Screenshot 2016-02-11 07.32.02

Former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas is running for the House of Representatives in Washington’s 5th district. (Campaign photo)


Mark Trahant

Indian Country is a key voting bloc in the Democrat’s campaign to win more House seats. Sort of.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is focusing on 19 seats that the party thinks it can win from Republicans, labeled as the “Red to Blue” campaign. Three of those seats have a signifiant number of Native American voters.

This is good news for Democrats who are competing in these districts because it should mean there will at least be seed money from a national network of donors. (Previous: Trahant Reports on the challenge of funding a congressional campaign.)

The most important seat on the Democrats’ list is Montana where Denise Juneau is challenging Rep. Ryan Zinke. Montana is an ideal state for a Democratic pickup. Montana’s demographics are changing and there will be a lot of ballot and fundraising chaos should the Republicans nominate Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. And, Native Americans already have a good turnout track record during presidential years.

Another House seat on this list is Nevada’s 4th district where former Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, Walker River Paiute, is a candidate. (He still must win a primary.) This district is almost 15 percent Native American.


DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, a New Mexico Democrat, told Politico that “House Democrats are on an offensive and will pick up these seats in 2016, and these effective, hardworking and diverse candidates are the foundation of our success this year.”

In a normal election cycle, a focus on two seats with Native candidates would be a good thing as part of a diversity foundation.

But this year I think Democrats could do more. A lot more. There are congressional districts that could get a huge boost from a strong Native American candidate. One of the best things that the Liberal Party did in its sweep of Canada’s election was recruit strong Aboriginal candidates. (If you want to see how powerful that was in one picture, check Adam Scotti’s official picture of Justin Trudeau asking Jody Wilson-Raybould to be the nation’s Attorney General.)

Where this DCCC list most conflicts with the principle of diversity is Arizona 1st congressional district. (Even though it’s already represented by a Democrat, the seat is still a target because it’s expected to be so close). This district is the most Native in the country — more than 22 percent and growing — and it’s time for Native representation. One. Who. Can. Win. The Democrats should be recruiting star candidates from tribal government, academia, or business. In an election cycle where outsiders are being rewarded by voters, this is a “ya’ think?” moment.

Instead Democrats have chosen Tom O’Halleran, a former Republican legislator, turned Democrat. Wonderful. That should excite folks across Indian Country.

Two other districts with Native candidates are not on the list. Probably because they are considered long shots at this point. True. But this will not be a normal election year.

Those districts are Washington’s 5th district where former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas is running again; and Arizona’s 2nd district where Victoria Steele, a Seneca, is polling well but lacks money. Both Steele and Pakootas face primary challengers.

I would add one more seat to any target list: Alaska. Rep. Don Young is vulnerable even if that doesn’t show up in polling. And, like Arizona 1st, it’s time for an Alaska Native to represent Alaska. Democrats should be relentless in their recruiting (and that actually should be easy) and make certain that any candidate has enough money to be competitive. There are so many talented Alaska Natives who could win. (Note to Democrats: Do I need to put a list together for you? Or will you do your homework yourself?) It’s time.

The DCCC says this is only the first list. There will be more down the road. The sooner the better.

In case you are counting: There is a total of six seats where American Indian and Alaska Native voters could make a difference. When the goal is to win 30 seats, that’s not bad.

There has never been an election with more opportunity for Indian Country. Why? Because we are the ultimate outsiders. And in 2016 that’s the winning hand.


Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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What will it take to get more American Indian and Alaska Natives in Congress? Money. (TrahantReports photo)

To change Congress: Rethink. The. Money.



Native Americans make up .37 percent of Congress (that’s about one-third of one percent) compared to about 2 percent of the country’s population as a whole.

If that number seems too small, consider this one, only .23 percent of the population invests more than $200 on political campaigns. Any campaign. But that tiny fraction, about one-fifth of one percent, spends more than $1.18 billion every cycle. The New York Times boiled the total down to 158 families who are responsible for half of all presidential campaign spending. (Tribes and tribal enterprises do spend significant amounts on political campaigns, more on that shortly.)

Put these numbers together and it’s pretty clear why American Indians and Alaska Natives lose elections. There is never enough money, the basic fuel that makes winning elections possible.

Look at the campaigns of Victoria Steele in Arizona. She’s won a seat in the legislature in 2012, raising more than $44,000. When she ran for re-election two years later there was more money, $108,888. The reason: That tiny faction that sends checks to political candidates has a criteria that tops ideology, they want to invest in winners. Rule Number One is you win an election, and more money follows.

Steele, who is Seneca, is on the exact course that political experts recommend as the route to Congress. Run for the legislature, gain experience, and then take a shot. About half of the women in Congress followed this path.

Here is the problem. That next step costs a lot more money and Steele has to beat candidates who are already well-funded. In the primary election contest Steele has been polling well: She trails incumbent Martha McSally by about nine points, according to The Arizona Star, and Steele leads her primary opponent Matt Heinz. But in the money race she’s a distant third. McSally has raised $3.8 million, Heinz $407,387 and Steele only $99,817.

