Montana’s Secretary of State is facing heat online for writing a newsletter that compares the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to U.S.-tribal relations.
After traveling to Israel with other secretaries of state last month, Montana’s Secretary of State Republican Corey Stapleton wrote about tribal assimilation and land claims in an email that was sent to Montana businesses and posted on the department’s website Saturday night.
Gerald Gray, chairman of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, says he was shocked to see a high-ranking state official talk about the Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution alongside his tribe’s recent federal recognition.
"I think he has some explaining to do to Indian Country," Gray said.
In the newsletter, titled “We Were Here First,” Stapleton puts sovereign in quotes when referencing tribal autonomy and says the Little Shell were given 200 acres that they’ll actually have to buy. Stapleton says Israel and the U.S. are “kinda” dealing with the same dilemma of how to coexist among populations with co-occurring claims to the land.
"Somehow he’s trying to mesh the two together, which I think should’nt have been meshed together. There’s really no need to do that. If he wanted to congratulate the Little Shell Tribe and wish us luck for our future, say it. Do It. And then if you’re going to do the rest with your trip to Israel, do that too," Gray said.
Stapleton, who’s running for the Republican nomination for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat, went to Israel as part of an initiative paid for by the American Jewish Committee, a nonpartisan advocacy organization. The nonprofit says almost 6,000 leaders have participated in the program, which aims to educate global decision-makers about the challenges facing Israel.
Critics online have called Stapleton’s newsletter about his trip weird and ignorant. He’s facing heat for his mention of Darwinism and survival of the fittest.
Stapleton calls those threads literary devices to get at a larger question: Should the U.S. government prioritize assimilation or segregation?
He says he wanted to start a conversation but doesn’t have the answers himself. Stapleton says his trip to Israel raised questions about how different peoples should coexist.
"I thought I would be more inclusive. I thought my viewpoint on what should happen in the Middle East should be more of a melting pot, sort of how America is," Stapleton said.
He says he’s actually leaning more towards a two-state solution after visiting Israel. So what does that mean for his policy on tribal nations?
"I don’t know the answer to the question, I think it’s just important that we continue to be willing to ask our federal government, what is our public policy criteria on when it’s better to blend people together and when it’s better to keep them apart," Stapleton said.
He says it’s a question he’d take to Capitol Hill if elected to the U.S. House, as an advocate for all Montanans.
When asked whether he has any plans to talk to tribal leaders who have been offended by this, Stapleton responds, "The only person I’ve talked to who’s a tribal leader is Chairman Gray, and he wasn’t upset with it. I think sometimes you’ve got to ask people: did you actually read the newsletter?"
Gray, the Little Shell Chairman, did. He says the last time he saw Stapleton was long before his newsletter came out, a few weeks ago in a Wal-Mart, in which he congratulated the tribe for receiving federal recognition but did not mention an email. Then a few days ago, a friend sent him Stapleton’s letter.
"You know I don’t find it offensive, but I do find it...I really don’t care for the part about assimilation. When is it time to assimilate tribes? Or however he put it. It never is," Gray said.
Stapleton wrote that the Montana and U.S. constitutions “attempt to balance both cultural respect and assimilation as noble goals for Indian reservations.” Gray says tribes aren’t trying to balance that: They’re already sovereign nations.
He says if Stapleton wants to put him in a newsletter, he should ask first next time. Gray says a call could’ve cleared up some of Stapleton’s questions.
No other tribal chairmen or presidents could be reached in time for broadcast.
Olivia Reingold is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America corps member.