Remembering Harry Reid’s Native American legacy
‘I was able to do more for Nevada Native Americans than all the rest of the congressional delegations before me,’ the senator told me this past summer.
WASHINGTON – Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid once visited with a group of tribal leaders who were gathered in his office for a meeting. He went around, one by one, asking each leader to state his or her tribe and affiliation.
Then, he did something special. He turned to his American Indian affairs advisor, and he goaded her, “Now, Wendy, can you please tell everyone your tribal affiliation.”
“I said, ‘Oh, senator, my tribe is Ho-Chunk,’ Wendy Helgemo, now a lawyer and tribal advocate with the Big Fire Law & Policy Group LLP, told Indigenous Wire soon after the senator’s passing on Dec. 28 at age 82 as a result of complications from pancreatic cancer. “He definitely got a kick out of our tribe's name.”
The senator had done this to Helgemo before, and she knew he found the routine funny. The top Senate leader chuckled, smiling at the sound of Helgemo’s tribal nation’s name, which led the assembled tribal leaders to laugh as well.
Citizens of the Ho-Chunk Nation, also known as the Hoocągra or Winnebago, are accustomed to sometimes being joshed for the way their tribe’s name sounds in English, and Helgemo took the ribbing in stride.
The thing is, even though Reid was making fun and could have easily been taken for being rude, it’s actually one of the remembrances that stand out most – in a good way – for Helgemo of her former boss.
“It’s one of my favorite memories,” she said. “I laugh thinking back on it. It was his way.”
During Reid’s time in the United States’ Congress – first serving in the House from 1983 to 1987, then in the Senate from 1987 until his retirement in 2017 – he was known for his mischief – both on the small and grand scale.
I had seen this for myself in the fall of 2012 when I interviewed the soft-spoken, yet obviously proud politico at the height of his Senate power in his D.C. office. He took pleasure in making then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wait several minutes while he finished his overtime conversation with me on Native American affairs.
As I’ve previously recounted, Geithner looked unsettled, even mad, as I passed the financial guru in Reid’s office waiting area after our interview, especially because the country at that time sat on the precipice of the now-infamous fiscal cliff. We never did fall off, and Reid didn’t seem bothered in the least at the time about any of it.
“I remember that the interview went long, and that spoke volumes, particularly as he kept the Secretary of the Treasury waiting,” recalled Chris Napolitano, former creative director of Indian Country Today, who was with me at the time, snapping pictures. “Reid liked the attention and gave us equal doses of policy and campaign rhetoric.”
“I believe he cared [about Indian Country],” Napolitano told Indigenous Wire. “His concern seemed paternalistic, and so anachronistic to our ears, perhaps, but I believe that was his universal feeling for all constituents. He seemed proud of being a people’s champion – he loved his own story of rising up from hardship, and his pride seemed as big as his ego.”
The country at-large witnessed much more of the trouble Reid could cause when he set in motion the current debate U.S. legislators are having over removing the Senate filibuster rules altogether. The Nevada senator, a former boxer, landed an early punch in this battle in 2013 when he oversaw the elimination of the 60-vote rule for presidential nominations, not including nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell upped the ante when he took the reins of the Senate after Reid, eliminating the 60-vote requirement for Supreme Court nominees, which helped along the addition of conservative – and incidentally Native-friendly – Justice Neil Gorsuch to the high court.
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer now promises to get rid of the long-standing 60-vote rule for legislative filibusters, if he can get enough Democrats to vote in favor of that while they control the Senate.
Reid, when I interviewed him again this past summer, in July – this time about his Native American legacy – said he liked the direction the filibuster rules were headed, notwithstanding the deepening partisan divides that the issue seemed to be encouraging.
“You cannot have a democracy that takes 60 percent of the vote to get something done,” the senator told me by phone from his Las Vegas office, his voice softer than it had been when I spoke with him previously.
Reid couldn’t predict how long it would take to get rid of the rules, especially given Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema’s apparently ingrained views against doing so, but he felt strongly that time was on his side on this one, noting that the makeup of Congress changes every two years.
