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Know the West

This Cherokee congressman is for Trump – and Indian Country

Markwayne Mullin, who is hard-right and white-passing, may not seem like an Indigenous lawmaker, but he’s no anomaly.

Last April, on the day the country was eagerly anticipating the release of the Mueller report, a small group of seniors in rural southeast Oklahoma woke up early to go have coffee with their congressman. There was concern for a nefarious plot underway. 

“The Green New Deal has nothing to do with climate change. It has to do with a federal takeover,” Rep. Markwayne Mullin said as he slowly paced between the lectern and the half-dozen rows of folding metal chairs. “Federal takeover of our buildings, federal takeover of our air, federal takeover of our farms, federal takeover of our school systems.”

In a pressed plaid shirt tucked into blue jeans that hugged his brown cowboy boots, Mullin was in his element. These were his people. He may have been a member of Congress for seven years now, but you wouldn’t have known it by looking at him. Mullin has all the conservative talking points down about abortion and the dangers of socialism, but what his mostly rural Oklahoma constituents like about him is how rough he is around the edges, in all the right ways. He has cauliflower ear from his days of wrestling and mixed martial arts. He speaks with a thick rural accent and often stumbles over common phrases, coming across as less city and more country. He’s routinely direct and unpolished — some might even say crass, especially when he appears frustrated, like the time in a committee hearing when he told Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico to shut up.


There are certainly many members of Congress who are not traditional bureaucrats, but Mullin has to be in the top tier of those lawmakers who would otherwise never choose to spend time in D.C. In fact, he won’t even admit to enjoying his time there. “I enjoy being a father. I enjoy being a husband,” he said to me recently. But as far as being a lawmaker goes, he describes it as more of a duty. Much like the man he and his supporters sent to the White House, Mullin rarely hesitates to speak his mind, and he’s rarely conventional. Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole calls him “the authentic voice of eastern Oklahoma.”

“Socialism is nothing but a disguised free democracy, meaning that they make you think you have a choice, but you really don’t,” Mullin said as he continued pacing in front of the meager assembly.

 “It has nothing to do with eliminating my cows from farting, it has to do with that farm being deemed a hazard to the public health.”

According to Mullin, the Green New Deal’s real endgame is not stemming the flow of greenhouse gas emissions from one of the world’s largest contributors, it’s control. The plan calls for free higher education, meaning, Mullin says, that the government will choose where you learn. It calls affordable housing a human right, which means free government housing. It will raze buildings that don’t meet energy standards and make the government give a livable wage to people who don’t even want to work. “It has nothing to do with eliminating my cows from farting, it has to do with that farm being deemed a hazard to the public health,” Mullin explains. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — the vocal and politically galvanizing congresswoman from New York — and her Democratic colleagues want climate change deemed a national emergency so the feds can claim “eminent domain and take over our farms. And now what do they control?” he asks, hanging on that last word.

“Our food,” an older woman in front snaps back quickly. 

“Our food supply,” Mullin agrees, nodding his head. 

This worldview marries two of Markwayne Mullin’s defining principles: his distrust of government, particularly when it comes to regulatory overreach, and his belief in private enterprise. Mullin left junior college in 1998 to take over the family plumbing business when his father’s health began to fail. The business remains successful today, but after much prayer, Mullin — frustrated by the Affordable Care Act and Environmental Protection Agency requirements his businesses faced — decided to run for office in 2011. He had been approached by a political consultant who was a fan of his mixed martial arts career. But it’s his work in Indian Country that most intrigues me, and likely perplexes both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, inside and outside the capital.

Mullin and I are both citizens of the Cherokee Nation, though, as many will tell you, he does not fit stereotypical notions of what it means to be Indigenous, either in how he looks or how he operates as a lawmaker. 

