Indigenous Wire Q&A: Wendy Helgemo, former Indian affairs advisor to Harry Reid, shares insights on his Native legacy
One major lesson: ‘No matter how long something takes, there's a path forward.’
Editor’s note: Sen. Reid is scheduled to lie in state later today at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. A memorial for him, featuring Presidents Biden and Obama, took place on Saturday in Las Vegas. We recently published “Remembering Harry Reid’s Native American legacy.”
WASHINGTON – Wendy Helgemo served as the Native eyes and ears for Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, of Nevada, during the latter years of his long service, including during the intense time he served as majority leader.
As his senior American Indian affairs advisor from 2009-2017, she intimately knew his power over Native American policy like few others.
Long an advocate for American Indians and tribes, Helgemo says she learned some major lessons from her former boss, and she thinks he learned some from her, too.
“As a member of Team Reid, I listened and learned so much,” the Ho-Chunk Nation citizen wrote in a recent op-ed published in The Nevada Independent. “Once upon a time, I did not know a lick about things like immigration – but learned because I knew it was important to Sen. Reid. In turn, he listened to me about tribes and made sure everyone had a seat at the table in the halls of Congress.”
Reid’s passing on Dec. 28 at the age of 82 as a result of complications from pancreatic cancer has allowed her to reflect in this new year on her successes with the senator and how his influence impacted Indian Country.
“Sen. Reid often used to start sentences with, ‘I want everyone within the sound of my voice to know…’ When he said that, you knew something good was going to happen – and maybe someone bad was going to go down in the process,” wrote Helgemo, who now serves as a senior legislative lawyer with Big Fire Law & Policy Group LLP. “Sen. Reid made our country a better place for First Americans – and every one of us.”
(Learn her favorite “Ho-Chunk memory” of Reid in our recent piece, “Remembering Harry Reid’s Native American legacy,” along with many other details of the Native policy issues he worked on over his 34 years in Congress.)
Indigenous Wire recently spoke with Helgemo for an extended interview about the senator’s legacy and some of her insider’s view of a few of the major Native policy issues that developed during her time by his side.
As you know, I did a couple of interviews with Sen. Reid, once when he was Majority Leader and once last year in his retirement. You were there for both of them, and I appreciate all your help in facilitating those. Please share how you came into the senator's orbit and what was it like working for him.
Prior to working for Sen. Reid, I was at the National American Indian Housing Council, and we were working on the NAHASDA reauthorization. So at that time, I was developing my relationships on both sides of the aisle on a bipartisan basis, and I just really got to know a core group of staffers who were working on that legislation. So when the time came where my predecessor [in Reid’s office] was going to move on, I was asked to throw my hat in the ring. As daunting as that was, I did so. Ultimately, I became an advisor on his staff on Indian affairs [in 2009]. It was a great honor.
He was already the majority leader when you came on staff. That had to be daunting, working for the leader of the Senate.
Yes. And I will say that I was trying to get into a different senator's office, who shall remain unnamed, earlier that year. That did not come to fruition at that time. Looking back, I just feel very lucky that another opportunity presented itself, and I was very fortunate to end up in the Senate then at that time.
There was a lot going on. Sen. Reid had just played a huge role in supporting President Obama's run for the presidency. Then you were thrust into the political battle of getting the Affordable Care Act passed, which included the permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. Was that a crazy time to be with the senator?
It's kind of funny because when I was offered the position, I wanted to set a start date a week, a couple weeks out. They said, ‘No, we really need you now.’ So I started the Monday after Thanksgiving and really did hit the ground running, learning the workings of the office and also just getting adjusted to the uniqueness of the position, which was being his designated staffer within the [Senate] Indian Affairs Committee. Navigating that role during such a major piece of legislation was really a trial by fire. And it was successful. Sen. Dorgan’s staffers at the time were zealous in making sure that the Indian Health Care Improvement Act was included in the Affordable Care Act, because that was going to be what they saw as the only moving vehicle [at the time] for the Indian healthcare piece.
Sen. Reid, when I interviewed him this past summer, he did mention the Indian Health Care Improvement Act as being an important part of his legacy. Did he firmly believe that the Affordable Care Act was the place to put that reauthorization if it was going to happen?
Absolutely. And at the time, the bill stacked up about a foot high. So the concern was the size of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. To boil it down simply, if you look very closely at the Affordable Care Act, you do not necessarily see the Indian Health Care Improvement Act per se, because it was incorporated by reference. So that was really the beauty of how it was incorporated.
There were later multiple U.S. Supreme Court challenges to the ACA, and some Native advocates were concerned that if the ACA fell, the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act could be harmed. But that never happened. It had to feel very gratifying that it stayed in place and is still the law of the land.
