Two Natives among guests for State of the Union address

February 4, 2020
In The News

Little Shell Chairman Gerald Gray: ‘It's a real honor for us to be invited here’

President Donald J. Trump will give his third State of the Union address tonight at the joint session of Congress. And Gerald Gray, tribal chairman of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana has a front-row seat.

Traditionally, members of Congress get an extra ticket to bring a guest to the address and often bring an individual with who carry a symbolic meaning. (For the 2019 State of the Union address for instance, in pushing for tougher immigration policies, Trump invited the family members whose parents were murdered by an illegal immigrant.) This year, Senator Jon Tester, D-Montana, invited Gray as his guest because the Little Shell became the 574th federally-recognized tribe in mid-December.

The chairman said tribal members back home in Montana were excited he received an invite to the State of the Union.

“It's a real honor for us to be invited here and they're all excited that the senator invited us,” Chairman Gray said. “It's really a neat thing to see with everybody, especially when we had our celebration and they kind of start hearing the buzz about it. They are very excited. So, yeah, it's a real honor.”

The fight for federal recognition had been a long time coming, it was the first bill Sen. Tester introduced after he was first elected 2006 and arrived in Washington, D.C., in 2007. The historic nature of recognition was not lost on Gray.

A celebration for the tribe was held Jan. 25 in Great Falls, Montana and was standing room only. Gray added that it feels great to be federally recognized.

“Oh, it's awesome,” he said. “You know, it's a long time coming and we're really excited and I think it puts us on a different ground, you know, as I like to look at it as co-equal, so government-to-government.”

When Tester and his staff began looking for who they might invite as his guest for the president’s address to the nation, he said the chairman was brought up as an option and it was an obvious choice.

“Chairman Gray has been a great friend and incredibly patient throughout this whole process,” Sen. Tester said. “He's applied pressure when he’s needed to apply pressure and he's backed off on his need to back off, but all the time making sure that we knew this needs to be the highest priority.”

The two men are slated to have dinner before heading to the U.S. House of Representatives chamber in the U.S. Capitol. Tester said Gray will also have an opportunity to rub elbows and meet other members of Congress from other parts of the country.

“It just gives [Chairman Gray] an opportunity to, number one, say thank you, but also have [other senators] say thank you to him because, quite frankly, what we did was no small thing and we couldn't have done it without Gerald's leadership,” Sen. Tester said.

Other citizens from Indian Country are also among the distinguished guests that will be in attendance tonight.

Representative Greg Stanton, D-Arizona, is taking 2020 Arizona Teacher of the Year, Lynette Stant, Navajo.

“Mrs. Stant is the kind of educator every parent dreams of for their kids,” Stanton said in a press release. “She pours herself into her work, ensuring that her students feel supported and respected during a critical year of school.”

Stant is the first Native woman to earn Arizona’s Teach of the Year honors. Stant said she is working to create a positive future for Native students.

“What I bring to the classroom is an understanding of the historical trauma that education has played in the lives of Native Americans. Although I can’t change the past, I can affect the future,” Stant told the Arizona Educational Foundation. “As a Navajo woman teaching in a Native American school, teaching Native American students, my goal is to change that narrative.”

Other notable guests this year include the Hatice Cengiz, the fiancé of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi; a pro-democracy activist from Hong Kong and a woman who testified she was sexually abused by Jeffrey Epstein.

A number of members of Congress are boycotting the address and will not be attending. Among those who will not be there include: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York; Ayanna Pressley, D-Massachusetts, Rep. Al Green, D-Texas; Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California, and several others.

“The State of the Union is hurting because of the occupant of the White House, who consistently demonstrates contempt for the American people, contempt for Congress & contempt for our constitution,” Pressley said on Twitter. “I cannot in good conscience attend tonight’s sham.”

“After much deliberation, I have decided that I will not use my presence at a state ceremony to normalize Trump’s lawless conduct & subversion of the Constitution,” wrote Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter. “None of this is normal, and I will not legitimize it.”

The country is curious as to how the president will address certain topics. For one, his impending impeachment and possible acquittal in the Senate trial. (We could hear the decision tomorrow.) Two, Monday’s Iowa caucus, the first for the 2020 election cycle, was supposed to provide clarity as to who was the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination but it muddied the waters more than anything.