Mullin is also white-passing. The Cherokee Nation has never required a minimum blood quantum for tribal membership, and as a result we are the largest tribe in the country. That means we also have the largest diaspora, as well as the widest spectrum of political, cultural and racial identities. Like most Indigenous voters, Cherokees have historically voted Democrat. But as the last elections for tribal chief showed, there are many vocal Cherokee Republicans. Mullin is an ultra-conservative, white-passing Cherokee who has been an advocate for both tribal sovereignty and for encouraging tribes to assert that sovereignty by allowing private energy production on their lands. That duality has caused many to ask: Is Markwayne Mullin good or bad for Indian Country?

Cherokee politics are complicated. They always have been. Our tribe has a history of being internally divided by villages as well as ideals. When Europeans first encountered the Cherokee in the 16th century in the southeastern part of the continent, the tribe spoke three different dialects spread across five settlements, each comprising several towns. Today, families still hold resentments from betrayals that preceded the Trail of Tears, and tribal elections can be cutthroat and deeply personal. Our leaders have been lobbying in the halls of Congress and the White House for hundreds of years now. Mullin is but one in a long line of influential, and complicated, Cherokee politicians and diplomats. 

J.D. Reeves for High Country News

MULLIN WAS RAISED IN WESTVILLE, OKLAHOMA, a small farming community of about 1,600 in the far reaches of Adair County along the Arkansas border. It sits immediately east of Cherokee County, home to the Cherokee Nation capitol of Tahlequah, which has one of the highest populations of Cherokee speakers in the state.

“I know it sounds funny, but I mean this sincerely: I didn’t know there was anything special about being Cherokee.”

We first met at his 2018 election watch party, where he handily beat his Democratic rival, fellow Cherokee and then-Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols. In an interview afterward, Mullin told me about his first day on the House floor as a freshman lawmaker in 2013. “Tom Cole came up to me and said, ‘Congratulations, you just doubled the Native American Caucus.’ I had no idea what he was talking about.” How could he not have known that? I recall thinking. That Mullin may have not fully understood the significance of his position is a potentially troubling thought for Indian voters.

“I know it sounds funny, but I mean this sincerely: I didn’t know there was anything special about being Cherokee,” Mullin told me this summer in his D.C. office. The question had stuck with me, and I was curious to know what Mullin meant. In Adair County, he explained, “everyone around you was Cherokee. So it was as normal as anybody else’s town, it was just the way that it was.”

Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican and a member of the Chickasaw Nation, told me that when he first got to the Hill in 2003, he knew that being Chickasaw would be a big component of his approach to policy. The significance of that responsibility quickly set in for him. Very soon after arriving at the Capitol, he got a call from Northern Cheyenne Chief Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a former U.S. senator from Colorado. “I’m just calling to tell you you’re going to pick up about 2 or 3 million new constituents whether you know it or not,” Campbell said. “Because when they figure out that you’re there, you’re going to start getting Indians from all across the country.”

By contrast, Mullin’s reputation is just as tied to GOP politics as it is to Indian Country policy, and the two don’t always coalesce. His legislative record on Indian Country policy is often a sticking point for many in his district. He voted against renewing the Violence Against Women Act in 2013 because he disagreed with its LGBTQ provisions, and in 2016 he disputed a Reuters article that quoted him as advocating for the relaxation of federal regulations so tribes could allow private mineral exploration on their lands. The proposal came from two leaders of Trump’s Native American Coalition, which Mullin chaired during the campaign.

About a month after his call from Sen. Campbell, Cole said, he came to his office to find a Native family sitting on the couch. They were there, he said, because his office was the only place in the building that felt “Native” to them. It felt familiar. “And ever since then, they’ve started coming and coming, and you realize what a special opportunity and I think obligation that you have to be in a position like this. In the entire history, and this includes the arrival of (Reps.) Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, there’s only been 16 tribal members in the House of Representatives. Eight of them are from Oklahoma.” Cole’s office today is filled with beadwork, pottery and Pendleton blankets. On a table next to the couch in his office sits a picture of his great-aunt, Te Ata, the world-famous Chickasaw storyteller whom Q’orianka Kilcher portrayed on the big screen in the 2016 film Te Ata. Kimberly Teehee, the Cherokee Nation’s delegate to Congress and a former Obama appointee, told me Tom Cole would fall on his sword for Indian Country at any given moment, regardless of what the GOP does. “He’s a very much needed voice on the Republican side of the aisle,” said Democratic Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna Tribe. “I look at him as a mentor.”

