Where the 2024 presidential candidates stand on Indigenous issues

Pauly Denetclaw

WASHINGTON — Marianne Williamson, a 2020 presidential hopeful, promised before an auditorium of Indigenous leaders, elders and voters that under her administration the White House would formally apologize and atone for the horrific treatment of Native Americans by the federal government, alluding to genocidal policies enacted by the United States.

In 2019, Williamson was one of 11 presidential candidates who attended the historic Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City.

Williamson is one of three Democratic candidates running for president of the United States in 2024. She’s also in the race against incumbent President Joe Biden and Cenk Uygur, co-founder and host of The Young Turks, a progressive news program.

“Biden’s done some good things in Indian Country, but not everybody’s happy with everything,” said Mike Stopp, a Republican political consultant. “Even Deb Haaland, who I like, even though we disagree on a lot of policies, has irritated a lot of people in Indian Country. Just because you are Native doesn’t mean you’re going to do what everybody wants all the time. We’re very diverse.”

The 2024 presidential election also has two Independent candidates, political activist Cornel West, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of the late Robert F. Kennedy and an environmental attorney.

There are 9 Republican candidates:

  1. Former president Donald J. Trump
  2. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley
  3. Biotech investor and newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy
  4. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson
  5. Megachurch pastor and businessman Ryan Binkley
  6. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
  7. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
  8. North Dakota Gov. Doug Bergum
  9. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott

Most of the presidential candidates mention nothing publicly about what their policies are for tribal nations, leaving voters to speculate what it could be from past legislations, social media posts, comments and speeches. ICT has created a database of presidential candidates that includes information specific to tribal nations. The database gives users a brief overview of each candidate and their engagement with tribal nations.

The presidential race is stacked this election but the two frontrunners are, obviously, Biden and Trump.

“I see Trump/Biden 2.0 in 2024, and I don’t think that makes anybody happy, but I think that’s where we are. I think what we’re going to see is a lot of Democrats turn out because they’re anti-Trump and they’re not super excited about Biden either, but he’s the president and the candidate,” Stopp said. “You’re going to see a lot of Republicans, quite a few of them were very pro-Trump, but a lot of ’em are really anti-Biden that are coming out. They would like to see someone more practical than Donald Trump.”

Current polling shows Biden leading with more than 60 percent. Williamson at around 5 percent and before Kennedy changed parties he hovered around 15 percent in the Democratic primary.

“I do believe that President Joe Biden is going to go down in history as one of the most supportive advocates for tribal sovereignty that we’ve seen in a U.S. president,” Angelique EagleWoman, a scholar of Indigenous law and policy. “I say that because of his ability to see the grassroots support for appointing the first Native person as the US Secretary of the Interior. So by appointing Secretary of Interior, Deb Haaland, who’s Laguna Pueblo, into that role, he set a standard that we haven’t seen at that level for a U.S. president.”

Trump is dominating the packed Republican primary. He stays around 60 percent in the polls with DeSantis, Haley and Ramaswamay trailing behind.

“Now, when it comes to Indian policy, Donald Trump actually had some decent advisors when he did it,” Stopp said. “I was one of them. There were a few others that I worked with in making sure that federal Indian policy didn’t take a step back.”

Another was Tyler Fish, Cherokee, who was a White House senior policy advisor and tribal liaison during the Trump administration. Texas federal judge Ada Brown, Choctaw, was nominated by Trump. She became the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge. On her father’s side she is a descendant of the Muscogee Creek Freedmen.

Trump signed the CARES Act that allocated $8 billion in funding for tribal governments and an additional $2 billion for the Indian Health Service. Many nations used this funding to provide direct support for their citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic.

DeSantis started off as a strong contender against Trump but his polling has since lagged. He stays around 15 percent.

“I don’t see any standout on the Republican side that has a knowledge basis or the ability to embrace tribal nations, our issues and our sovereignty,” EagleWoman said.

DeSantis supported the Seminole Tribe of Florida on the road to having a monopoly on sports betting in the state. The Seminole Tribe donated millions to DeSantis’ gubernatorial campaigns. Unfortunately, the tribal gaming compact has been caught up in legal challenges and will likely head to the Supreme Court for review.

“We see in Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida, the absolute elimination of Native Americans in history or understanding the role of Euro-Americans in causing harm,” EagleWoman said. “A great nation should be able to understand its mistakes and its faults to do better.”

Trump stopped hosting the White House Tribal Nations Summit, rarely did meaningful consultation with tribal leaders, released budget requests that cut funding for IHS and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and supported energy projects that were incredibly unpopular in tribal nations.

“We have the former U.S. President Donald Trump who before entering politics opposed tribal casinos and tribal gaming and tribal business development,” EagleWoman said. “During his administration, he tried to rescind a reservation for the Wampanoag. He put on hold the ability of Alaska Native villages, as tribal governments, to take land into trust. He mocked tribal historical figures. He refused to engage in consultation. So, there’s just not many pluses I can find for that former administration.”

Recently, former Vice President Mike Pence was the first high-profile candidate to drop out of the race, saying it was clear that it wasn’t his time. Others that have dropped out are Miami mayor Francis Suarez, former Cranston, R.I. mayor Steve Laffey, and former Texas congressman Will Hurd.

A Republican candidate with lots of experience with tribal nations is North Dakota Gov. Doug Bergum. The state has five federally-recognized tribes, these include the Mandan, Hidatsa, & Arikara Nation (Three Affiliated Tribes), Spirit Lake Nation, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, and Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Nation.

