Tribes Are A Political Force, If People Listen

January 6, 2003

In the weeks after the general election, the writing is still on the wall. The tribes are a political force to be reckoned with.

This is true here in Washington, just as it is true in other parts of the country. In South Dakota, for example, tribes have been credited with winning re-election for U.S. Senator Tim Johnson in the recent election. That was a victory worth celebrating.

Just as worthy of celebration is the defeat of Jim Johnson in his bid for position 3 on the Washington State Supreme Court. It would have been a travesty for this man to gain a seat on the state’s highest court. He held himself up as a champion of citizens’ rights and of the Constitution. He even presented himself as a green candidate, a self-proclaimed expert in fish and wildlife management. In actuality, none of these claims were true. Yet he almost pulled the wool over the eyes of the public, just as he did several newspaper editorial boards.

The fact is that he is an “Indian fighter”—a long time opponent of Indian rights, as evidenced by his quarter century history of litigating against the tribes in Washington, as well as in other states across the country. It was clearly important for the tribes to take action. Working through the First American Education Project—the same coordinating entity used to help deny Slade Gorton re-election in his last campaign—tribes raised enough money to produce and run a television ad. In a clear but succinct way, the public was informed that the camouflage Jim Johnson was using in an effort to portray himself as a middle-of-the-road candidate was deceptive.

Working with the Washington Conservation Voters, tribes reached out and told people that he was an enemy of the environment as well as the tribes, and that he was too extreme for the State Supreme Court. The tribes also reached out through further networking, email campaigns, letters, calls and news releases. And, after all the votes were in and Mary Fairhurst was declared the victor in the campaign, even Johnson, himself, said the campaign was lost because of the tribal/environmental effort. That was no small achievement, given the fact that Johnson campaigned with great vigor and almost evangelical enthusiasm.

As one newspaper reported, the ultimate winner in the campaign was the democratic process. The tribes had to convey the message, but voters had to cast the ballots. Tribal members gladly exercised their right to vote because they know every vote counts. When tribes unite, and develop networks of support, it speaks loudly in the political process. But the credit for denying a seat on the state’s highest court to someone with Johnson’s record belongs to all the voters who demonstrated their understanding of true democratic values and human rights by voting for his opponent.

Tribal treaty reserved rights are the “supreme law of the land.” The U.S. Constitution is clear on that point. But tribes only have political power if people listen to us, and if they concur with what we tell them. Our success in the political process rests heavily on one primary platform plank—our credibility with the public. We have worked hard to earn such credibility, and so it is gratifying when it reaps common benefits. In the natural resources and environmental arena, it appears that more and more people realize the tribes are firmly committed to wise stewardship and good management. They know that we have solid roots, positive legacies and deep concern about the health of the world our descendants will inherit. We support a sustainable, healthy economy, and we are willing to work hard in our honest effort to achieve it.

Building credibility, understanding and political unity between our communities, and working together toward common objectives is obviously a worthwhile goal. We breathe the same air. We drink the same water. We are poisoned by the same pollution. But it’s a goal that demands consistent effort and integrity. The defeat of Jim Johnson, like the defeat of Slade Gorton, was a clear sign that it’s an achievable goal. I thank the voters who had the vision to see this, and I look forward to the next campaign.

Billy Frank Jr. is the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

For more information, contact: Steve Robinson or Tony Meyer,(360) 438-1180

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