Balance is a way of life for Rep. Chris Deschene. The freshman Democrat must balance his legislative duties in Phoenix with his family in Window Rock. As a Navajo, he is one of only two Native American lawmakers at the Capitol and the only one in the House of Representatives.
Deschene (pronounced des-CHEE-nay) who served in the Marine Corps, also has a scholarly side — he holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and is a practicing attorney. A statuette replica of Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” on his desk also belies the Hollywood stereotype of simple, combat-thirsty Marines.
Deschene spoke with Arizona Capitol Times on April 28 about the impact state cutbacks have had on Native Americans, his thoughts on the session so far and his service in the military.
Native American issues aren’t necessarily a major topic of discussion at the Capitol, but they’re certainly important to you and your district. Can you give me an idea of what the state does for the tribes?
What the state does — or did — was it had the Arizona Commission on Indian Affairs, and with this proposed budget, they’re going to be taking that away and eliminating it.
Right, the Republican draft budget takes the funding down to zero.
Right, so there’d be no commission. What the commission did was host an annual Tribal Legislation Day, usually the second or third week in January. It was also asked to look at the Arizona Indian Town Hall.
What they were trying to do was to facilitate tribal-state relations and bring different information to the state bodies and state officials. If that’s gone, then nobody’s going to take the lead on that. There are also some tribal liaisons in the different state agencies.
What could the state do better when it comes to meeting the needs of tribes?
Recent governors are making a strong effort to have a tribal policy person on their staff, so that’s a really good start to have somebody like that. Gov. (Janet) Napolitano had Marnie Hodahkwen and Gov. (Jan) Brewer has Katosha Nakai, and both of them are excellent choices for that position. Having that at the state’s highest elected office goes a long way to help out.
We can probably do better with the commission. One, we could reinstate it or not eliminate it. I think we could have a series of meetings to determine what the full scope of the commission can (be) or (what it) should do. I don’t think there’s been any revisiting of that particular issue in a long time.
The state can help out tribal community colleges, like Diné College and Tohono O’odham (Community College). Tribal education is important. I think if we support the few tribal colleges that are in the state, it goes a long way to helping tribal students, but also the larger educational system, because once they graduate from the tribal system, they are going into the same university system that most of Arizona does.
And there are agreements between the tribes and agencies that I think we could work on, like housing and transportation. We could put tribal representatives on certain boards and commissions — the Transportation Board is a big one. Sen. (Albert) Hale has a bill (S1456) that looks at that. A lot of hunting and fishing have tribal lands components to that, so maybe (adding) an adviser — maybe adding another commissioner with tribal background.
One big thing is the state looks at diversity — just look at our cultures here in the state. In our public schools, if we want to look at diversity, we could look at sharing our culture in part of our curriculum.
You’re an attorney in your day job. What sorts of things do you deal with?
I’m an energy attorney. My firm does energy development for tribes all over the country. We’re helping tribes develop their natural resources: water, coal, hydro-power, wind.
We work all over the country in all aspects of energy development. We do energy policy, we do legal work, we do business development and we also help tribes form tribal utilities. We also go back to D.C. to advocate for laws that are good for tribal communities.
Is there an opportunity for tribes in Arizona to capture parts of the solar and wind energy-generation industries?
Yes. Tribes have been looking at energy development for a long time. Before the development of renewable energy portfolios, in the late ’90s, tribes met at a big summit at Fort Mohave and they looked at, in 10 years, where they wanted to be. Renewable energy was included in that. When it comes to renewable, I guess the preliminary research has already been done. Tribes like the Navajo are trying to maximize on that.
You’re in the midst of your first session. How is it different than what you thought it would be when you got elected?
The only difference is that, instead of looking at a number of issues simultaneously, we seem to be focusing on one big issue. I thought I would be working on energy issues, education issues, we’d be looking at bills coming over from the Senate, but right now all we’re looking at is the budget.
