FEATURE: Native Sense

By on March 1, 2017

Can Wyoming’s first Native American woman lawmaker provide a sane Republican alternative to Trumpism?

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Newly-elected Wyoming state Senator Affie Ellis seemed out of place at the ultra-right Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) conference in Washington D.C. last week. In fact, the 38-year-old Navajo woman raised in Jackson who now represents District 8 (Cheyenne and part of Laramie County), hardly seemed to have time for the hubbub and schmoozing of the annual right-wing love-fest.

“I’m coming in for a quick visit to Washington D.C. from having been debating serious issues that are before the Wyoming legislature,” she said. “I am coming to this conference with the lens of the seriousness and the gravity of the issues that we’re facing in Wyoming.”

That was not a common sentiment. Ellis, a former casino lobbyist, ousted Democrat Floyd Esquibel from the seat he’d held for 20 years. It was a small but important race in a year of great political disruption. But the first Native American woman in the Wyoming Legislature seemed about as far from the Trump train as one can be while still being invited to the conference.

“I think our country needs so desperately some thought and some well researched responses,” Ellis said, sitting on the stage with three other “rising conservative stars” and abrasively white Tea Party moderator Jenny Beth Martin.

“I’ve made a commitment that my community and my voters will have all the facts and it will be very transparent and there will be no game playing,” Ellis said at one point.

“While bringing up facts,” Martin interrupted her. “And this is to all of you. Fact check. Figure out your sources when you write or say anything … you’ve got to read it and make sure it’s not fake. Because you don’t want to be accused on the other side either.”

Even this was a radical sentiment at this year’s CPAC.

“There’s so many times when it’s easy to name call and have these cute hashtags that stick but we have to have strong facts and start communicating those facts in a very effective way,” Ellis continued. “I think the hard part is the devil in the details of policy you’re working on doesn’t fit into small hashtags. Maybe we just need long hashtags.”

“I don’t know if they fit in the character limit on Twitter,” Martin said over the crowd’s laughter. “Were you attacked by the media in your campaigns?”

The question was clearly designed to elicit a negative response. “Fake news” was one of the most popular exclamations at the conference and always promised a good applause.

“Not really,” Ellis replied.

“Those people in Wyoming are so nice,” the moderator said.

“We are very, very nice,” Ellis said, but the shiny bright moderator was speaking, condescendingly, over her.

“They really are.”

“Not the media but we’re most certainly facing some difficult economic challenges in Wyoming. We’re making very difficult budget choices,” Ellis said, deflecting the question.

When asked to give advice to “these conservatives out there that you think is important for them if they want to become the next rising star,” she said: “Clear calm heads will always prevail and so to keep your head about you.”

It was almost hard not to laugh. The point of this whole conference and its air of aggrieved victory is that clear and calm heads did not prevail.

Deep in CPAC and ‘the enemy of the people’

CPAC was a frenzy of fanaticism, an orgy of irrationality. Nearly every panel or speech was as full of red meat as a truck stop promising a free 72-ounce steak to anyone who can eat it in one sitting.

“A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people. And they are,” Trump said in his CPAC speech. “They are the enemy of the people.”

Just so we don’t forget, two months ago, it was unheard of for a sitting president to call the press “the enemy of the people.”

Trump said that he did not attend CPAC—which began in 1974—last year, during the campaign, because he would be “too controversial.”

“I would’ve come last year but I was worried that I would be, at that time, too controversial. We wanted border security. We wanted very, very strong military. We wanted all of the things that we’re going to get,” he said to great applause. “And people consider that controversial, but you didn’t consider it controversial.”

If this now-adoring crowd ever viewed Trump as too controversial, it was not for long. He got his true political start giving a speech at CPAC in 2012, in which he hinted at running and laid out a lot of his nationalist policies.

But that’s the charm of the convention for the extremists within the Republican Party. You are talking to your core, people who are there, able to read between the lines and get the inflections. But the “filthy lying press” that projects it out to the rest of the world, is also there. So words, like Bannon’s “nationalism,” mean different things to different people.