Nearly all of Steele’s contributions are coming from individuals. In fact she only reports one Political Action Committee, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.


Campaign spending reports. 4th Quarter of 2015. Source: OpenSecrets.Org

In Montana, Denise Juneau started off her fundraising by breaking a record for a Democrat in that state. Juneau reported raising $263,803 from 1,029 individual donors, 85 percent of whom are from Montana. (She also recently won an important endorsement from EMILY’s list which should boost the next fundraising quarter.) Juneau also received some 17 percent of her funding from Political Action Committees.

The bad news is Juneau still trails Ryan Zinke, her Republican opponent, by a significant margin. Zinke’s annual report shows him raising $2,613,737. And he raised more money from PACs than Juneau has raised in total, $301,200 from a variety of corporate and political interest PACs, many advocating coal and other resource extraction. Zinke also spends a lot of money, more than $2 million for the year. But that still leaves him a lot of money, $743,983.

But within Steele and Juneau’s financial report there is a stunning gap: Where is the deep financial support from tribes, casinos, and other Native American enterprises?

The only Native American PAC to contribute directly to Juneau is $1,500 from the National Indian Gaming Association Sovereignty PAC. Another contributor, the Turquoise PAC sounds cool (Native artists bundling cash?) but according to, the PAC is mostly corporations such as Blue Cross/Blue Shield although it also includes the Pueblo of Pojoaque. About a half-dozen tribes have donated to Juneau, and only one tribe, Puyallup, has given the maximum contribution. (Most tribes donate directly, as individuals, rather than via a PAC. The federal limits are $2,700 per election or $5,400 if you include the primary. PACs can give $5,000 per cycle.)

Over the last couple of years the National Indian Gaming Association’s Sovereignty PAC has been a contributor to campaigns, spending roughly $80,000 in the 2014 election and only about $23,000 so far this election cycle.

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Source: Federal Elections Commission


Overall tribal casino enterprises do donate considerably more to congressional candidates. According to OpenSecrets.Org the tribal gaming industry gave $5.4 million to Republican candidates and $7.2 million to Democratic ones. The top recipients of that money essentially reflect the current power structure in Washington.



OpenSecrets.Org lists the top twenty recipients of money from the Indian gaming industry. Data is built from Federal Election Commission reports.

Let me be clear here: Tribes and casinos are investing in these candidates because that’s the way the game is played. There are a lot of jobs in Indian Country at stake so it would be foolish for tribal interests to walk away entirely. It’s just not enough to say the system is rotten — it is — there also has to be a reasonable alternative. Especially if we all agree that Congress must include more Native voices.

Let’s look deeper at some of the numbers. The only two Native Americans in Congress — the 0.37 Percent Club — run serious fundraising operations.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, started the year with nearly a million in the bank. He’s not even likely to need that much money because in his state and district it’s unlikely he will face much competition. Cole is Chickasaw. Nearly half of his funding comes from PAC sources, 47.4 percent. Markwayne Mullins, R-Oklahoma, and member of the Cherokee Nation, reported contributions of $560,980 — and 61 percent of that came from PACs.

It works for Cole and Mullins because they reflect the status quo. And that status quo is too often supported by tribal contributions.

Last May, for example, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs had a heated exchange with then Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn about the issue of land into trust. Young said “tribal advocates” were trying to undermine his work and pour gasoline on a political fire. “I’m going to suggest we play ball straight. This is not to start an issue or try to destroy the effects of this committee,” Young said. “I hope everybody understands that. Because I do not forgive very well …. Not once have I not served the American Indians and Alaska Natives.” Washburn, however, called this an attack on tribal sovereignty. “You’ve made plain your concerns about tribal governments. And you’ve not hidden your prejudices, and I respect that because although I disagree with you, I’m glad you’re not running from your convictions.”

And did this attack on sovereignty cost Young money? Not so much. He has more than a half million dollars in the bank and so far no serious competitor. He is number six on the list of those in Congress who receive the most donations from tribal gaming. What’s more, several tribes and Alaska Native corporations have continued to donate toward Young’s re-election. The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde in Oregon gave Young the maximum. And Young received a $2,500 contribution from the Fond Du Lac Band Federal Political Fund in December.

Compare that to the campaigns of a tribal leader. In Washington state, former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas has raised $69,794 this quarter in his bid for Congress and two years ago he raised $202,163. Pakootas did receive many contributions directly from tribes in $500, $1,000, or even $2,500 increments. So it’s not that there was zero contributions from tribes, it’s that there was scant funding from Political Action Committees. Less than 7 percent of Pakootas funding came from that sort of contribution.

