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John Cornyn
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). Photo: Staff Sgt. Michelle Gonzalez / U.S. Army National Guard
Republican lawmaker criticized for deriding GOP colleagues as ‘wild Indians’
Wednesday, November 1, 2023

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal advocacy organization in the United States, is speaking out after a Republican lawmaker made derogatory remarks about Native people.

In a statement on Tuesday, NCAI President Fawn Sharp condemned the remarks by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). The lawmaker had derided some of his Republican colleagues as “wild Indians” during a call with reporters from his home state of Texas.

“Senator Cornyn’s recent derogatory remarks, referring to his colleagues as a ‘bunch of wild Indians,’ is more than just disappointing; but deeply disrespectful,” said Sharp, who also serves as vice president of the Quinault Nation, a federally recognized tribe headquartered in Washington state. “It perpetuates damaging stereotypes about our diverse and vibrant American Indian and Alaska Native communities.”

“This is especially disconcerting as we approach Native American Heritage Month, a time meant to celebrate and honor these communities,” Sharp said, highlighting how the derogatory remarks come close to the official U.S. holiday highlighting American Indians and Alaska Natives and their contributions to society. “NCAI strongly disapproves of the Senator’s comments and encourages the Senator to seize this moment as an opportunity to educate himself about the rich history, struggles, accomplishments, and dignity of Native peoples.”

“Our nation’s commitment to understanding and respect should be a standard held high by all our public servants,” Sharp concluded.

According to reporter Matthew Choi, who covers Washington, D.C., for The Texas Tribune, Cornyn made the derogatory remarks about Native people when talking about the election of Rep. Michael Johnson (R-Louisiana) as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Republicans in the chamber ousted their prior leader and rejected several other candidates before settling on their current choice — a process that lasted nearly a month and was characterized by numerous fits and starts.

“Good reports about him as a person but the jury’s out in terms of his ability to deal with this bunch of wild Indians over in the House,” Cornyn said of Johnson on the call with reporters from Texas, Choi reported on October 26.

Cornyn is the senior member of the U.S. Senate from Texas. He is not known for having much of a record on Indian issues since joining the chamber in 2002. In fact, when it came to the Violence Against Women Act, he said he voted against the 2013 version of the bill because of landmark provisions that recognize tribal sovereignty over non-Indians who victimize their partners.

“This is a very dangerous, slippery slope because if non-tribe members are tried in tribal courts, they are not protected by the United States Constitution and they have no right of appeal to the federal courts, Cornyn told members of the media in Texas, The Dallas Morning News reported back in February 2013.

In the last decade, VAWA has been used successfully across the nation to prosecute non-Indian offenders, none of whom have raised constitutional challenges to tribal authority. In 2022, the U.S. Congress updated the law and even expanded on the tribal sovereignty provisions

More recently, Cornyn tried to slow consideration of a bill that recognizes the sovereignty of two Indian nations in Texas. It finally took a 2022 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court for the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe and the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, also known as the Tigua Tribe, to secure their ability to engage in certain forms of gaming, free of state interference.

“Sen. Cornyn: comparing House Republicans to ‘wild Indians’ is an insult to the many indigenous people I represent,” Rep.Jared Huffman (D-California) said on social media on October 26. “They are thoughtful, decent people who deserve respect.”

Cornyn isn’t the first Republican politician to make derogatory remarks about Native people. In 2003, then-Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), called on then-Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado) to perform a “rain dance” during a Senate hearing about drought condition. Bennett later characterized the comment as a “joke.”

In 2005, Bill Owens (R), then serving as governor of Colorado, offered an apology after saying “the natives are restless today” at an Indian gaming conference in his state.