Now in his fourth term, Mullin has become a more vocal and recognizable figure in Congress when it comes to Indian policy. He introduced legislation both this year and last to fund Indian Health Services in order to keep it running during a government shutdown. In a January op-ed, he wrote that the federal government has a responsibility to provide health care to Indian Country: “Anything other than a full execution of those responsibilities is a breach of trust.” He cosponsored the Stigler Act amendment, which removed a requirement from a 1947 law that members of the Five Civilized Tribes be at least one-half Indian blood in order for their lands to be held in “restricted fee” status. He also cosponsored the Not Invisible Act of 2019, which established an advisory committee to combat violence on tribal lands. He’s been on Trump’s Indian Country policy team since the campaign, a place where many, including Cole, think he could have great influence. 

Congressman Markwayne Mullin, left, joins Vice President Mike Pence, his wife, Karen, and Congressman Kevin Hern as they enter Air Force Two to depart from Tulsa to Washington, D.C., last summer.
Ian Maule/ Tulsa World via AP

IN EARLY 2016, DONALD TRUMP’S CAMPAIGN began reaching out to tribal leaders, advocates and policy experts to form an Indian Country policy team. Among those tapped for a spot was Tom Cole. He said that while he was considering the request, he watched the video of Trump’s 1993 testimony before a House subcommittee meeting on Native American affairs, where Trump said people on some reservations with casinos “don’t look like Indians to me.” If Trump won the nomination, Cole decided, he would vote for him as a fellow Republican. But until then, he wasn’t going to be part of his team. “Markwayne went the opposite direction, and I’m glad he did because it’s given him a relationship with the White House, with the administration, that’s been very helpful,” he told me in June, well after many of Trump’s gaffes and missteps in Indian Country. 

President Trump has had a poor record with Indian Country, from his near-total reduction of Bears Ears National Monument to his suggestion that tribal citizens be required to have a job before receiving treatment through Indian Health Services. He hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson, the president who signed off on the removal of the Cherokee people, in the Oval Office. Mullin seems to have a good relationship with the White House, but if it has borne any fruit for Indigenous people, it’s not obvious. When I asked Mullin last summer about Trump’s 1993 testimony, he said that he thinks Trump has grown since then. “In this job, your perspectives do change,” he said. “At that time (Trump) was looking at it from a business perspective and not as the leader of a nation.” Trump also used to be very pro-choice, Mullin added.

Oklahoma Republican Rep. Frank Lucas calls Mullin “the puppy.” He’s always moving, almost always positive, and constantly motivating himself and those around him. 

Despite vilifying Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all over eastern Oklahoma, Mullin appears to have a good relationship with just about everyone in his orbit. He leads a bipartisan workout group that includes lawmakers like Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Rep. Joe Kennedy III, a Democrat from Maryland who is also a close friend. There’s little if any indication in committee meetings that Kennedy and Mullin are friends, but they have an easy, jovial way of speaking in the hallways of Congress. Both lawmakers said they learned a lot about the possibilities of bipartisan work and finding common ground from each other. When I asked Kennedy if he ever had to defend his friendship with Mullin, he laughed: “Yes, every day.” Kennedy said they agree on virtually nothing, but Mullin is kind and never quits, so what’s not to like?

Oklahoma Republican Rep. Frank Lucas calls Mullin “the puppy.” He’s always moving, almost always positive, and constantly motivating himself and those around him. As a child, Mullin had clubfoot and had to wear leg braces and undergo surgeries. He also had a speech impediment. “I couldn’t fight with my mouth,” he said. But he became a college wrestler and MMA fighter and, eventually, someone who speaks regularly on national television about taxes and presidential candidates. It’s an arc he attributes almost entirely to hard work and discipline. His staff likes that he’s energetic, direct and doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind. It’s those qualities at their extremes, though, that usually get Mullin’s name in the press.