What was Sen. Reid like on a personal level? Did you get much face time with him?
I had several private meetings with Sen. Reid. Usually when there was going to be a transition in the office, he liked to take staffers aside and personally tell them things. Then also, I would be staffing him for different matters, and there may have been some downtime that would happen. And then, we would be able to talk about more personal things. He’d asked me how I was doing, or what I thought about different things that were happening, and it was really nice to have those moments.
Was you being Native, a tribal citizen, something that he was interested in? Did he care about your tribe and wanting to know more about your culture?
Yes. And I found him to do that with all of the tribal leaders who came to meet with him, where he always took a personal interest in their tribe, where they were from, if they spoke the language, if they carried on different cultures and traditions within the tribe. He was particularly interested and curious about Alaska. I do not believe he was ever able to visit Alaska, but I know he was invited many, many times to come to Alaska. And he even had a particular rivalry and joke with Sen. Mark Begich from Alaska, where he would point out the fact that Nevada had more mountain ranges than Alaska.
That does sound like Sen. Reid, quite competitive.
Yes. I would also say that he had a particular love for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. He was particularly interested in the health of the lake, the native fish that are from Pyramid Lake, and making sure that everything was okay there. And they invited him to ceremonies at the lake, where they would harvest fish and have a feast and things of that nature.
He said many times, ‘I don't like to boast or I don't mean to boast.’ But his Pyramid Lake relationship was definitely one of the things he would boast about, his connection to them and the work that he did for that tribe over the years. Did other Nevada tribes feel like he was as connected to their issues?
One of the common threads between most of the Nevada tribes was land and that a lot of tribes did not have large land bases. So they often raised that issue with Sen. Reid about acquiring more land, to increase their land base, their homeland, that would provide more opportunities for economic development, help to preserve their cultures and traditions and provide a place to live. That was a common theme. With the amount of public land within Nevada, Sen. Reid was able to work on many tribal land bills, which would carve out public land and return the land to the tribes. I think it was fairly unique to Nevada because of the amount of public land there and the political climate within Nevada. It was not only tribes, but also counties in the state that were able to acquire more land for their various needs.
Was there ever a time where he did something on an Indian issue, and you tried to give him more background, to help him more fully think through an issue?
I think in a couple of cases, there may have been an instance of competing interests, and there are, of course, very strong interests in Nevada surrounding tourism, mining, and gaming and also the military. So sometimes, tribal interests may not have aligned with other interests of Nevada, and he would have his mind made up about certain things.
Was that tough to deal with? How did you cope with that?
Part of being a congressional staffer is not taking things personally and being able to provide a framework and a background to look at an issue. And then it was up to the member, as far as what they thought was the best position to take. I think one of the hardest situations that I went through [involved] a senator who had a bill that looked like it was not going to pass by the end of the Congress, actually Sen. Reid's lands bill, the tribal lands bill. That was a harder situation to swallow, because it was one of these sort of midnight sessions before the holidays where everything was getting passed. And our lands bill did not get passed the first time around.
That had to really tick off Sen. Reid.
Well, it was really used to have him pressure another senator on a different issue, which is how the Senate works. He stayed strong and knew that he'd be able to bring his bill back, and this situation would go away.
In covering the late-Sen. Daniel Akaka's feelings and those of his former staffers, they were all so hopeful that Native Hawaiian recognition could happen under Sen. Reid's tenure. I remember Sen. Akaka just feeling very let down that that didn't happen.
Sen. Akaka was in a pivotal position as chairman of the [Senate] Indian Affairs Committee. Like many senators, he spoke with Sen. Reid about his priorities. And of course, Native Hawaiian recognition was at the top of Sen. Akaka's list, and he did let Sen. Reid know that. Sen. Reid, in the interest of the Senate calendar and in balancing the priorities of the leadership, which included all of the various chairmen and chairwomen of the committees, let him know that if he were able to show that he could overcome a filibuster, which, as you know, is the 60-vote threshold and they do whip counts behind the scenes of the caucus to get those numbers, that he would bring it to the floor. I believe Sen. Akaka did his best to line up support for that issue, and it's just a really hard thing to overcome if there is resistance.
Resistance in Congress on that issue continues to this day. It seems like something that Sen. Brian Schatz, current chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, would very much like to get accomplished. I think he still sees some difficulties there, am I correct?
Yes. The challenge is really that floor time is needed. Because as you know, most legislation is passed by unanimous consent. And if unanimous consent cannot be achieved, then you've really got to start counting heads. The issue of Native Hawaiian recognition is long standing and tough. There's a lot of education that needs to take place, and Native recognition issues are tough in the first place. But with Native Hawaiians, there's an additional Supreme Court decision and some other education that needs to take place about why an act of Congress is necessary. It's a heavy lift.
