Native American Woman Is Nominated to Federal Bench But Why Did It Take So Long?

Would the president have been inclined to nominate Prof. Humetewa to the federal bench if she hadn't had Sen. McCain's steadfast support in 2007?
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Since the foundation of the United States, of the thousands upon thousands of citizens who have served in elected office, just 23 are Native Americans; this is at every level of government outside tribal lands. And of those active politicians, not one currently serves at the federal level.

Native Americans in the federal judiciary is even more dismal. In our country's long history, just two have been confirmed to the bench by the U.S. Senate: Michael Burrage, member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and former U.S. District Judge; and Frank Howell Seay, a fellow (and active) U.S District Judge in Oklahoma who wasn't even aware of his Native American lineage until after he assumed his seat.

And so, it came as a pleasant surprise on Thursday, when the president announced he was nominating Professor Diane J. Humetewa to serve on the U.S. District Court for Arizona.

Humetewa is a strong nominee and should pass confirmation in the Senate with little trouble. A nationally-recognized expert on Native American legal issues, she has a longtime supporter in Sen. John McCain, who, along with then-fellow-Sen. John Kyl, aggressively lobbied then-Pres. George W. Bush for her nomination as U.S. Attorney for Arizona in 2007.

In today's political climate, that kind of bipartisan support is rare, but what's more notable is that Humetewa, if confirmed, will be the only member (and second ever) of a Native American tribe to serve in the federal judiciary (Judge Seay has heritage but not membership). And on top of that, she will be the first Native American woman to serve.

The knee-jerk understanding of many non-Native Americans is that it's rare for a woman to take on a leadership role in that culture (as if there were a homogenous "one"), but that couldn't be further from the truth. Aside from the Sioux and Athabascans, the vast majority of tribes were largely egalitarian in gender roles. Most of them operated on a system of checks-and-balances; for example, men were chiefs but were elected solely by women.

Humetewa's tribe, the Hopi, were especially different from our modern view; their tribe philosophy placed emphasis on "female superiority" in line with their worship of Mother Earth. Although neither gender was practically viewed as inferior, tribes were still matriarchal, with both property and leadership gifted through women but with both genders having an equal say in political matters.

All this aside, it's more than a little embarrassing that it's taken this long to nominate a Native American, let alone a woman, to the federal judiciary. Of all the communities that could boast a "purity of citizenship" (as tragic and ridiculous as that is), Native Americans should be one of the more prominent forces in modern politics, but they're not.

Would the president have been inclined to nominate Prof. Humetewa to the federal bench if she hadn't had Sen. McCain's steadfast support in 2007? That's a difficult case to make, especially since Republican senators, without specified cause, blocked the nomination of Arvo Mikannen of the Kiowa tribe early in the president's first term.

For a wide community that boasts 5.2 million citizens and has been historically oppressed on incredibly brutal terms, Native Americans continue to lack a resounding voice in the national discourse.

Earlier this year, reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act was nearly gutted when the GOP rejected it, in part, because it expanded rights to women in Native tribal lands.

With Thursday's announcement, one can only hope a future Judge Humetewa will be able to shine more light on problems -- like this one -- that expose the disenfranchisement of Native Americans.

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