“Doug actually has had very good relations with tribes,” Stopp said. “Actually, a good friend of mine who used to be the staff director for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs actually is advising on his campaign because he worked for him as governor and in the Indian Affairs office.”

In May, with the support of Bergum, North Dakota codified the federal Indian Child Welfare Act into state law as the Supreme Court wrangled with the constitutionality of the act. He displayed tribal flags at the state Capitol; doubled Native American scholarships to $1 million; signed legislation that would bring IT and cybersecurity to tribal schools and colleges; and went into oil tax revenue-sharing compacts with the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.

“I do think he is probably the most pro-tribal, pro-Indian candidate in the Republican mix right now,” Stopp said. “Unfortunately, I don’t see him getting very far. I actually find him to be a very practical person, and in today’s environment, practicality loses to sensationalism.”

Biden administration

The difference between the top two contenders is stark when it comes to tribal nations. The Biden administration has poured unprecedented amounts of funding into tribal governments, appointed more Native Americans to key roles than any other administration, continues to do meaningful consultation, hosted the first-ever Native American Heritage Month reception at the White House, and nominated an Indigenous woman to be a federal judge.

Biden also selected the first Native American person to ever be part of the president’s cabinet, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and the first Native American U.S. Treasurer, Chief Lynn Malerba, Mohegan.

Last year, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris both made speeches at the White House Tribal Nations Summit. Around half of the cabinet members were walking around during the summit talking with tribal leaders.

Any candidate would have a difficult time matching Biden’s commitment to tribal nations.

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‘Scoping’ results show new Colorado River rules will face a range of demands

A new federal government report shows Colorado River states are aiming to agree on a plan to cut back on water, but remain divided about how to share the shrinking supply among tens of millions across the Southwest.

Joe Biden nominates Cherokee citizen to federal bench

Kalle Benallie

A Cherokee citizen is among President Joe Biden’s nominees for federal judge seats.

Former Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill was nominated Wednesday to serve as a federal judge in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, she would be the first Native American woman to serve as a federal judge in Oklahoma. Hill is Biden’s fourth Native judicial nominee.

“She is a brilliant attorney and dedicated public servant who possesses the knowledge, demeanor and compassion to serve the country well on the bench. As a female and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, she not only adds diversity to the ranks of federal judges, she also brings knowledge of Indian Country issues that we need more among federal judges,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin said.


Hill previously served the Cherokee Nation as secretary of natural resources from 2015 to 2019 and most recently as attorney general for the tribe from 2019 to 2023. She is currently a lawyer in private practice.

Her other work experience includes being an assistant attorney general from 2004 to 2014, deputy attorney general from 2014 to 2015 and special assistant U.S. attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Oklahoma from 2014 to 2015.

Hill received her juris doctor degree from the University of Tulsa in 2003 and her bachelors from Northeastern State University in 2000.

The National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Fund have issued their support for Hill.

“Sara Hill will bring unparalleled experience in law and policy to our justice system. NCAI urges the swift confirmation of Ms. Hill as the nomination moves before the U.S. Senate,” Larry Wright Jr, executive director at the National Congress of American Indians, said in a press release.

Native American Rights Fund Executive Director John Echohawk said Hill has a “strong history of public service and possesses excellent qualifications to be a federal judge.”

Additionally, Shanlyn Park, Native Hawaiian, was nominated by U.S. Sens. Mazie K. Hirono and Brian Schatz to be a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawai’i

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The National Congress of American Indians, Native American Rights Fund and the National Native American Bar Association have expressed their support of Park’s nomination to Sen. Richard Durbin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Lindsay Graham, ranking member on the committee.

“Judge Park is highly qualified for a federal judgeship. She is an experienced judge and before her appointment to the state court where she currently serves, she was an exceptionally accomplished litigator with experience litigating in state and federal courts, on complex criminal and civil matters, in private practice and in public service as a federal prosecutor,” the press release states.

If appointed and confirmed, Park would be the first Native Hawaiian woman federal judge in Hawaiʻi.

Park and fellow nominee Micah Smith went before the senate judiciary committee on Oct. 4.

Park’s prior work experience includes being a law clerk for Judge Francis I. Yamashita, U.S. Magistrate Judge for the District of Hawai’i from 1995 to 1996; working at a private practice at Hisaka Stone & Goto from 1996 to 1997; an assistant federal public defender in the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the District of Hawai’i from 1997 to 2017; work at the the Honolulu law firms McCorriston Miller Mukai MacKinnon, L.L.P. and Gallagher Kane Amai & Reyes from 2017 to 2021. She currently serves as a state court judge on the First Circuit Court on Oahu.

Hill received her juris doctor from the University of Hawai’i William S. Richardson School of Law in 1995 and her bachelors of arts from Chaminade University of Honolulu in 1991.

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‘Blessed to have water’: Hualapai Tribe praises historic water rights settlement

After more than a decade of negotiations, the Hualapai Tribe settled with the federal government and the state of Arizona to provide water to the tribal residents, and establish a trust fund of $312 million that can be used to develop water infrastructure on the Hualapai Nation.

An Indigenous room in hip-hop’s mansion

R. Vincent Moniz Jr.

For five amazing decades, the world has been filled with the sounds, stories and voices of hip-hop. From music to brand deals, rapping to the beat has become a destination for poets and hustlers alike. But where in this behemoth of a building will you find exhibition space for Natives? Where is the room in this lodge for those who have been singing their prayers to beats passed down from their ancestors’ hearts?

It is a place much of Indian Country knows the direct location of. Every two-step those first Native rappers danced, another song was created. Star blankets transformed from curtains and doors, into soundproofing for closet turned recording studio.

