidates who advocate for Native issues. Any candidate for the governor of Arizona must show an understanding and command of the issues that tribes face, because simply running on a ‘border wall’ platform is unlikely to get the Native American vote.”
What candidates have said
Here is what some of the other candidates for governor have said about Indigenous issues:
Katie Hobbs: As Arizona secretary of state, Hobbs, a Democrat, said she has maintained consistent outreach to Indigenous communities personally and employed the office’s first tribal liaison and outreach coordinator.
“I made a commitment to proactively engage in a meaningful way with Indigenous communities and have a track record of doing just that,” Hobbs said. “Too often, these communities are an afterthought even though they are disproportionately impacted by our state’s biggest challenges. As governor, I will work in partnership with the 22 Indigenous tribes and nations of Arizona so they will always have a seat at the policy table.”
Hobbs said she has expanded access to the ballot in Indigenous communities by upgrading ServiceArizona.com to allow voters to register online even if their residence does not have a standard address and has opened a temporary hotline created to assist Indigenous and rural complete voter registration with nonstandard addresses.
Aaron Lieberman: The Democrat said he has met with leadership from the Navajo Nation, Hopi Nation, Gila River Indian Community and Pascua Yaqui Tribe (Tucson and Guadalupe), among others.
“The responsibility of the next governor of Arizona must be to strengthen the relationship between the state and the 22 sovereign tribes, remembering to always celebrate, honor, and reflect on the diverse cultures and immeasurable contributions of the honored tribes who call Arizona home,” Lieberman said.
Among his priorities when it comes to working with tribal nations: appointing a diverse group of tribal experts and leaders to state boards and commissions; strengthening the Governor’s Office on Tribal Relations; building stronger relationships with the sovereign tribal nations of the state; and looking at the state’s transaction privilege tax (TPT) share with tribal nations.
Marco Lopez: Democratic candidate Lopez sent a statement saying, “It’s imperative that our next governor includes tribal leaders in discussions about the future of Arizona and works with them to make decisions that benefit all of our people. Specifically, as governor, I will work with native leaders to address water security, increase access to broadband, improve educational opportunities, support tribal businesses, and make it easier, not harder, for rural communities to vote.”
Karrin Taylor Robson: “Arizona’s 22 federally-recognized tribes are a vital part of our state and will be a priority of my Administration,” said the Republican hopeful in a statement.
“As a life-long Arizonan, I have always appreciated the value of our Native communities and their incredible contributions to our state’s rich history. I look forward to meeting with tribal leaders, listening and learning about the issues most vital to them and the role Our state can play in assisting. Every tribe is unique, but there are shared challenges in terms of poverty, public safety, access to quality education, decent roads, reliable energy, clean water, and employment opportunities.”
Matt Salmon: During Salmon’s time as a US representative, the Republican signed a letter to the US Department of Justice in support of the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation’s efforts to prevent the sale of sacred artifacts. He introduced the “Head Start Improvement Act,” aiming to amend the program by authorizing block grants for pre-K education to eligible grantees in each of the federally recognized Indian tribes. He was a co-sponsor of the Keep the Promise Act, aimed at prohibiting gaming on certain land within the Phoenix area, among other things.
“I’m proud to be the only gubernatorial candidate with a proven record of protecting tribes’ independence, strengthening their relationship with the US government, and improving the lives of those on Native American lands. I look forward to working together and representing all of Arizona as our next governor,” Salmon said.
Arlyssa D. Becenti covers Indigenous affairs for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send ideas and tips to email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @Abecenti.
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