Pakootas did receive more $6,338 from Democratic Party committees (most of from the region). And that’s important because there is an attitude in American politics that candidates must survive a fundraising trial by fire. So Native American candidates not only must sell themselves to a general population, then they have to come up with a strategy that taps into that tiny fraction of Americans who fund election campaigns.

I remember visiting with a friend once who was a member of Congress. We were riding on public transportation. His phone rang. “I can’t talk to you on this line,” he said. “Call back.” So he put his congressional office phone away, answered another cell phone, and then spent the next few minutes asking for contributions. Imagine doing this dozens of time every day. Honing your pitch until you have it just right. Every word you say is designed to translate into asking for money.

Of course there are a lot of better ways to fund candidates. I’ve long supported public funding of candidates to make the competition more fair. Seattle is engaged in an interesting experiment now with “$100 election vouchers” so that citizens can invest in candidates without spending their own money.

One solution: Small donors rule

We can and must do better at supporting our own candidates. One way to do that is focusing on the “small” money campaign. That’s when folks send $10 or $20 to the candidates who would represent Indian Country. This is exactly what’s working for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders right now. He has raised $54 million from small donors, nearly three-quarters of his contributions according to OpenSecrets.Org.

A new study by U.S. PIRG Education Fund looked at the presidential race and said Congress should change the law to encourage and reward small donors with matches of six-to-one or more. “What this study shows is that under a small donor matching system, candidates would have a powerful incentive to change their fundraising strategy from what we see today to focus on everyday Americans,” the report said. “A small donor matching system … would make it rational to prioritize small contributions from regular Americans. Enacting a small donor matching program for all federal races would put everyday citizens back in the driver’s seat of our democracy.”

In addition to Seattle, New York City and Maine reward candidates with small donor campaigns. Encouraging small donors is a reform makes a lot of sense. (Again: Add to that idea that complete public financing of elections. Just imagine how many good candidates from Indian Country would surface if they didn’t have to worry about raising money.)

I’d like to see a Native American small donor matching fund. It could work like this:  An individual tribal member or Alaska Native shareholder could send a small donation to a congressional campaign and then a fund of would send in a multiple match. So $20 becomes $100 for every donor. Perhaps such a fund could set up tribe by tribe. Or through an intertribal political fund.

This would be a smart investment for tribes and casino enterprises too. It would connect tribal governments, enterprises, and Alaska Native corporations with their constituents in a shared outcome by matching their member contributions.

The US PRIG report cited a survey of “four Republican and Democratic congressional candidates who were outspent by an average of five-to-one by their opponents during the 2014 midterm elections. If a small donor matching program were in place for those candidates, the four would have closed the fundraising gap by an average of 40 percent. While a small donor program might not always result in participating candidates outpacing their big money opponents, it would give candidates with broad grassroots support a much better chance to run competitive campaigns.”

It’s time that Native American candidates had access to every tool that would make them competitive — and then go on to win.

So if billionaires can create PACs and SuperPacs, then tribes, Alaska Native corporations, and voter organizations, should be able to create Political Action Committees that match small donors (at least up to the current limits). I don’t know exactly what that framework would look like (note to lawyers: figure this out) but it could significantly boost the electability of Native American candidates.

In the meantime, if you want more Natives in office, remember it’s all about money. It will take big bucks to open up the 0.37 Percent Club to new members.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports


Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant /



To. much. To. do.

Catch up on campaign news, look ahead to Nevada, and finish writing energy & climate series.

Whew. Then work on book.

From @trahantreports Twitter feed this week:

Rethink First in the Nation? Iowa’s Native American population 1/2 of 1 percent. New Hampshire? 2/10th of one percent. #NativeVote16


Wab Kinew announcing his candidacy for a legislative seat in Manitoba. (Photo via Twitter.)

Mark Trahant


One of Canada’s most inspirational voices is running for office. Wab Kinew describes himself as “Father, Writer, Journalist, University Dude, Anishinaabemowin Advocate, Martial Arts Fan.” And add to that list: politician. He’s now a candidate for the Manitoba Legislature representing the New Democratic Party.

The NDP press release said Kinew “is a one-of-a-kind talent, named by the National Post as ‘an aboriginal leader seeking to engage with Canadians at large.’ He is the Associate Vice-President for Indigenous Relations at The University of Winnipeg and the author of the Number 1 national bestseller “The Reason You Walk: A Memoir.”

“I think that the best course of action for our economy is for our government to continue investing in creating good jobs — good jobs that pay good wages,” Kinew said in his announcement for the Winnipeg area seat. “The worst thing you could do right now is to begin cutting jobs, and I think that the second worst thing you could do right now is to begin cutting wages.”

This is big news for many reasons. First Kinew has star power that goes far beyond the Native community. He will be challenging the Liberal Party’s Leader (kind of like running against the other party’s candidate for governor) Rana Bokhar. So already the Canadian media is asking if this race mean Kinew will be on the NDP’s leadership team. Kinew responded to that question deftly, saying the party already has solid leadership.