There is not a specific date when Native people first reached for the mic. The cities and tribal lands they come from have their own creation stories and heroes of the game. The beginning of each rhymesayers origin story is as rich and diverse as the nations and neighborhoods they come from.

Gichi-manido wiidookawishin ji-mashkawiziyaan
(Great Spirit help me to be strong)

Mii dash bami’idiziyaan
(So that I can help myself)

Miizhishinaam zaagi’iiwewin
(Show us all love)

Ganoozh ishinaam, bizindaw ishinaam
(Talk to us, hear us)

Mii-wenji nagamoyaan
(That is why I am singing)

Nimishomis wiidookawishinaam ji-aabajitooyaang anishinaabe izhitwaawin
(Grand father help us to use the Anishinaabe customs)

Mii-ji-bi-gikendamaan keyaa anishinaabe bimaadiziwin
(So that we’ll know how to live the Anishinaabe way/the good life)

– Tall Paul, Ojibwemowin lyrics from ‘Prayers in a Song’

Paul Wenell, Jr. aka Tall Paul (Leech Lake Ojibwe)

What is known, is that Native people immediately connected with the beats, dances, and the intricate plot being told by master storytellers. Tales of survival, of triumph and tragedy were kindling First Nations had already spit like hot fire.

Like many Native children, the start for “MuMu Fresh” began with teasing relatives. These Afro-Indigenous youth, who grew up in and around Baltimore, Maryland’s Indian Center, stepped up their smack talk with tight flows.

The Baltimore Native remembers her brother’s ability to battle rap was the stuff of front stoop legends. However, younger sisters, no matter how much they loved the word play, were not allowed. MuMu Fresh talked about growing the four sisters of her rhyme game with the determination to get outside. The front steps were linked to her start when she tore through the Goliath to Fresh’s David.

Miracle Spotted Bear is stuck in between
‘I was raised through music’
‘He who walks through the battle smoke’
Rising Lakota musician ‘Hittin’ Home Runs’

Maimouna Youssef aka Mumu Fresh (Mississippi Choctaw descendant)

Leech Lake Ojibwe citizen Tall Paul knows the front and back end of the hip-hop genre. His appreciation of Native rap is deeper than 10,000 lakes. This Anishinaabe rhymer has no problem listing artists he likes and the ones he is keeping an ear to. One of the things that separates Native hip hop is the inclusion of Indigenous melodies and languages. ‘Prayers In A Song’, written Tall Paul, features the hip-hop artist rapping to the beat in Anishinaabemowin. The track, now a classic, was a turning point. Our languages can be braided into any beat, but these two were like connecting puzzle pieces of a larger masterpiece

Paul, who was raised in south Minneapolis, knows that it takes a lot of work to find success. The rapper has many hopes for the next 50 years of hip-hop. He sees more opportunity for artists to have the freedom to express themselves and their personal experiences. To the Tallest of them all, hip-hop is a gift. It is for strong hearts with cold flows to begin a remodel of their own. Fitting more Indigenous people into the mansion hip-hop built.

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Cherokee Nation launches broad expansion into film industry

Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to ICT

Film has become an important part of the Cherokee Nation’s business and identity as the tribe continues to build upon the film office they launched in 2019, the first certified Native American film office in the country.

Now, after years of supporting award-winning productions and $1 million rebates, they are rolling out a reorganization of the tribe’s filmmaking ecosystem and expanding the Cherokee Film Studios in Owasso, Oklahoma.


Now named simply Cherokee Film, the enterprise includes four branches – Cherokee Film Productions, Cherokee Film Studios, the Cherokee Film Commission, and the Cherokee Film Institute — with 30 full-time employees.

Cherokee Film will continue to offer the enticing rebates for productions filmed in Oklahoma with the services of the tribal film office, but it will also increase production of its own original programming, help tribal citizens break into the industry and create jobs in and around the Cherokee Nation.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held on Wednesday, Aug. 30, for a new 10,000-square-foot studio, which will join a larger, extended reality or XR, facility that opened in July 2022.

“Cherokee Nation has quickly become a leading hub for Indigenous storytellers in television and film,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said at the groundbreaking.

“As we increase infrastructure, explore incentives, connect resources and remove barriers, Cherokee Nation and its businesses are helping grow and amplify television and film production in Oklahoma while making it possible for our citizens to be a part of it.”

Cherokee Nation Businesses announced the expansion in late August with the new company name and divisions, as well as logos, new social media accounts and a website to represent the tribe’s continued efforts.

Breaking new ground

The existing 27,000-square-foot studio — known as Cherokee Film Studios, Owasso Campus — was the first of its kind in Oklahoma and in Indian Country, though the Tesuque Pueblo tribe now operates Camel Rock Studios, a movie studio in an existing building that once housed a casino in New Mexico.

Owasso Campus sits on more than four acres in the Cherokee Nation Reservation and includes dedicated studio spaces with edit suites, a control room, a professional-grade audio booth, crew and client lounges, and hair and make-up facilities to meet the growing needs of production in Oklahoma.

Related story:
Tribes open film studios to lure movie, TV productions

The new 10,000-square-foot soundstage will feature a 35-foot ceiling, full soundproofing to cinema standards, a modular truss system with chain hoists, a hair and make-up room, a multipurpose-flex space, 14-foot bay doors for load-ins and RV hookups for production trailers. It is expected to be completed in 2024.

“Cherokee Nation and its businesses continue to stand at the forefront of industry and economic growth in Oklahoma,” Chuck Garrett, the chief executive officer of Cherokee Nation Businesses said at the groundbreaking.