Foster Friess, the uber-rich Jackson Hole Republican donor, has often drawn headlines with his CPAC speeches. He may be most well known for his complaint about the cost of birth control, saying, “Back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.”

But at CPAC in 2013, when he was honored by the American Conservative Union, which hosts the conference, he drew huge applause for saying that “Chic-fil-A values are American values,” where Chic-fil-A values are code for religious values that discriminate against people based on sexual orientation or other “sins.”

Back then Friess touted far-right long-shot Rick Santorum. But he got behind Trump in the 2016 race and his ideas now dominate—or find an even friendlier home—at the conference. On the same occasion that he talked about aspirin, with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Freiss alleged that jihadists were setting up camps in Latin America, prefiguring the way that the Trump regime conflates immigration from Mexico with Islamophobia to create a potent cocktail of fear and hate.

This is the tenor of CPAC, although Ellis missed most of it—speeches by Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, and Donald Trump, among dozens of others—arriving in Washington around 3 on Saturday morning, only a few hours before her panel.

Though a Wyoming native, Ellis was not unfamiliar with Washington, she and her husband had lived there for four years when she worked for late U.S. Senator Craig Thomas (R-WY). Now Majority-leader Mitch McConnell has appointed her to serve on the Indian Law and Order Commission.

Ellis, who, while growing up in Jackson Hole, helped her mother clean valley motel rooms on the weekends, seemed comfortable and natural and even charming on the stage. She was more compelling than the other “rising stars”—she did not electrify anyone. It was not a year for calm heads at CPAC.

But this is exactly why Ellis, and others like her, may in fact be the future of the Republican Party, if it can survive Trump in a form that anyone would want to be associated with. But she was not interested in talking much about national issues at the conference or with reporters, and maybe this too was a good thing.

Working class Wyoming

I tried to catch up with her the entire conference, not aware that she hadn’t yet arrived (she joked about not having a staff and answering all of her own phone messages and emails). I waited for her after the panel but couldn’t find her, but eventually we were able to talk on the phone.

“Both of my parents are Navajo and they met at a trade school in Brigham City, Utah, and my dad comes from a family of Navajo silversmiths and at the time they encouraged him to be a welder. They moved to Jackson and fell in love with it back when it was a sleepy town in the 1950s,” she said. “Since that time my dad owned and still operates his own welding shop called Jim’s Welding, and growing up in Jackson we were very dependent on the tourism industry.”

She was, in fact, first drawn to politics after snowmobiles were banned in Yellowstone in 2004, which snowmobile advocates say hurt the tourism industry. Thirteen years later, in her first term she has worked hardest on a bill that would allow companies like Lyft and Uber to operate in Wyoming.

Her father’s business, she says, is “very much a small business. For a lot of years we didn’t have health insurance and so our approach to healthcare was, do not get hurt or sick.”

That last line didn’t sound too far off from Friess’s aspirin as birth control quip—and given that repealing the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, would make it harder for women to get birth control, I asked her how it felt to be a woman as part of the Republican Party this year.

Again, she made it clear that she didn’t really want to weigh in on national issues—but instead spins a good yarn that highlights her own values.

“Last year I took my daughter to the Wyoming Senate to watch a debate and she looked in the gallery and she asked if they let girls serve as senators. She didn’t see that we had one senator sitting in the room, Bernadine Craft, who was a member and so I pointed out Sen. Craft and it really didn’t sit well with me that Bernadine was retiring and there was a chance that no woman would be serving in the Wyoming Senate and so rather than focus my attention on national level talks about women’s issues I thought, ‘Be the change you want to be and the change you want your daughter to be,’ and so that definitely influenced my decision to run,” she said.

When pushed to speak specifically on birth control and the ACA she said, “Let me noodle on that question a little bit.”

Instead, she talked about hunting.