Kinew has a huge social media following. He told his 45,000-plus Twitter followers on Tuesday: “I’ll need your help on this journey and would appreciate all of your support! Miigwech”

The provincial election is April 19.

This. Is how to enter a legislature as a member



Speaking of Canada, another win for a First Nation candidate. Melanie Mark, who is Nisga’a, Gitxsan, Cree, and Ojibway, swept into office with more than 60 percent of the vote and will represent the Vancouver-Mount Pleasant district.


According to The Georgia Straight newspaper, Mark focused her campaign on achieving a fairer deal for low-income people, highlighting the lack of affordable housing, the precarious job market, and rising tuition, medical-services, and B.C. Hydro fees.

“I don’t come from money or privilege, but I’m very fortunate. I achieved a degree in political science at SFU after attending several different schools, including Van Tech,” she wrote in The George Straight. “I’ve had a successful career as an advocate. From volunteering in organizations like Big Sisters and as president of the Urban Native Youth Association, to working with the Native Court Workers’ Association, Covenant House, the RCMP in Hazelton as a summer student, and as the national aboriginal project coordinator for Save the Children Canada’s–Sacred Lives Project, I built on these experiences to take on leadership roles in our community.”


Juneau: And the campaign goes on

Denise Juneau, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, and a candidate for Congress, revealed publicly that she is gay at a fundraiser. According to The Billings Gazette, Juneau “has been open for some time about her sexuality, without making a big deal of it.”

“She was very open about it. I think everyone appreciated how she handled it,” Dorothy Bradley told KTVQ news. The former state legislator and 1992 gubernatorial candidate who attended Juneau fundraiser. said, “She handled it like, ‘This is no big deal .. and, the campaign goes on.'”

The TV news report said “Juneau has already made Montana political history as the first Native American woman to win election to statewide office. Now, she’s also the first openly gay candidate to seek a federal post.”

Juneau is a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa Tribes and a descendant of the Blackfeet tribe. She was raised in Browning. In 2008 Juneau became the first American Indian woman to win a statewide office, Superintendent of Public Instruction. She was re-elected to that post in 2012.

Sanders announces initiatives at Affiliated NW tribes meeting

At the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Meeting this week, Nicole Willis announced that presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders was creating a policy advisory committee on Native American issues. She said the committee’s membership will be announced soon.

She said Sanders has already announced that he will continue President Obama’s tribal nations conference, keep a senior Native American advisor on staff at the White House, and work to restore tribal jurisdiction to improve local decision-making. He also pledged to expand the Violence Against Women Act and find additional funding for the Generation Indigenous initiative.

Willis said that Sen. Sanders pledged to have a climate change summit within the first 100 days of his administration and that tribes would be included as full participants.

Willis joined the Sanders campaign last week as an advisor. She is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon, worked for the Obama campaign, and was deputy director for First Americans at Obama for America.


Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports


Screenshot 2016-01-31 09.21.40

C-SPAN’S report from the 2008 Iowa caucuses. The 2016 caucus is Monday, Feb. 1.


Iowa is 92 percent white; state’s American Indian population is 0.5 percent, but that’s not the whole story



The media surrounding the Iowa caucuses reduces the story to one basic theme: Who’s winning and what does that win (or loss) mean for the New Hampshire primary? Lost in that coverage is a thoughtful discussion about issues and policies. So we get political promises that might fit better in cartoons than in governing papers.

My ideal? Presidential campaigns would focus on policy, not the politicians, and the first votes would be cast in states like Arizona, New Mexico, or even Montana, where issues that impact First Americans would get a full airing by all the campaigns. Indeed, we know so many reasons why Iowa should not vote first. The state is 92 percent white, the caucus system favors rural voters and the population of American Indians is roughly one-half of one percent.

But that’s not the whole story.

There are 1,400 enrolled members of the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa/Meskwaki Nation located in central Iowa. And in Tama County, the population of American Indians exceeds 6 percent of the population. Democrats hold their precinct caucus at the Meskwaki Tribal Center. (The Republican caucus is at the Tama Civic Center.)


The Sac and Fox Tribe Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa/Meskwaki Nation. Members of the 1,400 tribal community will be among the first to cast their vote for president on Monday night.

There are even hot issues that ought to surface in a presidential campaign. The Iowa Senate last week enacted a resolution to end state criminal jurisdiction over Meskawaki tribal members, essentially repealing Public Law 280. The bill has been sent to the Iowa House. Tribal members have been supported such a bill for several sessions with the goal of tribal jurisdiction.

This would be a great presidential campaign discussion. We all know the United States goes through dramatic swings when it comes to federal-Indian policy. Congress enacted Public Law 280 when the idea was to break up reservations and assimilate tribal people into the states. That policy, of course, was nonsense. And eventually rejected in favor of the self-determination policies of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. But here’s the thing: The underlying legislation that promoted assimilation remains the law.
Congress never repealed its termination resolution, nor PL 280, but left them on the books as a legal layer that only causes confusion. That’s why the Iowa legislature is enacting a repeal; It’s ahead of the Congress on getting rid of a failed policy.