“We are very proud of our ongoing leadership role in helping grow and evolve the film and television industry, and it’s time that our brand recognizes the entirety of those efforts,” Garrett said.

Cherokee drummer Makayla Bearpaw, right, is featured in Season 8 of the Cherokee Nation’s award-winning programming, “Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People.” The tribe announced in 2023 that it is expanding its film and television business to include additional original projects. Bearpaw is shown here with Cherokee Film production specialist Colby Luper. (Photo courtesy Cherokee Nation)

The four branches of Cherokee Film will expand the tribe’s already extensive efforts.

The Cherokee Film Commission will continue to offer its $1 million annual rebate to film production in the state and will serve as the liaison to Indian Country, connecting productions with diverse locations spanning five eco-regions, skilled Native talent and crew, and the virtual production soundstage.

The Cherokee Film Institute will train, develop and elevate Native and local talent to work professionally in the film and media industries, creating sustainable career opportunities within the Cherokee Nation and beyond.

Under the new Cherokee Film Productions, the tribe will continue the popular award-winning television production OsiyoTV and will add new projects that tell Cherokee stories and contribute to the tribe’s language revitalization efforts.

The National Academy of Television, Arts & Sciences recently recognized the show, “Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People,” with six Heartland Regional Emmy Awards.

The tribe’s cultural television series, and the short documentaries included within it, continue to be honored with numerous regional, national and international accolades for its approach to sharing real-life stories of the Cherokee people.

The show, which is often referred to as OsiyoTV, ranks among the most-awarded Indigenous-run series in the industry. The 2023 Heartland Regional Emmy Awards bring the show’s total Emmy wins to 22.

Since premiering in 2015, “Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People” has featured hundreds of Cherokees from both past and present. The first-of-its-kind series, hosted and executive produced by Cherokee Nation filmmaker and Emmy-winning journalist Jennifer Loren, is breaking barriers and helping change how Native Americans are represented.

And Cherokee Film Studios, meanwhile, will continue to support the local, regional and Native film industries through investments in infrastructure that expand on the tribe’s existing soundstage facility in Owasso.

Looking ahead

Hollywood is already gaining interest in Oklahoma.

Among the projects that have filmed in Oklahoma are the “Reservation Dogs” series; the film “Stillwater,” featuring Matt Damon; HBO Max’s “Land of Gold”; and Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the upcoming Apple+ film about the murder of members of the Osage tribe in the 1920s.

Scorsese’s western shot a few days on Cherokee land and worked with its film office on casting, an experience tribal leaders are hoping to build on.

The first film to receive the $1 million rebate was “Fancy Dance,” the Erica Tremblay film shot on the Cherokee Nation, which made its world premiere in the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and was a finalist in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.

This still shot is taken from the film, “Fancy Dance,” by director/producer and co-writer Erica Tremblay, Seneca–Cayuga, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It was the first film to officially receive a $1 million rebate under the Cherokee Nation Film Incentive program. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“We knew it was going to be a success,” Jennifer Loren, senior director of Cherokee Film, told the Tulsa World after returning from the festival. “We had a pretty good feeling. That film, everything about it supports the mission of the Cherokee Film Office. It was a great fit.”

Starring actress Lily Gladstone, who is also in “Killers of the Flower Moon” with Leonardo DiCaprio, “Fancy Dance’ was a high-profile first for the Cherokee Nation Film Incentive program though other incentive projects have since been completed.

“(‘Fancy Dance’) is the first to get a check, to get the cash rebate,” Loren said. “There were several projects that were kind of the first wave, but they were the first ones to turn in the ledgers and everything to get their rebate.”

Other projects are on the way, but likely have been stalled by ongoing strikes by both the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the Writers Guild of America.

The movie “Twisters,” a sequel to the 1996 film “Twister,” was in the midst of filming in Oklahoma when the industry was shut down by the strikes. The Universal film, with a monster $200 million budget, stars Daisy Edgar-Jones, Glen Powell and Anthony Ramos, and had an expected release date in the summer of 2024.

Loren said four projects pre-approved for the incentive are in line to be filmed in 2023, though the strikes will cause delays.

Among those is a standout Indigenous story by Andrew Troy, a historical feature, “I Am A Man: The True Story of Ponca Chief Standing Bear.”

To qualify for the incentive, a film or TV show working with the Cherokee Film Office doesn’t have to be Native-themed. Cherokee Nation officials say they will consider the projects by merit rather than on a first-come, first-served basis, and special consideration will be given to projects that help dispel stereotypes about Indigenous people.

“The launch of Cherokee Film represents a new way forward, not just for the Cherokee people, but for all of Indian Country and for film and media as a whole,” Loren said in a statement. “With a community-driven mindset, we have built a living, breathing ecosystem to create positive change through the practice of storytelling in the digital age.”

She continued, “With Cherokee Film’s new investments in film and media production and investments in educating our workforce, we hope to create lasting change that will help diversify the stories we see in mainstream media. Our team at Cherokee Film is passionate about creating a better and more inclusive life for the next seven generations.”

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Sober living fraud scheme targeted Montana tribal citizens

When Autumn Nelson decided she was ready to seek treatment for her alcoholism, she knew she had to act fast.

“When someone with an addiction says, ‘I need help,’ we’re begging,” she said. “We want it.”

