For years, environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest have referred
to Sen. Slade Gorton, the Republican from Washington, as "Senator
Skeletor." But in Indian Country he's known as the "Custer of the
Senate." And with reason. For the past 25 years, Gorton has been
bashing Indians as relentlessly and ruthlessly as Strom Thurmond
and Jesse Helms have race-baited blacks.
Gorton's noxious rhetoric often turned out to be just that--rhetoric.
For much of his career, he has lacked the influence to back up his
overheated chest-pounding. But as chairman of the Senate Appropriations
Committee's powerful sub-committee on
Interior and Related Agencies (including the Bureau of Indian Affairs),
Gorton is now in a position of tremendous power over the more than
550 federally recognized Indian tribes, fully capable of turning into
legislation his perverse obsession with punishing some of the poorest
people on the continent.
Sen. Slade Gorton has emerged as a true visigoth.
Credit: Ken Lambert/Washington Times via Newsmakers.
Since he became chairman in 1995, Gorton has moved against Native
Americans on a myriad of fronts by attempting to slash federal support
for Indian health care and schools, restrict salmon fishing rights,
exert control over tribal housing developments and tax casino profits.
In 1998, Gorton led the ultimately unsuccessful fight to strip Indian
reservations of their sovereignty and institute means-testing for
federal aid to tribes.
Tribes across the country are now fighting back, vowing to help
defeat Gorton in November as he runs for his fourth Senate term.
A tribal PAC has already begun running ads against Gorton throughout
Washington, attacking the senator not only for his record on Indians,
but on the environment as well. "If you ask Indian leaders who is
the enemy," says Ron Allen, a member of the Jamestown S'Klallam
tribe of Washington and vice president of the National Congress
of American Indians, "Gorton's would be the first name and the last
Back in the Reagan years, the vile James Watt, the Gipper's hapless
Interior Secretary, grabbed headlines by denouncing Indian reservations
as "the last bastion of Communism." Watt was rebuked for his impertinence
and ridiculed by political pundits as a right-wing, born-again-Christian
bigot. But over the past couple of decades, Watt's cause has been
sedulously carried on by Gorton.
While the press savaged Watt, Gorton has been treated by the media
as a more serious character, often described as "studious," "brilliant"
and "mercurial." There are better descriptions of Gorton: cranky,
peevish, rueful, petulant and vindictive. "He has a brusque, prosecutorial
manner and the demeanor of a coroner," says a longtime staffer for
a Republican senator. "He likes to bully people, even fellow senators,
into taking his side."
Part of Gorton's animus toward Indians appears to be personal.
In the early '70s, the Lummi Nation won a landmark court case, known
as the Boldt decision, giving tribes the rights to half of the steelhead
and salmon returning to their spawning grounds in the Puget Sound
basin. Gorton, then Washington State attorney general, was outraged
by the decision and mounted two appeals to the Supreme Court. He
suffered stinging rebukes in both cases and has been on a vendetta
Gorton rode into the Senate in 1980 on the heels of the Reagan
landslide, defeating old liberal warhorse Warren Magnuson. It was
a nasty campaign, highlighted by Gorton's smearing Magnuson as being
too enfeebled to be re-elected. Upon taking office, Gorton moved
swiftly to settle his old scores with the tribes. In 1981, he introduced
a bill that would have overturned Indian treaty rights to steelhead
trout fisheries in Washington. Gorton's first term in the Senate
was by all accounts uninspired, and in 1986 he lost his seat to
Brock Adams, who enjoyed the support of Washington's growing environmental
vote. Embittered, Gorton vowed revenge.
After working as a lobbyist for the Non-Indian Negotiating Group,
a coalition of corporations and white landowners seeking to weaken
the sovereignty of the tribes, Gorton was back on the political
scene in 1998. Campaigning as a full-fledged right-winger, Gorton
was narrowly elected again to the Senate. But it wasn't until 1994--after
the two moderate, senior Republicans from the Northwest who held
Gorton on a tight leash, Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood, had left
the Senate--that Gorton emerged from the shadows as a true Visigoth,
nearly indistinguishable from Idaho's Larry Craig or that grim duo
from Alaska, Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens.
The only groups to rank near Indians on Gorton's hate list are
environmentalists. Upon his return to the Senate, Gorton, backed
by timber industry cash, immediately went to work to unravel the
Endangered Species Act (ESA). He pursued the task with such zealotry
that it landed him under the scrutiny of the Senate Ethics Committee.
