Rep. Cole touts Native American 'renaissance'
As the only Native American in Congress, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) is constantly educating his colleagues about tribes and Indian policy.

Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, likes to tell fellow members that they swore to uphold tribal sovereignty when they took their oath of office. The U.S. Constitution recognizes tribes in the same clause as states and foreign nations.

"A tribe is not a genealogical association and it's not a fraternal society," Cole said yesterday in a speech at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. "It's a living, breathing entity that exists organically and its purpose is to improve the lives and protect the identity of its members."

But Cole, whose family has been active in politics for generations, said lawmakers of both parties don't always respect tribal sovereignty. Republicans are almost always concerned about gaming while Democrats try to extend federal oversight of tribes, mainly through labor unions, he said.

Both issues have been heavily debated during Cole's time in Congress. Just this year, he broke with his party to support to federal recognition bills -- one for Native Hawaiians and another for six Virginia tribes. In the past, he has co-sponsored bills to shield tribes from federal labor laws.

Despite the challenges, Cole said American Indians and Alaska Natives today are undergoing a cultural and political "renaissance." "It's an extraordinary time that we're living through right now," he told the well-attended forum.

Even that can pose problems for Indian Country. When tribes are at their strongest, the federal government often steps in to do damage, he said.

"My own tribe teaches me that times of great opportunity are times of great danger," he said, recalling the forced removal of tribes during the 1830s.

"They didn't send us from Mississippi to Oklahoma because we were doing badly," Cole continued. "They sent us to Oklahoma because we were doing well. There was a lot of jealousy surrounding us."

With Indian gaming a $25 billion industry and tribes expanding their economic horizons, these are "prosperous times," Cole said. Yet that doesn't always generate support from the American public, Cole warned.

"A lot of people like poor Indians," he said.

Besides having the distinction of being the only Native American in Congress, Cole chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, whose goal is to increase the number of Republicans in Congress. His efforts didn't go so well last year, as Democrats took over the House in addition to the Senate.

Cole also serves as one of five Republican vice chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers that advocates for Indian legislation. The caucus has more than 100 members.

Cole represents Oklahoma's 4th Congressional district. His constituents include a number of tribes in the southwest region of Oklahoma.

Yesterday's speech was the keynote for Native American Heritage Month at the Library of Congress. A number of other events are being held throughout the month.

Relevant Links:
Rep. Tom Cole -
Native American Heritage Month, Library of Congress -

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