Nelson, who lives on the Blackfeet Reservation, knew she might have to leave home to get the help she needed. Crystal Creek Lodge provides inpatient and outpatient treatment on the reservation, but community members say the place is almost always at capacity. Journey to Recovery, another facility on the reservation, provides outpatient services primarily focused on supporting individuals after they return from inpatient treatment. And sometimes, it can be helpful for people struggling with addiction to leave their environment and disconnect from people in their circles who may be using.

So when Journey to Recovery gave Nelson the contact information for a treatment center in Arizona, Nelson was hopeful. She was ready to get clean. Little did she know she’d soon be caught up in a national scandal.

Phoenix House Recovery, a treatment center in Arizona, paid for Nelson’s plane ticket to Arizona, and Nelson was eager for a fresh start. Her father died of cancer three years ago, and just before his death, her younger brother died in a car accident.

“That really set my alcoholism off,” she said. “I kind of just stepped out of reality for a while.”

But Phoenix House Recovery wasn’t what Nelson had imagined. She has a background in health care and had been to other treatment centers in the past, and as time went on, she grew suspicious about how the facility was run.

“I started asking questions,” Nelson said. “Like, ‘Where’s the 12-step plan? Why isn’t that in our daily agenda? Why aren’t we learning about triggers, external and internal? Where is our life skills training? Why aren’t we building resumés? Why is there one therapist for 30 patients?’ I asked the clients and staff, and they kicked me out the next day.”

Out on the streets in 100-plus degree weather, Nelson had to find somewhere to go. She looked into other sober living homes but grew concerned when she was offered alcohol and drugs at one of them. She didn’t know who she could trust.

“I was scared,” she said. “I’m thousands of miles away from my family and my home. I was freaking out. I was hysterical.”

While Nelson ultimately made it home to the Blackfeet Reservation, her experience in Arizona is not uncommon.

What happened to her has happened to thousands of other Native Americans in Arizona amid a widespread Medicaid fraud scheme, where treatment centers billed the state thousands of dollars per patient for services that were not actually provided. Indigenous people from Montana, Arizona, New Mexico and South Dakota were recruited to get treatment at these fraudulent facilities, and experts estimate that at least 100 Native Americans from Montana are tangled in the scam.

The scheme defrauded Arizona taxpayers, and at these fraudulent sober living homes, some clients were given drugs and alcohol. Others were told to get on food stamps. And some people seeking treatment were paid to recruit more Native Americans to these facilities. As the fraudulent treatment centers have shuttered amid a government crackdown, Montana tribes and grassroots advocates are scrambling to get their relatives home. But because these facilities changed clients’ state of residency to Arizona for billing purposes, it’s even harder for tribes and families in Montana to locate their loved ones.

What exactly is happening in Arizona?

Arizona officials have called it “a stunning failure of government.”

In a widespread scam, treatment facilities in Arizona billed for nonexistent services, and the money was paid through the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), Arizona’s Medicaid program. The scam targeted Native Americans because a loophole in AHCCCS’s American Indian Health Program allowed individuals to pose as a treatment facility.

Reva Stewart, who launched the campaign #StolenPeopleStolenBenefits to raise awareness of the fraud, said experts have traced the origins of the scam to the pandemic.

“They targeted Native Americans because the American Indian Health Plan would pay for everything they documented,” she explained. “Once these places found out they could get something like $1,700 per day per person, you saw them popping up everywhere. With that money, one home can make $2 million in two weeks. I even saw a YouTube video on how to open a sober living home in 15 minutes.”

The Arizona Mirror reported that AHCCCS was billed $53.5 million under the outpatient behavioral health clinic code in 2019. In 2020, it more than doubled to $132.6 million, and by 2022 it exploded to $668 million.

The FBI, which is investigating the fraud, is seeking to contact victims of the scam. The agency said in some cases, organizers pick up addicts at popular gathering places; sometimes individuals are given alcohol during transport; and clients are told to obtain food stamps during their time in treatment even though their enrollment brings funding to the home. The FBI investigation has resulted in at least 45 indictments by the office of the Arizona Attorney General, and at least $75 million has been seized.

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs in May announced, according to The Associated Press, that the homes defrauded the state of hundreds of millions of dollars. AHCCCS has since suspended payments to hundreds of providers in the state.

As these homes have closed, Native American residents are left on the streets of Arizona in temperatures nearing 115 degrees. Some people have been reported missing, and others have turned up dead.

‘I blame them’

Mona Bear Medicine, Blackfeet, said when her 25-year-old son RayDel Calf Looking went to Phoenix for treatment, she had high hopes for him.

Calf Looking completed a longer treatment program, lasting 60 or 90 days, and Bear Medicine said he was doing well. There are many highly regarded treatment facilities in Arizona that have effective programs and competent staff, and plenty of Montana tribal members speak highly of them.

“He sent a selfie over Christmas, and he looked really healthy,” Bear Medicine said of her son. “He looked good. And I could tell he was doing good for himself.”

Bear Medicine said her son started drinking in high school, but she didn’t realize he was doing drugs until about five years ago. Calf Looking was gay, and Bear Medicine said he struggled to come out and faced adversity when people he loved didn’t accept him.

“I think that was the reason he got into drugs,” she said. “He didn’t know how to come out. He was teased for it, and it hurt him. He started doing different drugs, and it got worse and worse, and he got into meth. It was hard for me to realize the extent of it, and I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be on my family.”

Calf Looking completed the long-term program, and then went to a sober-living home in Arizona, called Calm Integrated Healthcare. Bear Medicine said, “That’s when the problems started.”

In February, Bear Medicine hadn’t heard from her son in a while, and she was worried. She and her sister flew down to Arizona and found Calf Looking, who had walked out of the home and appeared to be intoxicated.