In 1995, Gorton introduced a bill that effectively would have dismantled
the ESA. Public Citizen filed an ethics complaint against Gorton
when it uncovered a memo to the senator from his chief environmental
aide, Julie Kays, describing how lobbyists for two anti-ESA industry
coalitions had written a draft of his bill. The two groups, the
National ESA Reform Coalition and the Endangered Species Coordinating
Council, are bankrolled by timber, mining, ranching and power concerns,
including the Northwest Forestry Association, Chevron, Kaiser Aluminum
and the Idaho Power Company. "The bill takes some getting used to,"
Kays wrote. "However, I think that the coalitions did a tremendous
job of adopting your ideas and putting them into the bill."
These very groups have invested heavily in Gorton's political career.
The ESA Reform Coalition had given Gorton $34,000 in campaign contributions.
Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, accused Gorton of violating
Senate rules by "using corporate lobbyists as an extension of his
Senate staff. ... The law is clear that the public's business must
be done by people on the public payroll."
Gorton shrugged off the allegations of impropriety, telling the
New York Times that he "was perfectly willing to get the free services
of good lawyers." The coalition's lawyer, Robert Szabo, was similarly
dismissive: "Senator Gorton laid out his thoughts to us, he asked
our help, and we gave it to him."
Nonetheless, in an admission of just how thoroughly corrupt official
Washington has become, the Senate Ethics Committee refused to reprimand
Gorton, ruling that "such exchanges are common and acceptable practices."
Gorton has enjoyed a similarly cozy relationship with the fanatically
anti-Indian Citizens Equal Rights Alliance, a coalition of nearly
500 groups that is pushing to end the tribes' right to self-government
on reservation lands. Despite its claim to be a human rights group,
CERA's real interests become clear on a visit to its Web site (www.citizensalliance.org),
which is cluttered with references to the evils of "multiculturalism,"
the dangers of a global government administered by the United Nations,
and intimations that tribal governments "currently deny millions
of people living on or near Indian reservations their full constitutional
Among CERA's objectives, two stand out: to "ensure the right to
own private property on or near Indian reservations" and to "ensure
the fair administration of natural resources on public lands for
the general welfare." Thus, it's not surprising that more than 50
percent of CERA's member organizations have an interest in mining,
timber or oil and gas, and that the organization itself is closely
affiliated with the anti-environmental Wise Use movement. These
corporations and businesses want a return to the old days, with
unfettered access to tribal lands, free from pesky environmental
regulations or noisome requirements that they hire tribal workers.
Since the early '90s, CERA has worked closely with Gorton and his
staff on a range of anti-Indian measures, most of them unsuccessful.
A few examples: In 1991, Gorton went to bat for sport and commercial
fishermen by introducing a bill that would reduce the tribe's take
of salmon and steelhead. Later that year, he sought to block legislation
giving tribal courts jurisdiction over reservation residents who
are members of other tribes. In 1995, Gorton introduced a rider
bill directing that any tribe be denied at least 50 percent of self-governance
funds if they fail to accommodate non-Indian water claims on reservations.
The measure, a kind of senatorial blackmail, was largely aimed at
his old enemies, the Lummi.
In 1998, Gorton introduced CERA's dream bill, the cynically titled
"American Indian Equal Justice Act." It was offered as a kind of
political extortion: Surrender self-rule or lose millions in federal
money. Gorton's bill, which passed the Senate but was rejected by
the House, would have required all tribes to surrender their tribal
sovereignty in order to receive federal funds and for all tribes
getting federal money to be means-tested. Ada Deer, a member of
the Menominee Tribe and former assistant secretary of Interior for
Indian affairs, called the measure "termination by appropriation."
There's a deeply ingrained paranoid streak to Gorton's politics.
This paranoia is evident in Gorton's description of Indian tribes
as being an expansionist threat to white people in the West. Such
fear-mongering hasn't been heard since the press frenzy after Crazy
Horse and Sitting Bull whipped Custer at the Battle of Little Big
Horn. Earlier this year on the campaign trail, Gorton boasted of
his efforts to "fiercely protect the rights of [the tribes'] non-Indian
neighbors." He casts his efforts as a crusade to protect little
people. But in reality Gorton's chief backers are big corporations
that want to continue exploiting Indian resources: coal companies,
aluminum factories, timber firms and factory fishing fleets.
Gorton tends to portray tribal governments as run by incompetent
and power-hungry cabals that want to exert oppressive controls over
white people and corporations. "I don't think Indians should be
able to impose their will on non-Indians," Gorton has lamented.