This is not the first attempt by Iowa. A similar resolution passed in 2015, but without the force of law. The Tama News-Herald says U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told Iowa to act first “before the federal government can act.” And, he told the paper, “A mere resolution that doesn’t have the force of law isn’t enough to allow Congress to move forward on any possible changes.”

The Iowa House will take up the legislation next. And then Congress? We shall see. But it would have been a great topic for the Iowa presidential campaign.

The only candidate to campaign on the Sac and Fox settlement was Bernie Sanders. In September he held a rally and answered a few questions about federal-Indian policy. The Des Moines Register quoted him: “The federal government, the U.S government’s relationship to Native Americans has been a disaster from day one. … Everything else being equal, we want decisions being made by the peoples themselves, not dictated by the government. There has to be a relationship, but at the end of the day I would like to see local decisions being made by local people themselves.”

The Register said Sander’s rally “won an enthusiastic response” and reported a tribal member who said his presence could translate into support on caucus night.

And for the Republicans? I mentioned that the Democrats are meeting Monday at the tribal center. The GOP is at  the Tama Civic Center. One reason for that might be in 2012 not a single person attended the Republican caucus at the precinct representing the tribal community.

Watch for my live tweets on Monday night, @trahantreports and the hashtag is #NativeVote16 on Twitter.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports



Juneau kicks off campaign breaking fundraising record


Denise Juneau is a candidate for Congress in Montana. (Campaign photo)

Mark Trahant /

Montana’s Denise Juneau has raised more than a quarter of a million dollars in eight weeks in her bid to represent the state in Congress.

Juneau, who is the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, reported raising $263,803. The campaign says is more than any previous Democratic candidate for the U.S. House in their first fundraising period. That total is made up of 1,029 individual donors, 85 percent of whom are from Montana.

“For too long, our state’s lone vote in the U.S. House has been cast by one extreme, out-of-touch representative after another – congressmen less focused on getting things done for our state, and more focused on getting elected to higher office,” Juneau said. “I’m running for Congress to change that. My campaign is focused on doing what’s best for Montana first and foremost, with a commitment to helping create new opportunities for working families here at home. The enormous support we have already received from all across our state is proof that Montanans are ready for that change, and 2016 is the year it’s going to happen.”

Juneau also won the important endorsement from EMILY’S List. EMILY’S list has more than three million members and invests in pro-choice, Democratic women running for national, state and local office.

“Denise Juneau is a lifelong public servant who has fought to increase educational and economic opportunities for all Montanans,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List in a prepared statement that was posted Monday on the blog 406 politics. “As Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, Denise has been a champion for quality schools and for policies that give all students a fair shot. Our country has never before elected an American Indian woman to serve in Congress, and Denise is determined to break that glass ceiling to advocate for women and families whose voices aren’t heard in Washington.”

Juneau is a member of the Mandan Hidatsa Tribes.


Victoria Steele is a candidate for Congress in Arizona. (Campaign photo)

Steele leads in Arizona primary poll

There are new numbers from Arizona and they show that Democrat Victoria Steele is a  strong candidate both for the primary contest and in the general election against Republican Martha McSally. Steele is a former member of the Arizona House of Representatives and is Seneca and running for Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District.

The Arizona Daily Star reported that Steele trails McSally but within single digits behind the incumbent. The same poll shows Steele slightly ahead of her Democratic Party opponent, former representative Matt Heinz. “In a poll of 714 CD2 voters, 48 percent said they would vote for the retired Air Force colonel and a former A-10 fighter pilot compared to 39 percent, a Democrat who represented Arizona’s 9th District in the State House of Representatives since 2012.”

“Southern Arizonans recognize that Victoria will fight just as hard for them as their Congresswoman, as she did for them as their State Representative. If this momentum continues, and Victoria continues to outperform Heinz in polls, as I believe she will, Victoria Steele will be the Democratic nominee to face Martha McSally next November,” Keith Rosendahl, the campaign manager for Steele for Congress, told The Daily Star.

A Democratic challenger to Joe Patookas

Joe Patookas has a primary challenger in Washington’s 5th Congressional District. David Kay, a U.S. Army and Foreign Service veteran, told the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin that he will be a moderate in the race.

“I will not be liberal enough for some. I will not be conservative enough for others,” said Kay, 59, a North Carolina native who moved to Spokane in 2000 with his wife. “I’m running as a moderate Democrat. I hope I will be American enough for everybody.”

Patookas, former chairman of the Colville Tribal Business Council, is making his second run for the office held by Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

New candidate in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District

I’ve written that Arizona’s 1st Congressional District ought to be Indian Country’s top priority. There are more Native American votes in that district than any other. There are 724,868 voters in that district and 23.2 percent of that is American Indian. Four years ago that number was about 22 percent and unless the district lines change, those numbers will continue to rise. Shawn Redd, Navajo, is running on the Republican side of the ballot. The Navajo Times reports that another Navajo, Kayto Sullivan will campaign as a Democrat for the House of Representatives.