“He was disappointed in himself for relapsing,” Bear Medicine recalled.

Bear Medicine took her son back to Calm Integrated Healthcare and almost immediately got a bad feeling about the place. She said her son was clearly intoxicated, and the staff at Calm Integrated said it was fine for him to stay with Bear Medicine at her motel for a few days.

“It was so shady,” Bear Medicine said. “When she said RayDel could stay with us, I asked, ‘What does he need to do? Does he need to go to class?’ And she just said, ‘No, he doesn’t need to do anything.’ When I drove away, I said to RayDel, ‘I’m so confused. I thought sober living was sober.’ And he said, ‘They don’t care as long as they get your money.’”

When Calf Looking stayed with Bear Medicine at the motel, he kept drinking, and after Bear Medicine left, she knew he was still drinking, even though he’d returned to the sober-living home.

In late March, Calf Looking’s cousin, Vandree Old Person, was found dead on the Blackfeet Reservation, and Calf Looking, who was supposed to fly home to be a pallbearer, was taking the death hard. Again, Bear Medicine didn’t hear from him, and again, she was worried.

One day in April, Bear Medicine got a call from a detective.

“When she called, I thought, ‘What did he do now?’” Bear Medicine recalled. “I said, ‘Is he in jail? Is he hurt?’ And she said, ‘No.’ Then she asked me, ‘Is anyone with you?’ and that’s when it started clicking. I said, ‘Oh my God. Is he dead?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’”

The detective told Bear Medicine that her son broke into a house while intoxicated and the homeowner, fearing for his life, shot Calf Looking as he walked up the stairs of his home. Bear Medicine said her son was shot in the back, which she finds incongruous with the detective’s recounting. And she still hasn’t received an autopsy. She was told the FBI is investigating her son’s case, but months later, she still hasn’t heard from the federal agency.

Calm Integrated Healthcare has told Bear Medicine that her son walked out of their facility and was not under their care at the time he was killed, but Bear Medicine maintains that the sober-living home had a part in his death.

“I do think the center was responsible for his death,” she said. “They took the money but still let him drink. He was really trying. He really did try, but it was so easy for him to have a free place to stay that allowed him to drink. I blame them. I really blame them.”

AHCCCS payments to Calm Integrated Healthcare were suspended on May 15 — about a month after Calf Looking was killed.

‘It’s systemic’

Just as with Autumn Nelson, Journey to Recovery in Browning connected Josh Racine to a treatment center in Arizona. A spokesperson for Journey to Recovery was not available for comment.

Racine, Blackfeet, flew out to Sunrise Native Recovery, an alcohol and drug treatment center in Scottsdale, in March. About a month later, he was on the streets.

Laura McGee, Racine’s sister, didn’t know where he was or what happened, but she was determined to find him. She called Sunrise Native Recovery, but they were no help. She called the hospitals in the area, but no luck there, either. Racine would occasionally ask her to send him food at the treatment center — something McGee thought was odd — so she scoured previous food orders to try and nail down a timeline of his disappearance. She scrutinized past texts with her brother to pinpoint a location, but her efforts felt futile.

“I was panicking because I knew what had happened to RayDel,” she said. “It was a feeling I can’t even describe. We lost our mother suddenly, and seven months later, our stepdad, who primarily raised Josh, died. And then our grandmother died, and our first cousin died of an overdose. So Josh is already an addict and now he’s out on the streets dealing with sudden death.”

As McGee did more research, she learned about the hundreds of other sober-living homes in Arizona that had been shut down. It became clear that the problem was bigger than just her and her brother, so she approached the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council.

“I told council, ‘I need help,’” she recalled. “’You sent him there through a program on this reservation. I need help getting him back.’”

The council ultimately paid for a few of McGee’s family members to fly to Arizona, and they successfully brought Racine home, but McGee’s work was not done. Upon her brother’s return, she began to piece together the broken system.

Through conversations with her brother, McGee said she learned that Sunrise charged AHCCCS at least $117,000 in one month for services related to Racine — services that Racine himself said he did not receive.

“That was for one month for one person,” McGee said. “So imagine doing that for 20 or 80 people in a facility. It adds up.”

Racine told McGee that the centers would give clients $50 a week to live on, and he was reportedly told by Sunrise that if he recruited other Native Americans, they would reward him with $100.

“It’s systemic,” McGee said. “There weren’t protocols, and people were being taken advantage of.”

McGee said people struggling with addiction are a particularly vulnerable population, which worked to the scheme’s advantage.

“These are addicts who have lost the trust of their families,” she said. “So when they say, ‘This treatment center isn’t good. They’re putting me out on the street,’ families weren’t believing them. These people knew that and used it against them.”

That’s exactly what happened to Wendy Bremner. Her daughter Brooke Running Crane, Blackfeet, also went to Sunrise, and Running Crane was also suspicious of the facility. She told her mother she wasn’t comfortable at Sunrise and was scared to be there. But Bremner didn’t know what to do.

“I didn’t want to be an enabler,” she said. “I don’t know if what she’s telling me is true. I don’t want to interfere with treatment.”

Later, Running Crane’s anxiety about Sunrise rose to a breaking point, and she was hospitalized for a panic attack. Sunrise told Bremner that her daughter could not return to the facility, and as far as Bremner could tell, her daughter was going to be discharged from the hospital on to the streets.

Bremner called Sunrise over and over again until they finally agreed to help transfer Running Crane to another facility. Running Crane’s new facility is a good one, but Bremner said she doesn’t know what would’ve happened to her daughter if she hadn’t intervened.