He argues that tribal governments should surrender their immunity
from civil lawsuits. To illustrate his point, Gorton repeatedly
has invoked a 1994 traffic accident involving a Yakima tribal policewoman
who ran a stoplight, leading to the death of teen-ager named Jered
Gamache. Gorton said that tribal sovereignty prohibited Gamache's
family from suing the tribal government in non-Indian courts. (It
should be noted that Gorton is an advocate of tort reform, limiting
jury awards in such lawsuits in federal court.) Outrageously, Gorton
even compared tribal police to the cops that tortured Haitian émigré
Abner Louima. "What makes the case of Jered Gamache different from
the case of Abner Louima?" Gorton proclaimed in 1997. "Tribal sovereign
Later, Gorton denied making the statement. But when the Portland
Oregonian confronted him with the fact that it had appeared in a
press release issued by his own office, Gorton sheepishly mumbled
a half-apology. But what Gorton didn't say, and the press didn't
report, was that although the Gamache family couldn't sue the tribal
government, it could--and did--sue the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Gorton tends to portray the federal payments to the tribes as if
it were a form of welfare. Of course, the so-called Tribal Priority
Allocation isn't a handout. It's a treaty obligation, a payment
for the millions of acres of tribal lands seized by whites and the
The senator also inveighs in moralistic tones against Indian gaming,
a rallying cry of the Christian right. Gorton suggests that tribes
with casinos are on their way to becoming as wealthy as multinational
corporations. He argues that the tribes should be means-tested and
that those making a profit should be stripped of their federal allocations.
(Meanwhile, Gorton spends much of his time in the Senate defending
the interests of Boeing, securing tax breaks and lavish defense
contracts for this multibillion-dollar company.) Gorton's pious
attacks on Indian gaming also overlook the fact that few of these
operations are actually making much money.
A self-described fiscal conservative who wants to abolish the IRS,
Gorton also has piously suggested that tribes could more than recoup
their federal payments by imposing property taxes on tribal members.
Naturally, the senator thinks it's unfair that the tribes are able
to levy sales taxes and other user fees on non-Indians. "When the
tribes find a way to make a dollar," says Herbert Madzu Whitish,
chairman of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe in Washington, "they always
find a way to take that away."
Last year Gorton was able to sneak through a provision that allows
the Bureau of Indian Affairs to reallocate $70 million from the
richest to the poorest tribes. Gorton said that the measure was
intended to address "funding inequities," but tribal leaders charge
that it's a back-door assault on the federal government's treaty
obligations to pay tribes regardless of their financial condition.
"They haven't done an analysis of who's rich and who's poor," says
Wayne Shammel, an attorney for the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua
Tribe in southern Oregon. "So how can they redistribute a substantial
portion of our priority allocations based on someone's unilateral
choice on which tribes are wealthy and which aren't?"
But this is just Gorton's first step. The senator also wants to
force the tribes to begin opening up their financial books, using
a divide-and-conquer strategy designed to pit the tribes against
each other. "Tribal nations have kept up their end of the treaty
agreements made with the United States," says Mark Anthony Rolo,
a member of the Bad River Ojibway tribe of Wisconsin and editor
of The Circle, an American Indian newspaper. "If there's deep distrust
among Indian nations toward the federal government, it's because
ill-informed politicians like Senator Gorton insist on dreaming
up schemes to keep us down."
But Gorton finds himself on the defensive as he faces a tough re-election
battle against his likely Democratic opponent, former congresswoman
Maria Cantwell, who herself faces a challenge in the September primary
from state insurance commissioner Deborah Senn. The tribes are a
large reason the Democrats may have a shot at toppling Gorton. In
1998 the tribes formed a PAC, called the First American Education
Project, that began raising money for a media campaign aimed at
toppling Gorton. The Project intends to buy nearly $2 million worth
of ads opposing the senator.
The first ads are now beginning to air in Washington. They won't
directly address Indian issues, mainly because that might backfire
on the tribes. Instead the initial ads target Gorton for his role
in inserting language in a military spending bill that would have
overturned a federal court injunction against a gigantic cyanide-heap-leach
gold mine in northeastern Washington. The mine, owned by Battle
Mountain Gold, has been opposed by both environmentalists and the
Colville and Nez Perce tribes.
Of course, Gorton is a shrewd politician, and he has deftly exploited
the tribes' ads to portray himself as a victim in order to drum
up even more financial aid. Gorton's campaign coffers are now bloated
with corporate cash. As of June 30, he has pocketed more than $3.8
million, and that figure is likely to double before the election.
By comparison, Cantwell has raised a little more than $1.5 million
and much of that has already been spent to boost her name recognition
and fend off Senn.
Still, the tribes have let the senator know that he's in for a
fight. "We want to make a statement that if you attack the tribes
there will be consequences," says Allen of the National Congress
of American Indians. "Now we're able to bite back."
Jeffrey St. Clair
is the co-author (with Alexander Cockburn) of Al Gore: A User's
Manual, just published by Verso.