“I want to be a voice for the people,” Sullivan told the Navajo Times. “People (politicians) promise all kinds of things, but they do not listen to the people.”

My most recent spreadsheet listing Native American candidates for Congress.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports



Could low oil prices help usher in a new era?

Mark Trahant

Second in a series

A few minutes before noon on November 6, 2015, President Barack Obama stepped into the White House briefing room to announce that the Keystone XL Pipeline would not earn approval from the U.S. government.

“Several years ago, the State Department began a review process for the proposed construction of a pipeline that would carry Canadian crude oil through our heartland to ports in the Gulf of Mexico and out into the world market,” the president said. “This morning, Secretary Kerry informed me that, after extensive public outreach and consultation with other Cabinet agencies, the State Department has decided that the Keystone XL Pipeline would not serve the national interest of the United States. I agree with that decision.”

One of the reasons cited was a report from the Interior Department that cited “significant concern raised by some tribes in Indian Country regarding the need for protection of treaty rights and fulfillment of the trust responsibility, protection of sacred cultural sites, and avoidance of adverse impacts to the environment, including to surface and groundwater resources.The Department has also received letters from some tribal nations, particularly those located in the Great Plains region, who do not feel there has been adequate government-to-government engagement with them.”

The announcement was hailed as a huge win for Indian Country.

“This is a tremendous victory for all the pipeline fighters who have spent several years fighting the TransCanada “black snake,” Keystone XL! The President’s decision is a clear affirmation of our struggle to defend the sacredness of Mother Earth and to protect the future generations of all our relatives, human and non-human alike,” wrote Dallas Goldtooth, campaign organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network. “We celebrate this as a win and a powerful step to the greater goals of keeping fossil fuels in the ground and shutting down the tar sands at the source!”

Back at the White House the president used that moment to raise an analytical note: “Keystone Pipeline has occupied what I, frankly, consider an overinflated role in our political discourse. It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter. And all of this obscured the fact that this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.”

Oil and gas — and by extension, pipelines — will continue to be built as part of the country’s energy infrastructure. As Obama put it: “Now, the truth is, the United States will continue to rely on oil and gas as we transition — as we must transition — to a clean energy economy.”

Fast forward to January 2016.

The North Dakota Public Service Commission approved a siting permit on January 6 for the Sacagawea Pipeline Project, designed to move crude oil more than 70 miles across the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and connect to existing pipelines. The idea is that the 16-inch pipeline will transport as much as 200,000 barrels per day. “This is significant new and important infrastructure in a part of the state where truck traffic has been intense,” said Commission Chairman Julie Fedorchak. “We reviewed this project very closely, and the company committed to high standards of construction, operation and reclamation including and especially in regard to the crossing of Lake Sakakawea.”

That’s right. The pipeline will buried 100 feet below Lake Sakakawea.

One of the state’s regulators, Randy Christmann, said, “The use of horizontal diagonal drilling techniques to place this pipeline over 100 feet below the bed of Lake Sakakawea makes this the safest possible alternative for moving oil from one side of that important water body to the other.”

This is just one potential pipeline. The largest, The Dakota Access Pipeline Project would connect a 30-inch pipeline from North Dakota’s Bakken and Three Forks oil fields to Patoka, Illinois, a length of 1,154 miles.

That’s roughly the same distance as the Keystone XL pipeline project. And because the Dakota Access Project doesn’t cross an international border, the approval process is routine.

Dakota Access Partners, the builder of the project, says it anticipates beginning construction this year and to “be in service by the fourth quarter of 2016.” The goal is to move more than a half million barrels of oil per day.



The Dakota Access Project would transport oil from North Dakota to Illinois. The goal of Dakota Access Partners is to have the system in operation by the end of 2016 and to move a half million barrels of oil per day. (Source: Dakota Access Partners map.)






On January 20, the North Dakota Public Service Commission approved a siting permit. “This project received thorough review which was totally transparent. We received broad public input. We listened and the company listened,” said Commission Chairman Julie Fedorchak. “The permit today provides for a sound, safe project that will provide an efficient and environmentally sound way to transport Bakken crude oil for many decades.”

Indeed, there is an environmental case to make for pipelines. Oil that is not transported through a pipeline is shipped by truck or train. As the environmental think tank, Sightline, reported, the goal of the industry is to ship a million barrels of oil every day by railroad. “If all of the projects were built and operated at full capacity, they would require more than 100 loaded mile-long trains per week to traverse the Northwest’s railway system,” Sightline said. “Many worry about the risk of oil spills along the region’s extensive rail network, particularly in remote locations where emergency response would be challenging.”

