U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, Chickasaw, on being perceived as an old White guy
Part two of our exclusive interview with the soon-to-be longest serving Indigenous congressman.
WASHINGTON – Yesterday, U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, of Oklahoma, shared a bit with you about his ideas for strengthening rural Native American access to medical care.
Today, we present some fireworks for a Friday courtesy of the Chicksaw Nation citizen, who will become the longest serving Indigenous United States congressman on April 22.
Despite that distinction, he still knows how it feels to have to prove himself, at home and in the halls of Congress.
“I have an older brother who, he's got the features and dark skin,” he shares. “And I used to envy that, and the joke in the family was, ‘Your brother looks like he could lead the Chickasaw war party, you look like you're one of the guys they brought back.’”
In this exclusive Indigenous Wire Q&A, the proud Oklahoman takes no prisoners. He talks candidly about Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump and their visions for Native America, and he shares some of the ways that the administrations have done wrong (and right) by tribes. Plus, he dives into the Supreme Court’s 2020 McGirt decision that found most of eastern Oklahoma to be Indian Country, and he explains what it really feels like to be perceived by some as an old White guy.
I have to ask you about the American Rescue Plan Act and the $20 billion in tribal pandemic relief funding that was designated for tribes under it. You might have noticed that many tribes, Harvard researchers and others who you might have thought wouldn’t have been critical of the Biden administration over equity issues, of all things, have been pretty vocal. And some tribal citizens have noted that the Biden administration did a pretty poor job at distributing the funds in an equitable manner. That was because the administration relied on formulas that tended to help some of the more wealthy tribes with smaller workforce populations over some of the poorer tribes that had smaller workforce populations. Tribes with larger populations, but with little economic development were also shortchanged, according to Harvard’s analysis. Do you think the Biden administration and U.S. Treasury department should have done a better job at developing the formulas in question here?
Having wrestled with this and the CARES Act, I will tell you we don't have the database that we need. My short answer is yes, they should have, but I could make the same argument about the Trump administration during the CARES bill, which was at that point, the largest transfer of wealth ever from the federal government to Indian tribes, with the $8 billion in that. And then of course, as you pointed out, it got bigger in the American Rescue Plan. So I don't want to throw rocks at the Biden administration over this issue. I think probably we just need to sit down. And I remember going through all these arguments in the CARES Act legislation, where I worked very closely with Deb Haaland. Rose DeLauro was helpful. Betty McCollom was helpful. Markwayne Mullin. We had a lot of people working on this to get that number at $8 billion.
Of all people, [then Chief of Staff] Mark Meadows, I will tell you, was extraordinarily helpful on it, because it was getting negotiated away. And I called Mark – and people forget, he used to represent the Eastern Band of Cherokees, and he actually knew something about it. And I made the pitch, and the number had gone all the way down from the original $10 billion proposal to two-point something, and people were trying to negotiate it out, and he intervened with the Trump administration. By the way, we had some Republicans – Todd Young was very helpful in this. Jerry Moran was very helpful in this. Steve Daines was very helpful in this. So it was very much a bipartisan – Sen. Murkowski, not surprisingly, was helpful. But we got that number back up to eight. But in the course of this, figuring out, ‘Okay, do you do a straight population base?’ Well, we don't really have good figures on that.
Did you try to find data to help?
We were trying to also maintain the economies of the tribes – and those vary enormously – from very wealthy tribes, we're trying to maintain their workforces. So this probably needs to be a situation where when we do something like this, we probably need to do something ahead of time to sit down [and ask] what is a fair way to distribute money through Indian Country, and what do we relate to poverty versus size of the economy. Because, remember, we were trying to also sustain economies, not just deal with the pandemic itself, but to sustain businesses.
I remember wrestling...because we have some tribes that have very small gaming operations that had fewer than 500 employees, or some cutoff. And so they were technically eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program in terms of the size of their population, but the Small Business Administration had rules in place that said you couldn't give money to any operation that got more than 30 percent of its revenue from gaming. Where did that come from? And actually we ended up working with people in Nevada, who have lots of small – you go to a filling station, there's gaming machines – and found a way to get that lifted and work with Treasury. And they just simply wrote a different set of regs, so we could help the small gaming operations with the Paycheck Protection Program; the larger ones, we worked other ways. But this whole idea of how you distribute, I think we ought to sit down. Look, I have enormous faith in Deb Haaland – and just her basic fairness – and certainly nobody could question her commitment to Indian Country.