The day I followed him around the Capitol, he got into an uncomfortably tense back-and-forth with an OB-GYN who was testifying about the Trump administration’s move to amend Title X to keep doctors from providing patients with information on options that include abortion. On the way to the hearing, one of Mullin’s staff members asked if he had his questions prepared. He responded that he had decided not to use them. Instead, he said he would ask one of the doctors to explain the difference between delivering and aborting a baby. Essentially, he wanted to know: How do you kill a baby? Mullin left the hearing early after getting into a lengthy argument with the chairwoman, who accused him of attacking the witness, found him out of order, and took away his remaining time. 

Outbursts like this are frowned upon in Cherokee culture. Many of Mullin’s Cherokee constituents mention this when his name comes up. “We don’t (publicly) attack people about their person or character based upon their politics,” said Kirby Brown, an associate professor at the University of Oregon and a Cherokee author who has written about Cherokee nationhood. 

Other Cherokee citizens I spoke to see him as a tribal member who invokes citizenship only for political gain — also a common criticism of the state’s governor, Kevin Stitt, another Republican, white-passing Cherokee Nation citizen. But others argue that Mullin has grown into his role as an Indian lawmaker. Having a tribal citizen in Congress is a good thing, they say, for better or worse; at least he understands what sovereignty and treaty rights really mean. 

“I would push back really hard on that ‘for better or worse’ part. It does matter who’s in that room with (Trump’s) ear,” Brown said. In 1835, Brown’s ancestor, James Starr, and 19 other Cherokee dissidents signed the Treaty of New Echota without the consent of Chief John Ross. Ross and many other Cherokee leaders had hoped to use their diplomatic talents to prevent the government from forcing them, at gunpoint, on a deadly journey a thousand miles to the West. But others, including Brown’s great-uncle, believed they saw the writing on the wall — that the U.S. government would take their homelands and their lives — and through the treaty, the group tried to get as much as they could for their people. That treaty gave way to the Trail of Tears, which impacted tens of thousands of Cherokee people. 

“They shouldn’t have done that,” Brown said. “It was against the law, they knew it was against the law, they did it anyway, probably for a lot of different reasons. But I would have much rather had John Ross in that room talking to those treaty guys than even my own uncle because of the impact of the decision and the impact of what was said had on the Nation as a whole.” One of the ways we Cherokees get in our own way, he told me, is the idea that having somebody in the room is better than having nobody. “I think there are limits to that argument, if the somebody in the room is going to argue for privatizing Indian land, or if the somebody in the room is not going to put tribal nationhood and sovereignty front and center and first.” Someone, Brown added, who understands that, whether they intended it that way or not, their opinion might be unfairly seen as representative of Indian Country.

One instance that perplexed Brown and caused several meltdowns from others on social media occurred when Mullin appeared on Fox News in response to Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s controversial DNA test. After being introduced as a Cherokee and one of two Native Americans in Congress, Mullin referred to the Trail of Tears as “the volunteer walk.” Mullin has ancestors who came to Oklahoma from the east before forced removal, when tribal leaders were still deliberating with the federal government in a vain attempt to stop the state of Georgia from completely stripping them of their rights and humanity. At the time there was still a glimmer of hope that their gift for diplomacy would help them keep their homes and land. Speaking of his use of the term “volunteer,” Mullin told Fox & Friends co-hosts Steve Doocy and Ainsley Earhardt, “And I use that as a loosely term (sic).” He said, “The heritage runs deep in my family. For (Warren), they’re just stories.”

The people like Mullin’s ancestors who left before the Trail of Tears — what we Cherokee call “Old Settlers” — may have “volunteered” to leave, but only in the sense that they chose to move themselves instead of waiting to be forced off their land.

About a month after his TV appearance, Mullin told me that he regretted not being more precise with his language. Still, he stood by the use of the phrase. Missteps like that cause many Cherokees to believe that Mullin knows little about the Indigenous experience or is culturally disconnected. He would argue that he very much grew up Cherokee, on Cherokee lands and with Cherokee people. He said he just didn’t appreciate that as unique until he came to Washington.