Railroad enterprises, like the pipeline, are banking on delivering Bakken/Three Forks oil to markets.

Here is the problem: If the pipeline is built and the train system is upgraded there will be too much transportation capacity at current oil prices. So the railroad companies will have to seek out new customers. Or, as Sightline said, while “the projects are largely designed to transport and handle light shale oil from the Bakken oil formation in North Dakota … the infrastructure could also be used to export heavy Canadian oil.”

The idea of how much capacity — especially given the price of oil — is the wild card in any transportation scheme. Many projects were designed when oil prices were higher than $75 a barrel instead of around $30. Oil is a commodity and traded on international markets. That means it’s subject to the up and down of supply and demand. Currently there is far more oil supply than demand. A report by the International Energy Agency says last year “saw one of the highest volume increases in global oil demand this century, we have long believed that this could not be repeated in 2016. But, with crude oil prices plunging below $30/bbl, must we expect some boost to the rate of growth in 2016? Unfortunately, the New Year has been awash with pessimism about economic growth.”

And that means less economic growth — and less oil consumption. The IEA says that when Iran is fully online selling oil, and if other oil exporting countries maintain current production levels, the demand could exceed demand by 1.5 million barrels a day and “unless something changes, the oil market could drown in over-supply.” So yes prices could go lower.

The way that will impact major projects such as pipelines is that oil companies and those that are in related businesses will need to adjust their spending. Some oil companies have borrowed a lot of money to increase production and now are unable to pay their loans without selling off major assets.


What goes up? Bureau of Indian Affairs expected oil royalty figures to top $1 billion in 2014. Estimate was before the sharp drops in the price of oil. (Source: Bureau of Indian Affairs)

Indian Country has a complicated relationship with the price of oil. So many of our people (both reservation and urban) drive pickup trucks and the price at the pump becomes a daily worry. On the other hand more than a dozen tribes and several Alaska Native corporations are oil and gas producers. So the low oil prices impact everything from government budgets to the number of jobs available locally. The most recent numbers posted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs estimated royalties at $900 million “and within two years, estimates royalty income will increase to over $1 billion.” And as the report projected a billion was likely exceeded as the 2014 price of oil averaged $93.17. But last year that same average was $48.67.

There are other forces at play.

The Paris agreement on climate change sets a target of “well below” a rise of 2 °C, with “net-zero green house gas emissions by 2100.” That means a stepped up transition away from fossil fuels but it’s worth noting that the agreement also recognizes the “unique role of gas and oil.” That will only happen if there is “significant support for mitigation technologies and approaches” and “energy economics and consumption patterns would need to change substantially, and consumers would need to accept these shifts.”

In some ways that is already occurring. One factor that is contributing to the over-supply of oil is that Americans are driving less — especially the millennial generation. (More about that next week.) But it could be that oil prices are low at exactly the right moment, easing our transition to a new energy framework.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports



  • What replaces extraction?




King County, Washington, called for more studies saying the rail system is “not built to handle the weight of mile-long oil and coal trains. This stresses an already dated infrastructure and increases the risk of potentially catastrophic derailments.” Photo credit:




First in a series.

It’s tempting to think of Indian Country as a “singular” voice. The vast majority of Native Americans agree that the United States should live up to its treaty promises. Most of us think that tribes are the best mechanism for governing our lands and people (all the while watching a steady stream of our citizens moving from reservations to cities and towns across America). And, we share a deep respect for the land, Mother Earth. Add it up and it shows that if we all vote together, our voices will represent a powerful bloc.

Except, that is, when we disagree.

That should not be a surprise. The phrase “tribal politics” earns an instant nod from folks who understand that Native people have the same divisions — philosophical, tribal, and familial — that surface in any governing structure. Generations ago this was an easy problem to resolve: Leaders who found themselves in a minority, just left camp, and followed their own way. Today tribal people who have different ideas about the future live and work in the community and use elections to determine the governing coalition.

Perhaps the greatest division within Indian Country is the debate about the environment and the extraction of natural resources. There are Native people on all sides of this question and it’s already an election issue.

Earlier this month the Crow Nation announced that some tribal employees “will have to be furloughed for some time during this quarter.” A Facebook post quoted Chairman Darrin Old Coyote saying that “because of revenues reduced by the Obama’s “War on Coal,” we are faced with a shortfall to our operating budget under the general fund. Our Cabinet Head and Directors are faced with reducing their budget to make it through this quarter. We do have funds out there but, will not be available in time. As a result, there will be wage reductions, and other steps taken to make sure the furlough will not last long.”

Crow is rich with coal — one estimate shows a reserve of 17 billion tons — and it’s the primary source of tribal revenue as well as jobs for more than 13,000 tribal members. Last year Old Coyote told a Senate hearing in Montana: “I simply desire for the Crow Nation to become self-sufficient by developing its own coal resources and to provide basic services for the health, hopes and future of the Crow people. With help from you – our historic treaty ally – in leveling the energy development playing field, we can achieve my vision and both benefit immensely.”