What I’ve also come to learn is that nobody’s ever tackled this situation before. The magnitude of this particular situation is forcing us to look at this one issue. But, for our part, there is room to do additional work. The House has done what it can on its bills, so we’re just waiting for bills to come across from the (Senate).
You mentioned how the latest budget proposal would impact the commission, but how else does the budget situation impact tribal residents?
We have a number of public school districts in my area. The same concerns that are expressed in a lot of the public schools in Arizona are being highlighted in my district. The (administrators) are saying, “We need a number. This helps us with our planning, with hiring or letting go of teachers.”
Our schools have one major challenge. Because they’re on trust lands, the taxing base is a challenge.
It’s virtually nothing, right?
Right. One difference is that tribes get federal dollars to help them offset the inability to raise funds through a tax base. Because of the budget issue, some people want to look at that as an effort to solve the Arizona problem.
In other areas, we have a lot of the same issues. We have veterans who are looking for services, we have some issues in the area of road improvements and road upgrades.
You mentioned veterans’ services, and you’re a veteran of the Marine Corps. How long did you serve?
I went into the military in 1989. I was at the United States Naval Academy, and then I was commissioned in 1993 to active duty. I was active until ’98, and then I did three years with the reserves. What is that? Twelve years?
What was your rank when you retired?
I hold the title of major right now — major, U.S. Marine Corps Reserves.
Where were you stationed on active duty?
I was in Camp Pendleton in Southern California.
That’s a pretty nice place to be.
It’s a really nice place to be. My friends, some of my peers I went through basic and infantry training (with), they chose to go to (Camp) Lejeune on the East Coast. I said, “No, I’m going back to the West Coast.”
At Pendleton, I was an infantry officer. I also did my second tour as a reconnaissance officer. I took two units overseas and my last stint was an executive officer for a reconnaissance company, at the time — since the war started, they’re now a battalion.
The reconnaissance unit gathered intel?
Intel, we did insert/extraction, those types of things — special ops.
Where were you at overseas?
We went to the Persian Gulf. We did a number of patrols and cross-training with other theater forces. For example, we helped train the Kuwaitis, the Jordanians, the Saudis. There was also a civil war when Eritrea broke off from Ethiopia, and we did a stint there.
Then we did some work over in Japan, in Okinawa, and some in Malaysia and Singapore.
Why did you go off of active duty and go into the reserves?
I wanted to go to school. The military life, especially in the infantry, is 100 percent focused on the infantry. It was all about energy, about focus on the task, the mission. You’re given a set of conditions and there’s a standard, and you went for it. There’s really no room to go to school, no room to raise a family. You can do it, but it’s challenging. I decided that I put in two good tours and I wanted to go to school. I’d put in my time and served honorably, so I thought I would move on to the next phase in my life.
Do you take any of the Marine Corps mentality into your job as a legislator — that idea of focusing on a mission and getting the job done?
I think the biggest thing that I take from the military is leadership. Being in the infantry, being with the grunts, it was always leadership by example. That entailed the right balance of courage, strength, but also the ability to foster esprit de corps, to bring a diverse group of Marines together to solve any number of issues or problems that were given to us.
I was always very happy amongst my Marines. I loved it. It’s indescribable. It’s energy. To me, you don’t get anywhere if you’re an individual in the Marine Corps infantry — it has to be a collective. We were always planning for contingencies, if something went wrong, so we could accomplish not only the mission, but protect the unit.
Transposing that to today, being a representative is, to me, a form of leadership — working for the common good for all of Arizona. We’re in the same boat, and I’m hoping that, collectively, we can work together to solve the challenges that Arizona has to face.
You have a little statue of Rodin’s “The Thinker” on your desk. Is there any significance to that?
This was given to me. I think it just captures some of the struggles of leadership. Sometimes you’re by yourself and (all) you have are your faculties and innate abilities and thinking. In the Marines, if you’re out there on your own, nobody’s going to save you. You have to be able to do it and find that strength inside.
I just happen to like the real component of this particular sculpture. It was good that somebody gave it to me. I think it was a perfect fit.