And on a national stage, being Cherokee comes with some baggage. Many of us are white or white-passing, and we have a tendency to be the loudest in the room. When you’re Cherokee, you often have to be particularly sensitive to the Indigenous experience outside your tribe. We were the first to ascribe to assimilation by creating a written language, a Constitution and a court system, and we adopted the practice of owning slaves. Our leaders also became tireless diplomats. Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green described Cherokee leaders in the years preceding removal as “masters of public relations” in their book The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears. “Their policy was to make certain that no one could forget them. The result is that the Cherokees have become the Indians whose name everyone knows.” And we’re often the reason that the friendly white couple down the street with the “Native American”-theme living room believes they’re Indian, too.

Mullin is by no means completely disconnected from Indian life in Oklahoma. He knows his pocket of Indian Country well. He has close working relationships with several chiefs, and he understands the economic forces their tribes represent. While his district is still mostly Democratic, as it was before he was elected, there is a conservative coalition among Cherokee voters. “He’s not even an anomaly in the Cherokee Nation,” said Kirby Brown. “There are a lot of conservative, hard-core evangelical Cherokees who believe he is doing exactly the right thing.” Mullin may seem like an odd amalgam to outsiders, but he is Cherokee through and through.

“He’s not even an anomaly in the Cherokee Nation. There are a lot of conservative, hard-core evangelical Cherokees who believe he is doing exactly the right thing.”

“When I got up here ... I was getting the craziest questions, and people’s lack of knowledge about Cherokee Nation, saying, ‘Did you live on a reservation?’ for instance,” Mullin said. (The Cherokee Nation has no reservation.) “One of the biggest things I get is, ‘Oh, I can see the high cheekbones.’ I’ve got that more times than you can think.” Mullin may not be the staunch advocate for Native interests that Cole has come to be, but members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, know significantly more about Indian Country because of him. Last year, Rep. Kennedy introduced legislation to return land rights to the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. Kennedy attributed his understanding of much of Indian Country to the world Mullin opened up for him. He told me he didn’t fully appreciate that tribes still faced many of the obstacles they do until he met Mullin. 

IN ATOKA, MULLIN WAS NEARING the close of his talk. He’d touched on the idea that Democrats want to allow the “killing of babies” who are born early due to a failed abortion — something conservatives have been calling “born-alive” —  and that they planned to move the country away from a democracy and closer toward a socialist governing structure. Elsewhere, Attorney General William Barr was about to give a live press conference on the Mueller report. But under the fluorescent lights of the Atoka community center, the proposed reroute of nearby Highway 69 was more important.

Throughout the entire day, the Mueller report was only mentioned twice. As the congressman was about to leave a second town hall, a city employee jokingly asked him what he thought of the investigation. Mullin said that his phone had been ringing nonstop, people asking him where the smoking gun was. Mullin, however, had actually forgotten the report was going to come out that morning. He said the same thing later when Choctaw Chief Gary Batton inquired about it.

When we last spoke in November, Mullin said the White House has been occupied with the impeachment inquiry — which he adamantly opposes — keeping the president from being more involved with his Indian Country policy team. Mullin said he still sees a lot of opportunity for economic development in Indian Country under the current administration. And if, say, Elizabeth Warren, whom he has repeatedly denounced, were to be the next president, Mullin says he’d “absolutely” be able to work with her on issues related to Indian Country. 

But she won’t win, he added, laughing. He believes Donald Trump is a great ally to Indian Country, one of the best presidents for Native people. Mullin’s Oklahoma counterpart, Rep. Cole, said something similar about Barack Obama.

Only a few days prior to our last talk, Trump declared November as National American History and Founders Month, a time that has been recognized as National Native American Heritage Month for almost 30 years. Mullin said he didn’t think anything of it, adding that he’s not that sensitive about those things.

“I’ve told you before, I never knew I was special for being Cherokee until I got to Washington, D.C.,” he said. Later, he added, “I was Cherokee way before I was a congressman, and I’ll be Cherokee when I leave Congress, too.”  

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.