Nobody is questioning commitment, but they are questioning the formulas developed by the White House and the Treasury Department.
Are there better ways to approach formulas? I'd be happy to participate in that without any preconceived notions. And it's probably something that the Interior Appropriations Committee maybe needs to look at long term. Again, that's a committee, with all of its differences – I will tell you Interior Appropriations, whether under Democrats or Republicans has done very well for Indian Country over about the last 13, 14 years. It's been bipartisan. They're proud of that. Their biggest problem is they just don't have enough money in that jurisdiction to do everything that needs to get done in Indian Country. That's another issue that people don't think about. Indian Health Service in some ways would be much better off in the Labor Ag budget, where you've just got more money, and it's the largest single item in Interior Approps right now. And so there's a limit to what you can do. If you get a $30-odd billion allocation for your committee and you got to look after every park and every acre of federal land and all sorts of stuff, there's not enough left in my view to take care of Indian healthcare.
Some Democrats were quick to blame Republicans for CARES Act tribal distribution issues. It became a bit of a partisan issue, and Alaska Native issues played into that situation with the Alaska Native Corporations. Are you blaming the current White House or Treasury for the tribal distribution issues?
Yeah, I'm really not. Again, I remember what it was like wrestling with the technical problems [during CARES]. Again, you had an administration with a point of view. We were in a divided government. You had a Republican Senate, you had a Democratic House, but the real problem was we just didn't have the data that we needed. And we had never thought about this, and we were having to move quickly. Obviously it's a pandemic, so you're trying to [move quickly]. So were mistakes made, or could we do it better? Yeah, you're probably right. Mistakes were made, but I would say the same thing here. They're trying to get the money out the door. They're looking at different formulas. Everybody feels like they didn't get what they should get.
Maybe we should have this discussion as to how we do something like this at some time when we're not under immediate pressure to get it out. I mean, the absence of data is striking to me how little data the federal government has, which you think it would know everything. And it really knows a lot less about tribes and calculating tribal membership. Obviously you pointed to the Alaska dispute – how does that work in? Why do they disproportionately get more? There’s all kinds of stuff. And I'm not throwing rocks at anybody. We just need to get the stakeholders around the table and see if we can find a way forward that everybody looks on as more equitable.
Of course you know with the infrastructure funding for tribes under the bipartisan infrastructure law, more than $13 billion is in there for tribes and Native populations. Tribes are really worried that since they faced this equity issue under the Trump administration and now under the Biden administration, they want to know how those infrastructure monies are going to be divvied up. Do you think that's going to be a very difficult issue?
There's going to be various places to be watching, to be sure that the monies are going out in a way that is helping. You would think we want to help the most disadvantaged tribes, especially the ones that don't have any access to broadband who had the biggest problems when the pandemic, with broadband issues, hit.
So how are you as a congressman who really cares about Indian Country going to be monitoring that infrastructure situation and making sure that this isn't another question of inequity later on?
Well, we will try to do what we can. Just to be honest with you, I don't sit on the Transportation Committee.
What we need to do is get people who are on Transportation and Infrastructure – who represent Native areas – to begin raising these questions there with the administration. But again, we need a whole lot better job on the data and criteria for distribution. Look, I mean, there are tribes that are fortunate enough to be very wealthy. They're not – that's not the typical tribe, but some are. And we need to look at distributing benefits in equitable ways. And the more isolated you are, usually the poorer you are. The less activity/access you have to markets and capital, and the more challenging it is to build a self-sustaining economy.
