John McCain Was a Leading Voice for Indian Country

Since his passing, I note that little mention has been made about Senator John McCain’s legacy of work on issues critical to the Nation’s Indian tribal governments and their citizens. As a citizen of the Hopi tribe of Arizona, I feel compelled to remind us that, in addition to his work on foreign policy and national defense, during the majority of his time in the House and Senate, Senator McCain was a leading voice for and architect of federal Indian policy.

As a two-term House member of what was the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, and then as the Senate Vice-Chairman (so titled to denote the non-partisan nature of the Committee’s work), and later as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Senator McCain wrote and helped enact federal legislation to prevent child abuse among Indian children, enhance the delivery of health care to Indian Country, promote tribal self-governance, protect the environment on the reservations, encourage economic development, and strengthen Indian tribal sovereignty. He firmly believed that the leaders of the tribes had the solutions to the problems in Indian country and that the role of the Congress was to listen carefully to them and then provide the tools necessary to help them implement those solutions.

Just as he did in his other Committee roles, Senator McCain would convene and preside over hearings in the ornate Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing room, packed with tribal leaders and federal agency administrators. Yet, these hearings were noticeably devoid of the members of the national press corps and their cameras. His painstaking work there did not make the next morning’s national or local news. Even so, Senator McCain would conduct these hearings as he would any other – with laser focus and tenacity. He was unapologetic when at times unleashing his blunt displeasure, at federal government inertia or its woeful neglect of tribes, upon the unfortunate witnesses who had been sent to deliver the federal agency’s testimony.

So why did he take on these “Indian” issues that others in Congress so readily avoided? It certainly was not to expand his voting base, nor to endear himself to his political party. Neither did it boost either of his Presidential bids. His work for Indian Country and Indian tribes did not result in national attention like his work on the Senate Armed Services or Commerce Committees. It was apparent to those of us who were privileged to witness his work with the tribes that he did so, in part, because he knew if he did not, then who would?

We also knew that early in his political career he learned from his mentors, Senator Barry Goldwater and Congressman Morris K. Udall, that the history of the U.S. Government’s treatment of its first nation’s peoples would reflect on the character of its leaders and ultimately on the Nation itself. Senator McCain was determined that that legacy of treatment of Indian tribes and its peoples would be one of which this Nation could and should be proud.

To be sure, heavy lifting was required to advocate for child victims of physical, mental, and sexual abuse, to achieve consensus between Tribal governments and state governments on Indian gaming after the Supreme Court’s Cabazon decision and numerous other conflicts, to remove the federal bureaucracy that thwarted the full implementation of tribal self-determination, or to uncover unlawful lobbying practices by non-Indians who preyed upon the tribes. Indeed, it often put him at odds with state governors, federal department heads, and on some rare occasions, tribal leaders. It was work that tested his patience and often left him wringing his hands. It was not glamorous, yet he took personal satisfaction from even the smallest victory.

Yes, other members of Congress would periodically work on these issues, but when more prestigious Committee assignments came available, they left. Not John McCain. For almost thirty years, John McCain, and previously, the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye, became the permanent face of Congress’ oversight of federal Indian policy. Who will do so now? I am certain this question weighs heavy on the minds of tribal leaders and those whose lives were positively impacted by Senator McCain’s otherwise uncelebrated work on their behalf. They, like me, will just have to wait and see.

I do know that I am among a privileged few who witnessed his work first-hand on behalf of Indian Country. In the early to mid-1990’s, I got to see the energy that he poured into the issues of concern to the tribes and their leaders. Issues like family violence, the adoption of Indian children, the development of registration systems to track pedophiles and other offenders in Indian Country. It was an energy that even the youngest Senate staffers or interns couldn’t match. And from what I saw, he worked that way until his final days in the U.S. Senate.

I feel compelled to write this because, as a tribal citizen, my life and the lives of my family and tribe were directly affected by the Senator’s work and will continue to be. What is more, I’m certain that my professional life would be quite different had our lives not intersected.

On January 28, 2014, in a historic moment, Senator McCain introduced six federal judicial nominees to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. I was one of those six. We were the product of a long negotiation between President Obama’s White House staff and Senator McCain to fill six federal judge vacancies in Arizona that for over two years went unfilled. In typical John McCain fashion, he worked to bridge the partisan divide that had nearly crippled the Arizona federal district court. Then, on May 14, 2014, he urged his Senate colleagues to vote to confirm our nominations.

I watched the Senate vote on my nomination from a television on the ASU campus. I recall his statement “With this vote, we will be making history in some respects. We should all be proud that this nominee, Diane Humetewa of the Hopi Tribe, will be the first Native American woman to be on the Federal bench.” Shortly after the final vote was cast my cell phone rang. It was Senator McCain. He called to congratulate me on the unanimous vote. We were both silent for a moment. I was attempting to get my emotions in cheek, and he patiently waited. All I could say was that my parents watched the vote from their home on the Hopi reservation, and “thank you Senator.” I’m sure he heard the emotion in my voice because he responded in a fatherly tone, “You are very welcome Diane, I was proud to do it.”

About six months later, I was elated to have Senator McCain speak at my judicial investiture. I made sure to personally thank him for giving me my first job as a lawyer on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and quite possibly, for helping me to get what is likely my last job as a lawyer, as a federal judge.

As I write this, I am reminded that mine is not the only life Senator John McCain has impacted. One only need read the hundreds of news articles, or change the T.V. station to realize the indelible mark he has left on untold thousands, indeed millions of Americans regardless of gender, creed, race or nationality – the nation as a whole, writ large. And we, even in Indian Country, are all the better for it.

Diane Humetewa, a citizen of the Hopi Tribe, serves as a United States District Judge for the District of Arizona. She is the first Native American woman to serve on the federal bench. Between December 2007 and August 2009, she served as the U.S. Attorney for Arizona, and was the first Native woman to become a U.S. Attorney. As counsel to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, she worked with the late Sen. John McCain. She is one of the pallbearers at McCain’s memorial service in Phoenix, Arizona, on August 30, 2018.