Topeka Ponka-We Victors, the only American Indian member of the Kansas Legislature, lived on the Tohono O’odham reservation in Arizona several years ago during college.
She remembers when farmers and residents of a nearby town diverted too much of the area’s water for irrigation, leaving the tribe parched.
“I’m telling you, that is the most horrible thing to wake up to,” Victors said recently. “You can’t bathe, you can’t cook, you can’t really do anything. I felt bad for the elders and the children.”
Victors, D-Wichita, said water policy is something that is on the minds of the state’s Indian tribes going into the upcoming session.
The Kickapoo nation in Horton has been embroiled in a federal lawsuit for almost five years over the right to build a reservoir that tribal Chairman Steve Cadue said is sorely needed.
“We’re in desperate need of water,” Cadue said. “Of course, safe drinking water is the main purpose, but it affects our growth and economic development as well. We can’t build new houses — we have a waiting list for people to get into the Kickapoo reservation.”
Gov. Sam Brownback has said he will push a four-point plan to address water conservation this session, with an emphasis on renewing the Ogallala Aquifer.
Steve Ortiz (Mon-Wah), tribal chairman of the Prairie Band Potawatomi in Mayetta, said water isn’t an issue for his tribe, but draining of aquifers is becoming a problem nationally.
Ortiz was one of about a dozen tribal leaders who met with President Barack Obama earlier this month. One of the issues he said they discussed was water rights.
Cadue, Ortiz and Victors all said Brownback has been receptive to the concerns of the state’s tribes since he became governor. They said they appreciated a proclamation he issued in November apologizing to the state’s five main tribes for the “spirit of deception” that too often marked dealings with them in the past.
Expansion of gaming
Brownback has also said he doesn’t want to discuss expanding state gambling during the coming session, while the state’s Democratic leaders have made gaming the funding centerpiece of their jobs proposal.
That doesn’t sit well with Ortiz, who said the state shouldn’t expand gaming while restricting the tribes to one casino per reservation.
“We’re opposed to it, mainly because of the fact that this now would give the state not only four casinos, but they’re also talking about two racetracks,” Ortiz said. “So that really gives them six gaming operations, which really in return they should allow us to have more gaming operations as tribes without having to pay the state any fee.”
Ortiz said he met with Kansas Democratic Party chairwoman Joan Wagnon two months before the jobs proposal was presented, and she didn’t mention more state gaming as a possibility.
“She just said she could make no commitment about Indian gaming,” Ortiz said. “We had no idea this was going in their plan.”
Wagnon, via email, said she wasn’t aware of the gaming aspect of the proposal at the time she met with Ortiz.
Victors said she didn’t have any input on the jobs proposal and hadn’t had a chance to talk to the leaders of her party about it.
“But, you know, the No. 1 thing is jobs,” Victors said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t see a lot of opportunities for making jobs a priority this past session. I was kind of shocked by that, coming in as a freshman. I thought that all we would talk about was the jobs issue.”
Voter ID law
Ortiz said there also was some concern among the tribes about the voter identification law the state passed. Ortiz said he was disappointed that tribal identification cards aren’t included on the list of approved IDs.
“We’re looking for a bill to be introduced into the Kansas Legislature that tribal identification cards be allowed as voter ID,” Ortiz said. “Right now we’ve had meetings with the secretary of state, but I’ve not seen any Democrat or Republican come forth saying they’d introduce a bill.”
Increasing voter turnout on the reservations is on the agenda for Victors, who said she believes she is the first female American Indian in the Legislature.
She said she would like to be a bridge between state and tribal governments, providing her unique perspectives on such things as living on a reservation without clean, abundant water.
“I would really like to see something worked out with that water issue,” Victors said. “This is Kansas, and it’s the new millennium, you know. There should be something where tribes, reservations and people don’t have to wake up to that burden.”