We're probably better off in Oklahoma than most places because while we now know we have reservations in some way, because of the McGirt decision. For most of the history of the state, we did not have it. And we could put land into trust within the old historic reservation areas. But that meant the highway system had to be a highway system for all Oklahoma, not one that, okay, we get to an Indian reservation, and we stop building, and it's a federal responsibility, and the federals haven't built it. So I'm not saying our broadband's perfect. We've had plenty of problems with rural access, but it's not simply because it's a reservation area, it's just because it's remote. But we still probably – our tribes, the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaw, some of these tribes that have really substantial economies, have the benefit of a lot better infrastructure that runs through their historic territory than folks do at Pine Ridge or Cheyenne River or Standing Rock. That's just the truth.
And so we need to look at that. That needs to be a factor in the distribution of this money. And it would skew a little bit away from my state, but again, we're big boys, we can take care of ourselves. And we need to be helpful to folks that are in more difficult circumstances. Again, I'm happy to have discussions with anybody, but we're not well positioned in terms of our office and the committees we sit on. Now we have other members in the Native American caucus that are, and hopefully that's something that they'll do. I tend to look at the direct appropriations spending more than anything else.
You mentioned the McGirt decision, and I would be foolish not to ask you, do you know Governor Stitt very well, and what's his deal?
Well, I don't want to get into that person. I can't tell you anything beyond, obviously, he has concerns from a [state] sovereignty standpoint.
I actually think if we sit down, we actually do pretty well in Oklahoma. We have lots of negotiations, lots of agreements with the state and the tribes, with localities and the tribes. The problem has been very well handled at the local level between law enforcement – Native, non-Native, federal. We have in the appropriations bill, if we ever come to a deal, extra money for the Department of Justice to put additional courts, prosecutors, federal marshals, FBI agents into Oklahoma to help with that. The tribes have actually really stepped up. I could make an argument post McGirt that there's actually more law enforcement in Oklahoma than there's ever been because the state and local people haven't cut anything back.
And the tribes have really built up their departments…their ability to prosecute what have you, and the feds, both under Trump, and certainly under Biden, have put more resources available, and there's more to come. So what we need is for the parties to sit down and work out the jurisdictional issues, which again we can do. And I've offered legislation. And some of the tribes, by the way, don't want an agreement with the state. The Chickasaws and the Cherokees very much do; the Choctaws, the Seminoles, and the Creeks, do not, at this point. They have a different point of view. That's fine, but we need to allow those that want to negotiate and work common jurisdiction to do so. But right now we're still in court, as I'm sure you're aware of. The Supreme Court [recently] let an Oklahoma case stand aside by the Oklahoma Court Criminal Appeals, that McGirt was not retroactive. In other words, you couldn't appeal right under it. And that was actually something, both the state and the tribes wanted. They were not at odds with one another over this…. I wish we were doing more talking right now between the state and the tribal officials.
Were you surprised that the governor canceled those hunting and fishing compacts with the tribes back in December? That seemed to really anger some of the tribal officials? Not that they weren't angry already with the governor, but it just—
—I don't want to get into...this is the state issue. This really is between the tribes and the state. So it's not anything I can say [something] about. I want to stay out of that.
What's your sense of how President Biden is doing with tribes and Native citizens specifically?
Again, I would put myself broadly in the Republican perspective, very critical of the Biden administration on a variety of issues. And that would include everything from inflation, to the border, to Afghanistan, to…I can give you a litany. Having said all that, look, on Indian issues, I think the record is mixed, but the willingness to work across on various issues is real. I've had a couple of conversations with Secretary Haaland about various things. I find her to be very responsive. The challenge that any administration has is simply that the problems here have festered for couple hundred years. They're complex. A lot of times, with all due respect, it's not like there's tribal presence in Delaware. With the best will in the world, maybe the president, some of the people around him, don't come in with a great deal of knowledge about these issues.
I actually think the Obama administration did a really good job of placing people. They cared about and were knowledgeable about Indian Country at the departmental level, across government and into the White House [including] my good friends Jodi Gillette and Kim Teehee, and it helped to have some people there. I think the Biden administration is trying, but they've got a very full plate. There's a lot of crises out there. So I would just say, I think Indian issues remain an area that...or it's almost paradoxical. On one side, I don't think they get the attention they deserve from any administration, Republican or Democrat. But I do think there are areas where the two sides of the political aisle can cooperate and have begun to do so in the last several years. And we just need to keep that up. We just need to, again, keep educating members, electing more Native Americans. It makes a difference to have – and we had six when we had Deb here. And that's, I remember a lot of years I was here, I was it. And it wasn't that we didn't have other members that cared or weren't active. I mean, again I talk about my friend, the late Dale Kildee, with reverence and other members who really care…and some members, Betty McCollum is great on these issues. She was great when she chaired Interior Approps. There are a lot of people that care, but it helps to have the visibility of having people like Deb when she was here, Sharice when she's here or Yvette Herrell here or Markwayne here, because it kind of makes... it breaks all the stereotypes. They have friends and relationships. And again, that helps.
