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‘The only true Native American in the Senate’
Republican Markwayne Mullin assures himself of victory at tribal event
Thursday, September 29, 2022

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Markwayne Mullin is poised to make history as the first tribal citizen in the U.S. Senate in nearly two decades but not all Native voters are happy.

Mullin, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, already secured the Republican nomination for an open Senate seat in Oklahoma. In light of his state’s strong conservative tilt, he’s already predicting victory at the polls this November.

“I’m going to be the only true Native American in the Senate when I get elected,” Mullin said on Wednesday morning at the 39th annual National Tribal Health Conference in the nation’s capital.

“That’s crazy,” said Mullin, who currently serves in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he is one of four tribal citizens in the chamber.

But a number of attendees at the conference, hosted by the National Indian Health Board, aren’t looking forward to the anticipated win. Scattered boos and muttered comments could be heard throughout the crowd as Mullin spoke about Native representation in politics at a hotel just a short walk from the U.S. Capitol.

“I’m thinking — how crazy that we’re true Native Americans, the first Americans — and we’re so underrepresented in the halls of Congress,” said Mullin. For years, he was just one of two tribal citizens in the House, up until Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids made history as the first two Native women in the chamber more than three years ago.

Markwayne Mullin
Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), center standing, awaits his turn to speak at the 39th annual National Tribal Health Conference, hosted by the National Indian Health Board, in Washington, D.C., on September 28, 2022. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Yet it wasn’t Mullin’s remarks about trailblazers that drew objections of Native voters who came to Washington, D.C., from his home state. A number of attendees said the federal lawmaker who appeared at the NIHB event isn’t the same as the pro-Donald Trump, liberal-bashing candidate they see back in Oklahoma.

“When he stands up here and says, ‘I’m a proud Cherokee,’ he never says that in Oklahoma,” Michael Bristow, a citizen of the Osage Nation, told Indianz.Com.

“In any of his campaign ads that we’ve seen on television, or in print — he never mentions that he’s Cherokee,” said Bristow, who serves as vice chair of the board of his tribe’s health authority. “He never does.”

During his speech, which ran about nine minutes, Mullin highlighted efforts to secure adequate — and mandatory — funding for the Indian Health Service, the federal agency that serves more than 2.5 million American Indians and Alaska Natives across the country. He said he is “personally invested” in the issue because he has relied on IHS care in the past.

“I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat, I don’t care,” Mullin told tribal health leaders. “When we’re fighting for Indian Country, we’re fighting for Indian Country. And that’s first.”

According to Bristow, however, Mullin’s views show that he is not a true friend to Indian Country. Just last month, the Republican lawmaker criticized President Joe Biden’s student loan relief program, calling it a “handout” and a “desperate attempt to buy votes at the expense of the American people” on social media. He further turned to conservative airwaves to speak out against the initiative.

But Bristow pointed out that Mullin’s plumbing operation, which the GOP candidate took over from his father, benefited from loan relief that was provided to American businesses throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The White House, in fact, put a dollar figure on it: more than $1.4 million.

“He himself took out one of those PPP loans for his business,” Bristow said, referencing the Paycheck Protection Program that even some tribal entities were excluded from at the onset of the pandemic. “And that was forgiven.”

Of Mullin’s seemingly conflicting and competing messages, Bristow said: “He’s trying to play to the right-wing, conservative base” in Oklahoma — a group that will help him achieve victory in November.

Michael Bristow
Michael Bristow, far right, gathers with other attendees of the 39th annual National Tribal Health Conference, hosted by the National Indian Health Board, in Washington, on September 28, 2022. The event took place at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Cindra Shangreau, another Oklahoma voter who is Osage and Lakota, said Mullin’s legislative record shows he does not have Indian Country’s interests at heart. She cited his repeated attempts to deny women the right to obtain medical services of their choosing.

“He voted against women’s reproductive rights,” said Shangreau, who attended NIHB in her capacity as chair of the board of directors for Si-Si A-Pe-Txa (The Healing Place), the Osage Nation’s health authority.

In July, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned decades of precedent and denied women the constitutional right to an abortion, the House voted along party lines to pass H.R.3755, the Women’s Health Protection Act. The bill safeguards a woman’s right to choose in light of the controversial decision.

