OUR OPINION: Dorgan honors first principles, First Americans
When Republicans take control of the U.S. House this week, their first order of business will be to read the U.S. Constitution aloud. Dorgan's presence would remind House members that the Constitution does more than establish limited government a...
When Republicans take control of the U.S. House this week, their first order of business will be to read the U.S. Constitution aloud.
Dorgan's presence would remind House members that the Constitution does more than establish limited government and the separation of powers. In particular, the Constitution spells out the rules governing our country's relations with American Indians.
And more than almost any other member of Congress in decades, Dorgan tried to make sure the U.S. government honored these neglected rules.
Dorgan is retiring from the Senate this week and will be remembered for a great many accomplishments. But of all of them, the most noble might just be his insistence that America remember the Constitution's Article I and Article VI.
For those are the articles that give Congress the power to "regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes," and declare that "all Treaties made ... shall be the supreme Law of the Land."
"The supreme Law of the Land." The fact that the Constitution describes treaties in this way is inconvenient for people who'd like to see Indian reservations go away. But that's too bad, because the language is plain, and the Founders' intentions are clear.
For just as the Constitution guarantees certain rights, it also imposes certain obligations. One of these is the obligation to honor treaties -- including treaties with Indian tribes, which the document lists on a level with "foreign nations" and "the several States."
As conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer once pointed out, these obligations are a part of Americans' ancestral heritage, every bit as much as is the Bill of Rights. They're in our founding document, which makes them just as binding on our own and our government's modern conduct as are the right to bear arms and the guarantee of a free press.
Where American Indians are concerned, Dorgan for 30 years pressed the U.S. government to live up to the Constitution's plain text. He didn't have to take on this mission. He won all of his re-election campaigns by big margins, which meant he had little need to court the Indian vote.
Besides, there are lots of easier ways for U.S. senators to score political points. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and its related federal agencies run slower than Seminole molasses. Change in this isolated corner of government life can take decades, not just years.
But Dorgan focused on Indian issues anyway, chairing the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and making real progress on key issues.
To cite just one recent example: "After years of trying, Congress passed several landmark bills for Indians, including laws overhauling tribal health care and law enforcement and settling a 15-year legal battle over lost royalties for mismanaged Indian lands," the Associated Press reported last week.
"Tribal leaders and advocates call the two-year session that ended last week the most productive for American Indians in four decades. ... And a huge factor was the pending retirement of a lone senator -- North Dakota's Byron Dorgan."
Dorgan's push to get the issues resolved before he retired was the decisive factor, advocates agree.
The overriding issue is one of both human decency and constitutional principle, Dorgan has said.
Remember, "we are talking about the first Americans," he said in his farewell speech to the Senate last month.
"They were here first. ... They greeted all of us. They now live in Third World conditions in much of this country, and we have to do better.
"We have to keep our promises and we have to honor our treaties." In other words, as Dorgan reminded us, we must carry out our commitments as per articles I and VI.
-- Tom Dennis for the Herald