Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Slade Gorton--Washington's Jesse Helms

I knew that former Washington Senator Slade Gorton was no friend to Indians. I remember than when he lost a close reelection race to Maria Cantwell in 2000 that it was widely seen as the most successful Native American political effort in history. But I didn't know how much of a racebaiter Gorton was.

Gorton came to power stoking the resentment of white fishermen who hated the fact that Native Americans were pressing for their treaty rights. As salmon numbers collapsed, whites looked to blame someone. Rather than blame the timber industry, dams, cities, pollution, or other white causes, they blamed Native Americans. The members of small tribes around Puget Sound did fish a little bit, but there were so few of them by the 1960s that they made almost no negative impact on salmon populations.

But lingering white hatred of Indians stoked resentment against their very limited treaty rights, rights that the state of Washington did all they could to resist. Even after courts clearly stated that those rights needed to be respected, Washington acted very much like South Carolina and Alabama did after courts ordered school integration--they ignored the ruling and did everything in their power to delay implementation.

Washington Attorney General Slade Gorton led the way in this illegal attempt to deny Native American fishing rights. Elected to the Senate in 1980 over incumbent Democrat Warren Magnuson, Gorton was popular with state conservatives because of his decade long campaign against the Indians. When he reached the Senate, he made sure to get a seat on the Committee on Indian Affairs, where he continued to launch campaigns against indigenous rights.

Gorton was never particularly popular in the state at large. He lost his reelection campaign in 1986, but then ran for the state's other seat in 1988, winning two terms until Cantwell defeated him. Gorton is almost totally forgotten about today. Although still alive, his Wikipedia page is skeletal, even though he was on the 9/11 Commission. But Gorton was a racebaiter of the worst type. We think of oppression of Native Americans as something of the distant past that we are trying to make up for today, either through casinos or through finally respecting treaty rights or through pushing for the legal consumption of peyote or whatever. But this national attitude belies the kind of local hostility in states like Washington, South Dakota, and Oklahoma that can be as nasty and horrifying as anti-black racism in Detroit and Mississippi or anti-Latino racism in Arizona and Texas.