Another heavy lift that Sen. Reid had to think about was the Carcieri issue. When I asked him about it, he said there was not a tribal consensus to get a clean fix on that 2009 Supreme Court decision, which limited the Interior Department’s ability to take lands into trust for tribes. Obviously, some senators over the years, including Sen. Schatz right now, believe it can happen. They keep pushing for it. Biden administration leaders have mentioned wanting to make that happen. What would it have taken for Sen. Reid to have decided that enough tribes were on board with a clean Carcieri legislative fix to have made it happen?
A lot of times on tough issues Sen. Reid would hear from both sides of the issue. As you know, these are private meetings. They're not subject to the Freedom of Information Act on things of that nature. A lot of times, things happen because of political pressure, because a consensus may have been agreed to, or there might have been some other deal made that has nothing to do with the particular issue at hand. And so those stars and moons never quite lined up for a Carcieri fix–whether it's on the tribal side or on the congressional side.
Some tribal advocates have told me that some tribes have moved on from it, and it's not pressing because there have been administrative solutions, and it doesn’t seem to be affecting many tribes. For other tribes, as you well know, it continues to be a very worrisome issue. I don't have to tell you, but if you get an administration in there that applies that Supreme Court ruling in a certain way, it could have a negative impact on a lot of tribes.
Yes, and I want to make it clear that Sen. Reid supported a Carcieri fix. Everyone who talked to him, he would say, ‘Come to me when we have 60 votes, come back when there's an agreement upon how it should look.’ And he would bring it to the floor.
Do you think it will ever happen?
I do. In my policy work, I am of the mind that no matter how long something takes, there's a path forward.
You mentioned gaming as being an issue that sometimes captured Sen Reid’s attention. No doubt that there was a big competing interest in terms of Nevada commercial interests versus tribal interests and the development of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and the role the senator played in all of that. He really communicated his evolution on Indian gaming over time. He made it clear that at first, he came at it from the perspective of a regulator; before coming to the Senate, he had been a state regulator, a leading state regulator. He evolved on that issue to see how it could be good, especially for struggling tribes, he said. Did you watch his evolution in the time that you were with him? Or was his evolution already complete by then?
Sen. Reid tended to draw a line on off-reservation gaming. He had no problem with tribes exercising their rights and their authorities to do that on their land. Where it became more troublesome for him was moving off reservation. Of course, it is an evolving area where you saw some growth of Indian gaming in places like northern California, which then competed with places like northern Nevada and started impacting the Nevada economy. So that is one of the areas that he was very concerned about. Another facet of the evolution of gaming is the technological side and the coming of internet gaming. In looking at this new area of gaming, he wanted to make sure that tribal input was included.
When you were through with your service with the senator, what did you think back on in terms of his Native legacy? Were you proud of the work he had done and what you had been able to help him do?
I was very proud of the work Sen. Reid had done during his congressional career, especially in light of Nevada and the needs of the tribes there. The tribes in Nevada tend to be smaller in population and smaller in land, but they definitely had a voice and an advocate in Sen. Reid in Congress.
How have you dealt with his passing?
I stayed in contact with Sen. Reid over the years in his retirement, and he remained interested in knowing what was happening in Indian Country and especially the successes that tribes had with things that they were doing. I would send him articles, I would send him notes, and he would respond and send me notes back thanking me for sending him things. He also got involved in some endorsements in this last campaign cycle. Two cycles ago, he endorsed Deb Haaland in her run for Congress. He wrote an op-ed in support of her becoming Secretary of the Interior. He also endorsed Paulette Jordan, who was running for U.S. Senate for the state of Idaho in 2020. He had an interest in making sure that Native Americans had a voice and were represented on the federal level. He also participated in the Native American presidential forum in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2020. At that time, he had not endorsed a candidate, nor did he want to appear that he was endorsing a candidate. So he participated in a roundtable discussion with tribal leaders of Nevada.
Is there anything I haven't asked you about that you wanted to talk about in terms of the senator's legacy on Native issues?
In my time with the senator, he was under a security detail and so his travel and his movement around the state was limited due to the security measures that had to be taken. So I saw my role as being his eyes and ears, and I cherished the time that I spent in the state, because I was not only learning about Nevada and the Nevada tribes, but I was also representing the senator as I traveled around the state and met with tribal leaders. I really enjoyed doing my trip reports for him and started to include many photos that I took on my travels to places that he was not able to see because of the limitations that were on him. To share those experiences with him was really rewarding to me. When he would send me my trip report back with some really nice handwritten comments in the margins – that's how we’d communicate as staff, if we weren't in person. Those are really special.
He had his exercising accident towards the end of his Senate service. Was that difficult?
No, he did not lose a beat. He never lost a beat.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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