“One issue I supported this legislative session is a bill to allow for a women’s hunt, a one-shot antelope hunt, which has become a premiere event in Wyoming,” she said. “There’s a one-shot antelope park in Lander that is generally attended by men. Several years ago the Wyoming Women’s Foundation started a women’s hunt near Newcroft and it’s become a phenomenal event and I support that event because as we see an aging hunting population we need to grow a new class of hunter and I think that for women, people like me who’ve never really hunted as much as others, this is a really great opportunity to be a part of an event like that and develop a love of hunting.”

Now this kind of thing would go over well at CPAC. In fact, one of the other speakers from Wyoming, Ashlee Lundvall, was on a panel called “Armed and Fabulous.”

Lundvall first visited Wyoming as a teenager, where she fell onto a pitchfork, which caused partial paralysis—today she is in a wheelchair. But that didn’t keep her away from the state, to which she later permanently returned with her husband, winning Ms. Wheelchair USA and founding the Wyoming Disabled Hunters club. At the conference, the wheels on her chair were camo and the introductory video featured a lot of footage of a rifle on her shoulder as she wheeled through the woods.

It was pretty badass, and the crowd—the panel followed NRA head and dystopian social planner Wayne LaPierre—ate her story up.

But Ellis didn’t tell her hunting story on the stage, even though turning an antelope hunt into a pressing women’s issue is a brilliant CPAC tactic.

Ellis was also hesitant to address native issues in our interview. As the CPAC conference wore on, a large group of American Indian activists and their allies from around the world were finally driven from Standing Rock, the camp where they had been protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline under the river adjacent to native land. During his Friday CPAC speech, Trump supported the construction of the project, which President Obama had halted.

Ellis said she had not heard Trump’s remarks and said, while she was impressed by the power of the native activists, she did not think their rhetoric was in line with the reality of the situation.

“I think that it’s been remarkable the attention that tribal activism has brought to that particular issue,” she said. “But when you review the court documents and what the attorneys from the tribes submitted … the activism you see doesn’t necessarily match some of the legal arguments that were made.”

She did say that some of the issues involved at Standing Rock influenced her decision to come to CPAC. “There are a lot of issues that are unique for the West, which is why I think it’s important for people from public land states to be active and involved in what happens in Washington D.C.,” she said. “Certainly the Dakota Access Pipeline issue involves tribal interests and public land issues, you know we’re talking about a national environmental policy act review, so I definitely care about those issues and was happy to be part of this conference because I think the issues that are unique to the West are important for people in non-public land states to understand.”

I was curious about her perspective on immigration—one of Trump’s key issues, both as a candidate and a president. As an indigenous person, does she view all of us as immigrants and worry when someone like Steve Bannon talks, as he did at CPAC, about a cultural nationalism. Part of white cultural nationalism was relocating or eradicating indigenous cultures.

“As far as my background as a Native person, I think that there are some easy jokes to be made and I’m cautious of making any of them because I don’t want people to take them the wrong way,” she said. “But certainly we as a country need to be having these conversations and for us to take any broad open door policy I think is a mistake. As far as building a wall, um, there are a lot of folks talking about whether that is appropriate and I think that those are important conversations we need to be having at the national level.”

After three days of everyone’s attempt to mimic Trump’s unrestrained id, Ellis’ caution was as refreshing as it was frustrating.

So I finally came out and asked her if she voted for Trump. There was an eight-second pause.

“Umm. I did vote for President Trump and, this is a very unusual time for a president to assume office,” she said. “I think there was a pretty strong movement to get him impeached before he even took office, so it’s difficult to say objectively since we’re living in it in the moment how his first few days in office and his first few weeks are taking place this is just a truly extraordinary time in our country. Obviously I want the president to do well because I want our country to succeed.”

As we talked, Ellis, who said she was operating on three hours of sleep, mostly seemed eager to stop discussing issues that were above her pay grade as a state senator. Her discomfort is an indication of the path ambitious Republicans will have to walk over the next few years—they have to insulate themselves from the toxicity of Trump’s most outrageous statements and policies without alienating what is now the center of power within their party.

Ellis made one thing clear: As she navigates this treacherous course, she is not planning to seek any higher office that would require her to move back to Washington anytime soon. PJH

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