Obama might get the blame, but the coal industry has been collapsing on its own. Its use as an energy source in the United States is being replaced by natural gas which is both cheaper and cleaner. That leaves China as the major market for coal. But China is giving up on coal too. A report by Clark Williams-Derry from the environmental think-tank Sightline sums it up this way: “Many folks still believe that China has an unlimited appetite for coal and that the country’s industries and power plants would be delighted to buy any and all coal we send their way. But in reality, China’s coal consumption peaked in 2013, fell by about 3 percent in 2014, and fell another 4 to 5 percent over the first 11 months of 2015. All told, China’s cutbacks have totaled some 300 million tons per year—the equivalent of one-third of total coal output in the US, the world’s second largest coal producer. So while China still has a huge appetite for coal, the country has slimmed down impressively.”

The sharp decline in the Chinese stock market will likely speed up this trend.

But proponents of coal continue to promote plans that would make it easier for coal to reach Asia. Cloud Peak Energy Company has the option to lease 1.4 billion tons of coal from Crow lands. That company, and the Crow Nation, are investors in two new shipping terminals in Washington state. If completed, this would be the biggest coal export terminal in North America and account for nearly 500 sailings of ships transporting coal to Asia.

Northwest tribes are adamantly opposed to the terminal. Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby told The Seattle Times last week: “Coal is black death … There is no mitigation.” He and other tribal leaders say that the project would be a clear violation of treaty fishing rights. Cladoosby is president of the National Congress of American Indians which in a 2012 resolution called for a full, transparent environmental review.  

Then again, as The Times put it: “Burning coal creates pollution that harms human health and the environment. In addition to particulates, burning coal generates more carbon dioxide emissions than any other fuel, implicated as the number one source of human-caused climate change.”

The politics of coal remain a dividing line in U.S. and tribal politics. The Obama administration has stepped up environmental regulations of coal and just last week the Interior Department announced a review of coal leasing on federal lands.

“Given serious concerns raised about the federal coal program, we’re taking the prudent step to hit pause on approving significant new leases so that decisions about those leases can benefit from the recommendations that come out of the review,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “During this time, companies can continue production activities on the large reserves of recoverable coal they have under lease, and we’ll make accommodations in the event of emergency circumstances to ensure this pause will have no material impact on the nation’s ability to meet its power generation needs. We are undertaking this effort with full consideration of the importance of maintaining reliable and affordable energy for American families and businesses, as well other federal programs and policies.”

This action comes at a moment where there is a worldwide push to leave coal and other carbon-based resources in the ground as a way to hit the UN targets limiting C02 emissions. New data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says nearly 90 percent of the world’s coal is “unburnable.” Coal is considered the most polluting type of fossil fuel.

“The implication is that any fossil fuels that would take us over-budget will have to be left in the ground,” writes Roz Pidcock for CarbonBrief. “Globally this equates to 88 percent of the world’s known coal reserves, 52 percent of gas and 35 percent of oil.”


Source: US Energy Information Administration.

So the tribal bets on coal are coming at a bad time, both in terms of market-prices and meeting international agreements  to reduce emissions. Neither the Congress nor a future president can change this fact. Markets are not going to suddenly come back for coal and the rest of the world has already made a decision about the future of energy.

Of course, the Crow are not the only tribal government or Alaska Native corporation that’s sees a future in coal. The Navajo Nation purchased a coal mine in 2014. And the Tyonek Native Corporation has plans to develop the Chuitna Coal project with the PacRim Coal Company. The village corporation favors the project, while the Tyonek Native village, a tribal government, is opposed because of the mining’s impact on rivers, salmon and the community.

The impact 0f climate change is a huge concern for many tribes. But even before climate change the Northern Cheyenne — also a coal rich tribe — decided on a different route.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Northern Cheyenne demanded that its trustee block leases with Peabody Coal. Then the Northern Cheyenne successfully set higher air quality standards. According to the Bureau of Land Management: “The Tribe became concerned that, because of prevailing wind patterns, air pollution from these massive plants would pollute the Reservation airshed. Under prevailing legal standards, the powerplant was not obliged to minimize such pollution … The Tribe decided to become the first unit of government in the Nation – Federal, state, local or tribal – to voluntarily raise the air quality standard within its territory to the most pristine standard under law. Specifically, the Tribal Council moved to raise the Reservation air quality standard to the highest permitted by law – Class I – a standard which theretofore applied only to National Parks and Wilderness Areas.”

When I was a young reporter, during the late 1970s, I had several interviews with the late Alan Rowland who was then Northern Cheyenne’s chairman. He joked that you cannot breathe money. He said clean air and water were essential to his tribe’ health. Jobs come and go, but not water or air. When I think back, it’s almost as if Rowland saw the challenges of climate change ahead.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports



  • Oil, gas and pipelines
  • What replaces extraction?



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