“The filibuster is on its way out. It’s not a question of ‘if,’ it’s a question of ‘when’ it’s going away, he told me. “I’ve said that loudly, I’ve said it clearly: The filibuster needs to go away. It’s something that’s undemocratic in every sense of the word.”
Most power players in Indian Country knew that Reid was an important voice to have on their side.
They feared him early on in his federal career because he had previously been a gaming regulator while involved in state politics, and some assumed that he would want to regulate Indian gaming excessively, to the point of not letting tribes reap its potential benefits. They also worried that he might be beholden to commercial interests, given his Nevada and Las Vegas connections.
Although Reid did have a major hand in limiting aspects of tribal gaming via his contributions to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, he did not turn out to be the major national-level foe that some tribal advocates had anticipated.
Still, during our first conversation, he noted that tribal gaming advocates were right to have been initially scared of him.
“Listen, I wrote the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act,” Reid told me. “I didn’t do it because I wanted to. The Supreme Court had made a decision on the [California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians] case, so I had no choice.”
“We liked it the way it was [before that decision] with Nevada as the only place you could gamble,” he continued. “So I, for a short period of time, did everything I could to stand in the way of Indian gaming.”
But Reid had mellowed greatly in the years since, calling himself an Indian gaming “convert”: “I think it has been so good for Indian Country,” he told me during our 2012 interview.
“[I]t appears clearly that Indian gaming has been a real benefit to Indian Country,” he echoed when we spoke again, this time adding, “I know that the taxpayers would be worse off had we not done Indian gaming.”
But he wanted me to know he still did have worries about tribal casinos.
“The one concern I still do have, as a result of being the chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, I am not really convinced that the [National] Indian Gaming Commission is strong enough to ferret out organized crime,” he said. “Gambling is a commodity, cash money. Anytime you have cash as a commodity, you can be assured that the bad guys are going to come in and try to take advantage of it.”
“I hope that the Indian Gaming Commission is strengthened,” he offered as a remedy. “The Nevada rules that we have, and those in New Jersey, have been strong. I think they should be adopted by the Indian Gaming Commission. Get more boots on the ground. They need more people who are experts at different aspects, especially now that we have so much gaming done on the internet. There is a lot of improvement to be made.”
Reid continued to be opposed to off-reservation gaming, and he tried unsuccessfully in 2016 to amend the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in a way that would force the U.S. Department of the Interior to reject tribal gaming compacts if they were tied “directly or indirectly” to tribal commercial projects.
“[I]t’s not a good practice to have Indians establishing gaming operations not on tribal land,” Reid said. “I’m not in favor of that.”
In sum, Reid was supportive of tribal gaming as it currently stands, and he felt that tribes should be included in newer gaming technologies involving the internet and sports betting.
Chris Stearns, an Indian affairs lawyer with Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker, LLP, told Indigenous Wire that Reid’s views on gaming were “inextricably tied” to his experiences as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“He saw firsthand the corruption in Nevada and even endured death threats on his family,” noted Stearns, a citizen of the Navajo Nation. “Because of his background as a gaming regulator, he sought to ensure that gaming in general was carefully regulated and free of crime and dishonesty. He evolved from an opponent of Indian gaming in the mid-80s to a supporter.”
“Like many, his view on tribal gaming changed over the years as he saw that tribes were strong gambling regulators themselves, and Indian gaming was marked by its integrity, by the jobs it created and the economic equity it created for tribes,” added Stearns, who previously served as a staffer for former Democratic U.S. Reps. George Miller, of California, and Bill Richardson, of N.M.
Beyond gaming, some tribes and Native folks wanted to see Reid do more to secure a simple, clean legislative fix to the 2009 Supreme Court Carcieri decision, which limited the Interior Department’s ability to take lands into trust for some tribes, recognized after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.
But Reid told me during our conversations in both 2012 and 2021 that his hands were tied on Carcieri, because he didn’t think there was a tribal consensus on the issue. That is, he was well aware that some tribes with powerful lobbyists actually liked one of the problems the ruling created because it could serve as a tool to limit market competition, thus helping some of the more established gaming tribes.
