FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar's reference to American Indians as "wards of the federal government" has struck a harsh chord with tribal members and legal experts in the days following a discussion about a controversial Arizona land deal that would make way for the country's largest copper mine.
The Arizona Republican was responding to concerns from Phil Stago of the White Mountain Apache Tribe when he made the comment that stunned people at the round-table talk.
Stago said the phrase is antiquated and ignores advances made in tribes managing their own affairs and seeking equal representation when it comes to projects proposed on land they consider sacred.
"He kind of revealed the truth — the true deep feeling of the federal government: 'Tribes, you can call yourselves sovereign nations, but when it comes down to the final test, you're not really sovereign because we still have plenary authority over you,'" Stago told The Associated Press.
Gosar spokesman Steven Smith said that wasn't the intent of the congressman, whose constituents in the 4th Congressional District include Apache tribes. He didn't respond to requests to elaborate further.
"If that's what he got out of that, I think it's misconstrued," Smith said. "If you look at the work the congressman has done, that's far from the truth."
Smith said Gosar has been an advocate for strengthening the relationship between tribes and the federal government. He pointed to legislation he sponsored this year that would do so.
Gosar held the discussion Friday in Flagstaff with Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who grew up with Stago on Arizona's Fort Apache Reservation.
Dozens of people attended the meeting to discuss land, mining and forest issues with the representatives.
One topic they addressed was a proposal to swap 2,400 acres of southeastern Arizona's Tonto National Forest for about 5,300 acres of environmentally sensitive land throughout the state controlled by a subsidiary of global mining giant Rio Tinto. Stago said the proposal was disrespectful to tribal sovereignty.
Gosar said: "You're still wards of the federal government," according to the Arizona Daily Sun.
While former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall described tribes' relationship with the federal government as that of a ward to its guardian in the 1830s, that characterization has long been irrelevant, experts in federal Indian law said.
Tribal members once seen as incompetent in the Supreme Court's eyes became U.S. citizens in 1924, and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 pushed the concept of tribal sovereignty and self-determination, said Troy Eid, a Republican and former U.S. attorney in Colorado.
Congress maintains control over Indian affairs.
However, the Interior Department is moving away from archaic paternalism when it comes to relationships with tribes, a spokeswoman said. The Bureau of Indian Affairs' website notes the federal government is a trustee of Indian property — not the guardian of all American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Eid said the language that defines core concepts of Indian law is old and often ethnically offensive. "Wards of the federal government" is no different, he said.
"That's just not appropriate," Eid said. "In the heated context of what this represents, it's especially inappropriate to be resorting to what amounts to race baiting."
The trend has been for tribes to take more control over their affairs while holding the federal government to promises generally born out of treaties. In exchange for tribal land, the government promised things like health care, education and social services in perpetuity for members of federally recognized tribes.
Some tribes are taking advantage of federal laws that allow them to prosecute felony crimes and assert jurisdiction over non-Natives in limited cases of domestic violence. They also have the authority to approve trust land leases directly, rather than wait for BIA approval.
Sam Deloria, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who served for 35 years as director of the American Indian Law Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said tribes welcome discussion about policy matters.
But when someone makes a comment like Gosar's, "it doesn't contribute much to the debate," he said.