A Conservative Republican's Rise Is The Latest Sign Of Indigenous Political Power

It took Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) only about a minute to say all he had to say about becoming the most politically powerful Native American currently in elected office, and possibly the most powerful one since the 1920s.

“I care a lot about Native American history. I’m from a state that has a huge tribal presence,” Cole told reporters Monday morning, after officially taking the reins of the powerful House appropriations committee from Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas).

The committee, in conjunction with its counterpart in the Senate, divides up the annual pie of federal funding that goes to keep most federal agencies and programs outside of Social Security and Medicare running. For this year, that totaled about $1.6 trillion.

Appropriators are the guardians of Congress’ purse strings, and are sometimes regarded as almost an invisible third party on Capitol Hill. Spending bills must be passed by Sept. 30 each year to keep the government open, and making sure those bills get passed makes appropriators often more moderate than their colleagues.

In Cole’s case, as he worked his way up the ladder, he said he’s tried to look out for Native issues, such as housing. Cole, 74, has historically also been known as an advocate for higher Indian Health Service funding.

“Clearly, that’s something I know a lot about and care a lot about. Some of my colleagues, they come from districts that don’t have much Native presence. I understand why it’s not front and center to them, but it is to me,” he said Monday.

Cole, a political consultant before he was elected to Congress in 2002, is a conservative, but one of the few in his party who commands respect from more moderate members as well as hard-liners. His name was mentioned in October as a potential new House speaker, but he took himself out of consideration early and often.

Cole said he’ll continue Republicans’ focus on funding defense, homeland security and veterans programs.

“We’re going to get the bills done and we’re going to move them through,” he said. “And they’re going to be conservative, Republican bills.”

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) arrives for the Republican caucus meeting at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Oct. 19, 2023.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) arrives for the Republican caucus meeting at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Oct. 19, 2023. Alex Brandon via Associated Press

Cole’s brevity when asked about the significance of his taking the gavel was in character — he does not shy from saying he’s a proud member of the Ada, Oklahoma-based Chickasaw Nation, but he doesn’t bring it up spontaneously very much. At the same time, his conciseness on Monday undersold the moment.

In 2020, Native voters provided some of the margins in key states for President Joe Biden, including Arizona and Wisconsin. Afterward, Indigenous activists were able to parlay the recognition of that work into a successful nomination of Deb Haaland, a former U.S. representative, to become the first Native interior secretary. The Interior Department is the part of the government that most of the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes deal with the most.

And in 2022, with the election of Rep. Mary Peltola (D-Alaska), the House for the first time had members of all three major U.S. Indigenous groups  — Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians — among its membership.

Historically, Cole is in rare company. He became the longest-serving Native person in House history in 2022, surpassing another Oklahoman, Charles David Carter.

And in his new role at the appropriations committee, he may be the most influential elected Native American since fellow Republican Charles Curtis, the record holder for Indigenous tenure in Congress.

Curtis was elected to the House in 1893 and became an appropriator overseeing the Interior Department. He then moved to the Senate and became majority leader. He went on to serve as President Herbert Hoover’s vice president from 1929 to 1933. Curtis was affiliated with the Kaw and Osage tribes.

When Cole was ratified by House Republicans to be the new chairman, Chuck Hoskin Jr., principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, said Cole “truly understands” the needs of tribes and their populations.

“I have full confidence that he will continue to be a strong advocate for funding vital programs, as well as honoring the federal government’s trust responsibilities to tribal nations,” Hoskin said in a statement.

And while Cole may not play up his heritage, he is mindful of it. He disagrees with the significance of “blood quantum” — a measure that several Oklahoma tribes use to decide membership, based on being able to trace one’s ancestry back to pre-statehood tribal rolls that were often inaccurate.

“It’s really funny. White people will ask you, ‘How much Indian are you?’ Indians only ask you what tribe you are,” he said. “It’d be like asking somebody, ‘How much American are you?’ Really? I either am or I’m not.”

Cole said his great-grandfather intentionally understated his quantum in order to avoid having a white guardian appointed to decide if he could sell his land. In one case, he said, one of his great-aunts had a white husband who sold their land and simply disappeared.

“That was pretty common,” Cole said. “What happened in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ was the worst version of it, but this disappropriation of private property by marrying and exploiting Indians was pretty common, all in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”