I'm not going to be critical of the Biden administration in this area. Can they do better? Yeah. I could say that of every administration. Are they trying, do they have people of goodwill? Yes, they are trying. Yes, they do. And, again, any administration that puts my friend Deb Haaland in the position they did, I think has at least its heart in the right place. And we'll continue to work with her and put our friends across the aisle, like Betty McCollum, on these kind of issues and we'll make some progress.
You mentioned the Natives serving in Congress with you. I have thought about how so many times you were that lone Native voice who everyone was kind of turning to from within Congress for education. And of course, like you mentioned, non-Indians have also been educators too on these issues, but you have a unique perspective there. Do you think after the midterms you're going to have less of your Native friends in Congress, especially due to redistricting, and if so, does that make you sad?
Yeah, it does make me sad, and I don't know yet. I'm worried probably the most about Yvette Herrell, because I think the redistricting in New Mexico has been pretty horrendous. So I think she's at risk, and Sharice is obviously in a target seat. She's not being targeted because she's Native, but because that's historically a Republican seat, but it does swing back and forth. But she's shown great ability to win in both good years and bad years. I mean, I think she's a very good politician, quite frankly. And so again, I wish her well and hope she does well. So again, I try to, when we got them, I'm glad to have any of them here and either party and I really am and I couldn't be prouder of the ones that we have. Democrat and Republican alike, they're all very good members. Although I do love to remind my Democrats since Deb left, ‘Hey, we got three, you got two.’ I think there's this perception in Washington and other parts of the country that somehow all Indians are Democrat. And like in my state, we have over 20 tribal members in the Oklahoma legislature. And the majority of them are Republicans. It’s a Republican state, obviously. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, when he was here, was pretty Republican. But I don't think there was any better defender of Native Americans than that Sen. Campbell. So I'm kind of proud that Indian Country is represented in both caucuses. It made a difference, I will tell you, to have Deb and Sharice on their side of the aisle and Markwayne and myself on our side of the aisle and working together on things like Not Invisible Act, and Missing, Murdered Indigenous Women-type things. We could all speak authoritatively.
I used to say, when it was the last Congress, we were the most perfectly balanced caucus looking at the four of us. We had two men, we had two women. We had two Democrats, we had two Republicans. We had two Indians that looked like Indians and two Indians that didn't look like Indians. So there is that...I hate to say it, but there's kind of this visual stereotype of...we have a lot of people think Indians need to look like and act like they did a hundred years ago, or they're not real Indians...what we've seen on the television set. So I like having these folks, with all different points of view and backgrounds and what have you.
I've seen many times when the mainstream press covers you, they talk about you as if you're an old White guy, and sometimes they do not know your intense Indian Country background, your tribal citizenship and how much it matters to you and how you are a part of that community. Have you had to pull someone aside and say, ‘Hey I'm not a White guy, I'm a tribal citizen.’
Yeah, I have had to do that on occasion. And we used to joke about this in my family. My parents used to..I have an older brother who, he's got the features and dark skin. And I used to envy that, and the joke in the family was, ‘Your brother looks like he could lead the Chickasaw war party, you look like you're one of the guys they brought back.’
We get that. But I do try to explain, because again, they don't have much conception. And one of the ways I explain it sometimes is when I talk to a non-Native about Indian issues, quite often, the question comes back, how much Indian are you as if you would ask an African American, how African American you are. We know there's obviously lots of mixed blood. Harold Ford, when he was in Congress, he and I used to joke about this. I said, you ever get this question, ‘How Black are you?’ Because he's obviously got lots of non-Black ancestry. But I said, when I talk to an Indian, the question is never how much Indian you are. It's immediately, ‘What tribe are you from?’
