As with everything else in his life, McCain's legacy with Native Americans was complicated
In 1998, as he was nearing the end of his life, Rep. Mo Udall, an Arizona icon who had spent 30 years in the U.S. House, bestowed a special obligation on his good friend from across the aisle, John McCain.
"Don't forget the Indians," Udall told him.
A decade earlier, the two helped draft the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a transformative piece of legislation that had opened the door to economic self-sufficiency for many Native American tribes by allowing them to become a major force in the multibillion-dollar casino gambling industry.
Before his death on Saturday, McCain had been the longest-serving member of the powerful Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and he had twice served as its chairman.
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In 2005, he helped bring Jack Abramoff to justice after the disgraced lobbyist defrauded tribes of millions of dollars, and in the past two years, he sponsored or co-sponsored at least a dozen bills on Native American issues ranging from water rights to repatriation of pilfered Native American artifacts.
But to draw a straight line from the Udall tableau, which is recounted in a 2008 New York Times profile, to John McCain as the universal champion for Native issues, would be a mistake.
Issues with Navajo housing
Like so many other aspects of McCain's life, his relationship with Native American communities was complicated, and his stance on their issues was often as much a source of tension as it was celebration.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye told The Republic Saturday that he and McCain had a warm relationship that was punctuated by icy moments.
The two clashed on major issues like the scandal-plagued Navajo Housing Authority, which squandered hundreds of millions of dollars while building only a handful of houses, and Navajo-Hopi relocation, a controversy dating back to the 1970s that has also cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
In both instances, Begaye said, McCain's solutions involved cutting off funding, which would have added further injury to Navajos who had already been hurt.
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But in both cases, McCain was willing to come to the negotiating table and listen to the tribe's concern with an attitude of true respect, Begaye said.
Begaye said McCain's tough stance on the housing scandal forced the tribe to start putting its house in order, something he called "a positive and a negative at the same time."
Begaye said McCain was always willing to meet with him, even when he would call the senator on short notice when he happened to be in Washington, D.C. He also praised McCain's work on a stalemated agreement over a project that would bring water from the Little Colorado River to the western Navajo Reservation.
He said McCain told him he wanted to get the deal done before he eventually left office, but it never happened.
"I know he was terribly disappointed with that," Begaye said.
Begaye said he would always be grateful not only for McCain's military service, but for his commitment to Navajo veterans.
Did he understand indigenous people?
But not all Native American communities regarded McCain so warmly.
Amanda Blackhorse, the lead plaintiff in a long-running lawsuit aimed at getting the Washington, D.C., National Football League team to change its name, which many Native Americans feel is offensive, said McCain supported her efforts.
But even though McCain once told a group of sports editors that if he owned the team he would consider changing the name, Blackhorse said his stance on other issues negated any good will as far as she was concerned.
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"I didn't think he truly understood the dehumanization of indigenous people," Blackhorse told The Republic via text message Sunday.
"He didn't seem to understand how he negatively impacted Diné (Navajo) elders and their families in Big Mountain" with his relocation legislation, she said. "Many of us are still mourning our grandmothers and relatives as well as the loss of land under the hands of McCain's anti-Indian policies."
One of those policies was McCain's support for a complex federal land swap that allows one of the world's largest copper companies to dig a massive mine beneath Oak Flat, near Superior. Some consider the site sacred in Apache culture. Native Americans also have concerns that the mine will destroy a promontory in the area known as Apache Leap. According to widely accepted cultural lore, 75 Apache warriors jumped to their deaths rather than surrender to the U.S. Cavalry.
The land swap, which was vigorously opposed by the San Carlos Apache tribe, is expected to result in as many as 7,000 jobs near Superior, and while some of those jobs could go to Native Americans, that doesn't outweigh the religious and cultural losses the tribe will suffer, San Carlos Apache leaders have said.
“In ancient times and today, references to Oak Flat can be heard in our songs, rituals, teachings and language,” tribal council member Wendsler Nosie Sr. told Cronkite News in 2016. “Oak Flat is everything that makes us who we are.”
Nosie and members of Apache Stronghold, a group opposed to the mine, could not be reached for comment Sunday.
A push for Indian gaming
But while McCain has his detractors in Indian Country, his work on the Indian Gaming and Regulatory Act of 1988 was a transformative achievement on behalf of Native Americans.
"Indian gaming is the most important modern economic driver for Native Americans in the U.S. Period," said Kathryn R. L. Rand, co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota.
Rand, who along with co-director Steven Light testified twice before McCain and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on gaming issues, said gaming has grown to a $32 billion industry with some 480 operations run by 260 tribes in 28 states. In addition to economic development in Native American communities, it has led to the creation of 100,000 non-tribal jobs.
McCain's role as one of the architects of the legislation that led to that boom showed there was "no doubt he was committed to tribal sovereignty and economic development" as a means of eradicating poverty.
Light, who co-wrote a book with Rand on Indian Gaming, said, however, that by the mid-2000s, McCain began to worry that gaming, which had expanded exponentially in its first decade, was getting out of control.
Light said McCain was concerned about the spread of gaming to "trust lands" away from reservations, such as the recent controversy over the move by the Gila River Indian Community to open a casino near Glendale.
McCain wanted Native American communities to be successful, but not too successful and not at the expense of other competing interests, Light said.
That, taken in context with criticisms of his stance on Oak Flat and the Black Mountain relocation, probably reflects the pragmatic side of McCain, the politician.
"Sen. McCain was a fine mix of pragmatism and pure principle," Light said. "He believed in the use of policy to do good in the public interest, but as a pragmatist, he had to balance that with his other constituencies."
Light and Rand both said it will be difficult in today's political climate for someone to pick up the mantle of leadership on Native American issues the way McCain did.
"Typically members of Congress from states with significant populations of Native Americans 'get it,' " Rand said.
Today, those include Tom Udall, D-N.M., and North Dakota senators John Hoeven, a Republican, and Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat.
However, none of them approach McCain's stature.
"Finding a true champion is much more difficult today," Light said.
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