“It was really scary,” she said. “She didn’t have anywhere to go, and I was just calling people saying, ‘You can’t just throw my daughter out.’”

Bremner said her daughter ended up at Sunrise because she’d heard of several people in Browning who’d gone there. And when Running Crane expressed that she wanted to receive treatment, Bremner said the treatment facilities in Arizona “felt like a miracle.”

“Families are desperate to get their people help when they say, ‘I want to go to treatment,’” she said. “It’s very rare, so at that moment, you really want to get them in somewhere while they’re ready to go. It’s so hard to get treatment here, and sending her far away is scary, but we wanted her to get help.”

AHCCCS payments to Sunrise Native Wellness were suspended on July 21 — almost two months after Racine went missing and five months after Running Crane’s panic attack.

Tribes take action

After the Blackfeet Council helped get Racine home, it quickly became clear that its work wasn’t done.

As McGee became more vocal on Facebook, more and more families reached out saying their loved ones were missing or stuck at treatment centers in Arizona. McGee continued to present her findings to the tribal government, and eventually, the council came out with a formalized plan of action.

Councilman Lyle Rutherford directed facilities on the reservation, including Journey to Recovery, not to send clients to treatment centers in Arizona. The tribe has worked with McGee and other advocates to bring at least 10 members home. And on Tuesday, the council issued a public health state of emergency “for Blackfeet tribal members affected by the humanitarian crisis arising from shuttered fraudulent behavioral health treatment facilities in Arizona.”

The council on Thursday instituted a ban prohibiting the solicitation of individuals on the reservation to attend fraudulent treatment facilities in Arizona and established civil penalties for individuals or entities that violate the ban at $5,000 for the first offense, $10,000 for the second offense and permanent expulsion from the reservation on the third offense.

The council also pledged to continue to help members who were displaced and said it created a task force to identify displaced individuals.

Councilwoman Shelly Hall said the emergency declaration helps bring awareness to the crisis and could allow the tribe to allocate more money toward its resolution.

“I believe there are about eight or 10 more Blackfeet down there,” Hall said. “This is important because these are our members. If they’re in any kind of trouble, we want to help them. We’ve heard horror stories of people who are on the streets in this heat.”

McGee said she also urged Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office to issue a public service announcement on the matter but was told that his office needed more information on the subject. She also reached out to members of Montana’s congressional delegation, and Sen. Jon Tester sent a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, urging the group to “immediately investigate this matter further and provide a detailed report of their findings.”

The Billings Area Indian Health Service has asked Montana tribes to let the agency know how many citizens have been impacted, and other tribes in Montana have also taken action.

Josie Fisher, Northern Cheyenne, was at a different treatment facility in Arizona and didn’t feel safe. She said a staff member made inappropriate sexual comments to her, and she wrote on Facebook that she wanted to leave.

Fisher got connected with advocates through Facebook, and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe paid for her plane ticket home.

“I’m so thankful to be home,” she said. “I’m at peace now. When I was there, I was just in survival mode.”

Northern Cheyenne Councilwoman Melissa Lonebear said as of Aug. 1, the tribe had helped three members get home from Arizona and added that the council is working with the tribal health department to develop a plan to get more people home.

She said part of the issue is that there is no treatment center on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

“The way the system is set up is if someone hits rock bottom and they want treatment, they will do an assessment at the Northern Cheyenne Recovery Center and then get referred to an outpatient 10-day program,” she said. “After 10 days, there’s a chance a bed will open in Billings or Butte, but that person may have to just return home. And because we don’t have sober living homes here, people come back and return to the same environment.”

Lonebear is hopeful that the tribe will be able to help people return home from Arizona, but acknowledged the council will have to overcome significant barriers in doing so. To be eligible for AHCCCS, treatment centers had clients change their residency address to Arizona, so it’s hard for tribal councils in Montana to know how many of their members are there. And tribes have noted that even when someone returns home, it can take time to change their residency back to Montana and re-enroll them in Medicaid.

“I just posted on Facebook asking, ‘How many Cheyenne members do we have in Arizona?’” Lonebear said. “I’m getting names from families, and it’s hard. It’s hard to reach people because there’s no way to communicate if that person doesn’t have a phone. This is a lot bigger than we know.”

Fisher’s boyfriend was at the same facility in Arizona, but it wasn’t as easy for him to get home. Jacinto Brien is Crow, and he tried reaching out to his tribe, just as Fisher had. But he had no luck.

“I tried reaching my tribe on the phone, but I couldn’t get ahold of anyone,” he said. “And because I’m Crow, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe couldn’t help.”

Reva Stewart, of the #StolenPeopleStolenBenefits campaign, ultimately fundraised to help get Brien home. Her GoFundMe has raised more than $8,000 to help Native Americans caught in the scam.

“I’m really grateful,” Brien said of Stewart’s efforts. “I’d just say, for any tribe that’s willing to help, please answer your phones. People need your help. This is important.”


If you or a loved one is at an Arizona treatment center or was at an Arizona treatment center and wants to come home, here are some resources:

  • Call your tribe. See if they can help bring you or a loved one home.
  • The Billings Area Indian Health Service is asking each tribe to let the agency know how many members have been impacted. Send relevant information to Jennifer.Lamere@ihs.gov and Steven.Williamson2@ihs.gov or call 406-247-7248.
  • For an updated list on which Arizona treatment centers have been suspended, visit azahcccs.gov/Fraud/Providers/actions.html.
  • To either verify or report an existing treatment center, visit verifyandreport.org.
  • If you suspect Medicaid fraud or a health violation, call the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ fraud hotline at 800-201-6308.
  • If you would like to file a report to add to the ongoing FBI investigation into Arizona treatment centers, visit forms.fbi.gov/phoenixgrouphomes.
  • Advocates Reva Stewart and Laura McGee can be reached on Facebook.