Some people look at being Native as simply a racial identity. What they don't get is the tribal part and the cultural part and the political part. Being Native is a political...you are a member of...it's like being, you can say I'm an Oklahoman, or I'm a Texan, you'd say I'm Comanche, or I'm a Chickasaw. There's a political and historical identity that goes with that. I don't think people do get it. And they sort of think you just sort of pass out of it as you become less Native in terms of blood quantum.
But I think I probably get less of it today than I did 15 years ago, because I've been such a consistent advocate. And my friends on the Democratic side have seen me break with my own party over Indian issues. I will, and my own party understands that if I think you're wrong, I'm voting with Indian Country on this...particularly if it's essentially an Indian issue. Trump was upset over Bill Keating's bill on Mashpee when we were trying to get them congressional recognition, so there couldn't be a reversal. I had 47 Republicans come with me on it. They couldn't believe it. Matter of fact, Joe Kennedy came over and said, ‘47 people took on Donald Trump in your party on this issue.’ Because Trump put out a veto threat. And I said, ‘Yeah, because they trust me on the issue. They know I'm not lying to them.’ The Mashpee people have been there 12,000 years, and who the Trump administration listened to was a guy that happened to be a paid lobbyist – nothing wrong with that – representing casinos in Rhode Island. This was a money issue to them. He just didn't want Indian competition. Whereas the Indians have been there a long time. The state of Massachusetts wanted it. They have a Republican governor there. As hard as it is to believe he was in favor, every member of the Democratic congressional delegation was, and people were trying to make it something it wasn't. I mean, ‘Oh, this is an Elizabeth Warren deal.’ She was for it. So was everybody else in Massachusetts, and it just...I hate seeing stuff like that happen, and both sides engage in it sometime, but again, you just work through, build your body of work, and over time people don't have too much doubt anymore.
Did President Trump respect you? Did he ever talk to you about Indian issues or any other issues?
Yeah, we certainly talked about issues. I'm trying to recall. I don't recall ever talking to him about Native issues per se. There may have been one or two. I mean, you usually talk with the administration, for instance, on the CARES Act money. Again, I called Mark Meadows to get him directly involved. Trump honestly didn't know very much about Native Americans and had a different perspective on gaming, having been in the gaming business himself and said some unfortunate things earlier in his career. But overall again, the CARES Act doesn't happen...that first $8 billion, if Donald Trump doesn't sign it, we don't get $8 billion if Mark Meadows doesn't intervene and help. So you just got to take people as they are and work with them where you can and let them know. But if I disagree, and I think it’s something adverse to, again, tribal sovereignty, or we're betraying the trust responsibility that we had that we agreed to, then I'm going to fight those fights. I'm going to be on the tribal side of those issues.
You think he'll be back in 2024 for you to work with?
No idea. I really don't know. I don't think he knows. I mean, a lot of people say he does, but if you ever read that book, Art of the Deal, I know it's ghost written, so who knows, but in there he makes a statement that he comes into work every day without a plan. He just kind of reacts. And so a guy like that's probably not thinking two years ahead, three years ahead, I'm going to run for president. I think he's keeping his options open to run. I have no doubt he would be the leader for the Republican nomination immediately, if he decided to run. But he's fought two presidential campaigns. And in the Electoral College system, he won one by 50 some odd thousand votes and he lost one by 40 some odd thousand votes. Even though President Biden had a 7-million popular vote margin, that's not the way we choose presidents here. So I wouldn't rule him out, and you look at polling now, the Biden administration isn't very popular right now. He's a leader [in the polls now], but that doesn't mean anything three years from now.
What's next for you, Rep. Cole? Are you a congressman for life?
No, I'm a congressman in two year intervals, depending on the courtesy of the fourth district of Oklahoma. And they decide every two years whether I'm going to be a congressman or not. I only get to decide if I'm going to run. And I haven't made an announcement yet. I usually make my decision between about now and filing in April. I'm inclined to run. I'm prepared to run. I expect to run. But we'll probably make a decision in the next 60 days or so.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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