U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) is receiving harsh criticism over a remark he made about American Indians, calling them “wards of the federal government.”
The statement was made during a discussion about what AP refers to as a “controversial Arizona land deal” that would develop the country’s largest copper mine.
The meeting took place in Flagstaff, Arizona on Dec. 5 and was held by Gosar and Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ).
The topics being discussed were land, mining, and forest issues. The meeting was attended by dozens of people.
The topic that fueled Gosar’s remark was a proposal to swap 2,400 acres of southeastern Arizona’s Tonto National Forest for about 5,300 acres of “environmentally sensitive land” in the state managed by a subsidiary of “global mining giant” Rio Tinto, reports Arizona Daily Sun.
Phil Stago of the White Mountain Apache tribe raised concerns about the copper mine and Gosar responded to him with, "You're still wards of the federal government."
Stago found his comment to be “antiquated” and that it “ignores advances made in tribes managing their own affairs and seeking equal representation” for projects proposed on land considered by them to be sacred.
“Tribes, you can call yourselves sovereign nations, but when it comes down to the final test, you're not really sovereign because we still have plenary authority over you,'" Stago said.
Steven Smith, a spokesman for Gosar, said that was not the congressman’s intent.
"If that's what he got out of that, I think it's misconstrued," Smith said. "If you look at the work the congressman has done, that's far from the truth."
Gosar oversees the 4th Congressional District of Arizona, which includes constituents of Apache tribes.
Smith added that Gosar has been an “advocate for strengthening the relationship between tribes and the federal government.” He referred to legislation Gosar sponsored this year that would do so.
Republican and former U.S. attorney Troy Eid has spoken out about the improper comment Gosar made.
Eid finds much of Indian law to be old and often ethnically offensive.
"Wards of the federal government" is no different, Eid said.
"That's just not appropriate," Eid said. "In the heated context of what this represents, it's especially inappropriate to be resorting to what amounts to race baiting."
Sam Deloris, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and former 35 year director of the American Indian Law Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said tribes are open to policy matter discussions, but remarks like Gosar’s are not helpful.
“It doesn't contribute much to the debate," Deloris said.