With 574 federally recognized tribes when we last talked, achieving a 100 percent tribal consensus would be impossible to achieve, and Reid knew that all too well.
In a similar vein, Reid had told the late-Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka, of Hawaii, that he could not support Akaka’s Native Hawaiian federal recognition legislation until Akaka proved to him that he could round up the necessary 60 Senate votes to overcome a filibuster.
From my reporting, I know that Akaka and some of his staffers were deeply let down by Reid’s positioning and his willingness to horse trade with other senators on both the Carcieri and Native Hawaiian recognition issues, yet none took it personally.
Helgemo, who felt some of the heat during some of these negotiations, offered insight into Reid’s decision making.
“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,” Helgemo told me after the senator had passed. “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.”
On the Native Hawaiian recognition issue, Helgemo said that it was always going to be a “heavy lift.”
“There's a lot of education that needs to take place, and Native recognition issues are tough in the first place,” she told me. “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.”
While some Native Hawaiians may feel let down by Reid in terms of his leadership on their federal recognition, some Nevada tribes – the ones closest to him – are firmly on his side.
Beverly Harry, the wife of the late-Chairman Norm Harry, of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, said that the senator was definitely “a friend” to Indigenous people.
“Reid carried the weight to foster passages of some amazing environmental justice bills,” Harry wrote on Instagram after the senator’s passing. “Most recently, the Public Law 101-618 became one of the strongest bills advocating for environmental justice for Pyramid Lake and the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe who advocated for their life ways with the Kooyooe and water birds of Stillwater Marsh.”
“Without the strategic work with Reid, there would be a possible trickle going to the lake,” Harry continued in her praise. “Tribes will miss him.”
Reid himself told me that Nevada tribes were near and dear to his heart.
“I have done more with Nevada Indians than all the rest of the Congressional delegation [from the state] put together since 1864,” the senator stated in 2012. “I say that without any reservation.”
“Without being boastful – I hope I’m not, but maybe I am – I have no doubt that during my time in Congress, I was able to do more for Nevada Native Americans than all the rest of the congressional delegations before me,” he reiterated in 2021.
Among his accomplishments, he cited “one of the most complex settlements ever that involved two Indian tribes, the Fallon and Pyramid Lake Paiutes.”
He further noted educational, environmental and health-related achievements he had strove for on behalf of tribes and Native Americans.
Journalist Jon Ralston, who worked closely with the senator during his final years on an upcoming biography, told Indigenous Wire that Reid spoke fondly about his tribal connections for the book.
“I think his connection to the tribes was him relating to a group treated unfairly and in impoverished conditions,” shared Ralston, CEO of The Nevada Independent. “It was part of his value system forged in his upbringing.”
Helgemo, in a recent tribute op-ed she wrote about the senator, additionally highlighted Reid’s Native appointments to various leadership positions, his support for tribal water, land and trust settlements, his Native endorsements, as well as his support for Indigenous languages and criminal justice reforms and his positions against the former Washington football team name.
In our 2021 interview, the senator noted with pride that the permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act had been included in the Affordable Care Act of 2010, under his watch.
“My number one accomplishment during my tenure in Congress was the passage of the Affordable Care Act,” Reid told me. “We struggled with that. It was very, very hard to do. I had to report to President Obama on more than one occasion, saying, ‘I can’t get the votes, I can’t get it done,’ and he would always say, ‘Keep working on it.’ And more important: ‘If we can get this done, I get reelected.’”
“We finally got it done on Christmas Eve, we got the 60th vote. It was the first time the Senate had come in on Christmas Eve for 150 years. So that was my number one accomplishment. And part of that accomplishment was that we included the permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Service in that legislation. I feel very good about that.”
As a Native journalist, I feel very good to have known a glimpse of Sen. Reid. To my knowledge, he shared more with me on American Indian affairs than he did with any other reporter. That he trusted me to tell this part of his story is an honor.
During our last interview, Reid wouldn’t answer any questions about his health. I told him I knew a little about what he was going through, as my mom had battled pancreatic cancer as well.
My last words to him were that I know he’s a fighter and is strong.
He chuckled, seeming delighted that I understood the truth.
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