The chamber also approved H.R.8297, the Ensuring Access to Abortion Act, to ensure that people can travel to access abortion care. Mullin joined all Republicans in the House in voting against both measures on July 15 — and he’s gone even further by introducing legislation to punish anyone who helps a woman obtain the services of her choosing. His bill, H.R.7604, the Partial Birth Abortion Is Murder Act, lacks co-sponsors, some five months after he unveiled it.

But Shangreau noted that Mullin’s failure to address the issues women face goes back even further. As a new member of Congress in 2013, he notably voted against the Violence Against Women Act even though the law contains landmark provisions that recognize the inherent sovereignty of tribes over non-Indians who abuse their intimate partners.

“He voted against our Two-Spirit people,” Shangreau said in reference to Mullin’s opposition to provisions in VAWA that protect gay, lesbian and transgender Native people from violence.

“He voted against LGBTQ rights,” Bristow added.

Earlier this year, Mullin changed course and voted for an updated version of VAWA that further strengthens the ability of tribes to punish people who abuse women, children and elders in their communities. The bill, which had been held up by Republicans for years and had been ignored by the Trump administration, finally became law in March after being included in a large funding package.

For Bristow, though, the show of support for tribal rights comes too late. He said Mullin has aligned himself with fellow Oklahoma Republicans, like Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), who refuses to accept the continued existence of Indian Country in what was once known as Indian Territory. Some GOP candidates have even called tribal sovereignty a “threat” to the entire state.

“They like to say that they’ve got an affiliation with a tribe, with a tribal nation,” Bristow said of Republicans like Mullin and Stitt. “But they don’t really show that in any of their policies or the way they vote.”

The last tribal citizen who served in the U.S. Senate was Ben “Nighthorse” Campbell, who is enrolled in the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. He retired from elective office in 2005, following two terms in the chamber. Previously, he served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Campbell entered the House as a Democrat and became a Republican during his first term in the Senate. As the first tribal citizen to serve as chair, and vice chair, of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, he helped secure some of Indian Country’s biggest legislative achievements throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.

Mullin, however, appeared to be unaware of the full history of his immediate party predecessor — even down to “Nighthorse” moniker that Campbell used as an artisan and as a politician. He instead invoked a different word, albeit one more familiar in Oklahoma.

“The last one was Lighthouse, Lighthorse, in 2005,” Mullin said after his comment about being the “only true Native American in the Senate.”

“Is that right?” Mullin asked.

“And right now, we’re researching, and I think I’ll be the first Republican Native American,” he continued. “I’m not sure — we’re researching that.”

“I’m serious,” Mullin said.

Assuming he sails to victory on November 8 — Mullin mistakenly stated the date of the special election as November 9 during his remarks at the NIHB conference — he will be leaving a long-time colleague behind. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2003.

At the time, Democrat Brad Carson, another Cherokee citizen, was serving in the chamber but departed in 2005 after an unsuccessful campaign for an open U.S. Senate seat. Cole was the only tribal citizen in the House until Mullin’s arrival in 2013.

“When I came up here, I was met by Tom Cole and he said ‘Congratulations, we have just doubled our Native American caucus,” Mullin told tribal health leaders on Wednesday.

“‘I’m one, you’re two. I’m Chickasaw, you’re Cherokee,'” Mullin recalled Cole as saying nearly a decade ago.

Mullin said he responded to Cole by asserting that the Cherokees once helped the Chickasaw people: “We taught you how to read and write.”

According to Mullin, Cole came back with a reference to the painful history of the enslavement of Africans and African Americans within five tribal nations in present-day Oklahoma: “Yeah, but we took your guys’ slaves.”

“That’s what he said,” Mullin recalled, holding his hands up to the crowd. He repeated: “That’s what he said.”

“I didn’t say it,” Mullin insisted.

The Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat in Oklahoma is Kendra Horn. She previously served one term in the U.S. House, having won election in 2018. She was the first Democratic woman to represent Oklahoma in Congress and the first Democrat in the state’s delegation to Congress since the Barack Obama era.

Political observers consider the seat to be solidly in the hands of the Republican Party. A poll completed this month shows Mullin with a sizable lead over Horn.

Despite the odds, Bristow and Shangreau from the Osage Nation plan to vote for Horn in the upcoming election. And despite Mullin’s confidence, Bristow said he will continue to speak out against the Republican candidate.

“I still have a voice,” Bristow said.
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