This article was first published in the Missoulian. 

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Canada’s first female national chief ousted over Zoom

Supreme Court rejects Navajo Nation’s water rights trust claim

The U.S. Supreme Court said the United States is not required “to take affirmative steps to secure water for the Tribe” because that provision is not explicitly stated in the Navajo Treaty of 1868, according to its ruling in a 5-4 vote in Arizona v. Navajo Nation, released Thursday.

The case was the third and final federal Indian law case this term.

Thursday’s decision reverses a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. The tribe cannot proceed with a claim against the Department of the Interior to “develop a plan to meet the Navajo Nation’s water needs and manage the main stream of the Colorado River in the Lower Basin.”

The court also ruled that the tribe cannot present a cognizable claim of breach of trust.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the opinion and was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett.

“And it is not the Judiciary’s role to rewrite and update this 155-year-old treaty,” Kavanaugh wrote. “Rather, Congress and the President may enact—and often have enacted—laws to assist the citizens of the western United States, including the Navajos, with their water needs.

Kavanaugh went on to write that the United States has no similar duty with respect to land on the reservation and it would be “anomalous to conclude that the United States must take affirmative steps to secure water.”

“For example, under the treaty, the United States has no duty to farm the land, mine the minerals, or harvest the timber on the reservation—or, for that matter, to build roads and bridges on the reservation,” Kavanaugh writes. “Just as there is no such duty with respect to the land, there likewise is no such duty with respect to the water.”

The Navajo Nation argued that securing water rights to the Colorado River for the tribe fell under the federal government’s trust obligations that were being unfulfilled.

Critics immediately reacted to the decision saying it is a virtual theft of water from the Navajo Nation.

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren and Speaker of the 25th Navajo Nation Council Crystalyne Curley shared their disappointment in the decision in a joint press release.

As president, Nygren said it is his job to protect the people, land and future and that he remains “undeterred in obtaining quantified water rights for the Navajo Nation in Arizona.”

“The only way to do that is with secure, quantified water rights to the Lower Basin of the Colorado River,” Nygren said in the statement. “I am confident that we will be able to achieve a settlement promptly and ensure the health and safety of my people.”

“Today’s ruling will not deter the Navajo Nation from securing the water that our ancestors sacrificed and fought for — our right to life and the livelihood of future generations,” Curley added.

As he has done in the past, Justice Neil Gorsuch laid out the history of the tribe and the surrounding circumstances that led to this point in his dissenting opinion. He writes that it is known that the United States holds some of the tribe’s water rights in trust and the government owes the Navajo Nation “a duty to manage the water it holds for the Tribe in a legally responsible manner.”

In his concluding paragraphs, Gorsuch writes that the tribe has tried nearly everything and poses the question, “Where do the Navajo go from here?”

“The Navajo have waited patiently for someone, anyone, to help them, only to be told (repeatedly) that they have been standing in the wrong line and must try another. To this day, the United States has never denied that the Navajo may have water rights in the mainstream of the Colorado River (and perhaps elsewhere) that it holds in trust for the Tribe,” Gorsuch writes. “Instead, the government’s constant refrain is that the Navajo can have all they ask for; they just need to go somewhere else and do something else first.”

Derrick Beetso, Navajo, is an attorney and director of Indian Gaming and Self-Governance at Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. He also is a board member of IndiJ Public Media, the non-profit that owns ICT.

He said the opinion acknowledges that the tribe does have water rights, although they are unquantified.

“The tribe itself is pretty much in the same position they were in before this litigation and in some respects has to go back to the drawing board to figure out how they can get the administration to move forward on assessing their water needs,” Beetso told ICT.

He added that the Supreme Court is just one branch of the government and the Navajo Nation may switch focus to the Biden Administration and Congress in the future.

“The administration can do all the things that the tribe’s asking them to do without a court telling them to do it,” he said. “And so I think the Navajo Nation can shift gears and put a lot of pressure on the Biden administration and see what can get done under this administration.”

Native American Rights Fund executive director John Echohawk, Pawnee, said in a joining statement with the National Congress of American Indians that the decision condones a lack of accountability by the U.S. government.

“Despite today’s ruling, Tribal Nations will continue to assert their water rights and NARF remains committed to that fight,” Echohawk said.

Fawn Sharp, Quinault, called the decision a setback but added tribes and Native organizations will continue to fight for and defend tribal sovereignty and the preservation of Indigenous ways of life.

“Water is necessary for all life, and when our ancestors negotiated agreements with the United States to secure our lands and our protection, water was understood and still is understood to be inseparable from the land and from our peoples,” Sharp said in the statement. “Today, the Supreme Court has once again assisted in the United States’ centuries-long attempts to try to get out of the promises they have made to Tribal Nations by stating that treaties only secure access to water, but do not require the United States to take any steps to protect or provide that water to our people.”

The court ruled in mid-June on the other two federal Indian law cases. The high court affirmed the Indian Child Welfare Act in a major win that was celebrated across Indian Country. The same day the ICWA opinion was released, the court also ruled on Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians v. Coughlin.

In that ruling, the court stated that tribes cannot use sovereign immunity in Bankruptcy Court.

The court still has a number of cases to rule on before taking a summer break. The justices will return for the next term starting in October.

The opinion on Arizona v. Navajo Nation can be read here.

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