Al Goozmer, president of the Native Village of Tyonek, explains the significance of land donated to the tribe by The Nature Conservancy.

Al Goozmer, president of the Native Village of Tyonek, explains the significance of land donated to the tribe by The Nature Conservancy.

Culturally significant land represents rebuilding of a tribal land base

MARK TRAHANT

TYONEK, Alaska — This is a great day for Al Goozmer. So the tribal president wants to show us everything in this village of about 200 people.

We start at the airstrip where there’s a new fire station. A mural painted in vivid colors proclaims, “TUBUGHNA: The Beach People.”

Then he shows us the tribal garden growing fresh produce. A few vegetables are already sprouting inside the greenhouse. But this is just a beginning, Goozmer said, “I asked them to look into putting another garden on the other side, that is going to be dealing, primarily, with our native berries, blueberries, salmonberries, and all the other berries here.”

But the real gem is ahead. We’re on our way to visit a piece of land that’s being donated to the tribe by The Nature Conservancy. The land is a couple of miles from the village. On the way, between the beach and a high bank of soil, Goozmer picks up a clump of earth, and explains how the land evolved over time.

He is that passionate about the land.

“I have a son who was 36-years-old and I never have seen him until he was 36. When we first met, we just fell into each other’s arms and cried and cried. It was just an awesome, awesome thing,” Goozmer said. “This is the same thing with the land. Our land, it was traditionally our land for the past thousand years, is coming back into tribal government, tribal hands. It’s like meeting your long lost relative again and reuniting with them.”

Goozmer starts his telling of the story with a coal mine that has been proposed by PacRim Coal. The land is near a deportation point for the minerals that would be shipped out. It’s a 160-acre parcel that had been homesteaded and was later donated to the Catholic Church. Then, in 2008, instead of selling the land for development (for what Goozmer calls “boo koo bucks”) title was conveyed by the church to The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy has now donated that land back to its first owners with support from the Great Land Trust. The deal includes a conservation easement, limiting development and allowing  tribal members use of the land for subsistence hunting, fishing, and berry-picking.

The return of such a parcel to an Alaska Native village is historic because the idea of tribal lands in Alaska is growing in both importance and inevitability. However a discovery a couple of years ago made this particular site even more important: It’s a rich cultural and archaeological site showing significant evidence about how Tubughna people have lived for the past thousand years.

“When we learned of the deep cultural significance of this place to the Tebughna people, we realized that the people of the Native Village of Tyonek would be its best long-term stewards,” said Rand Hagenstein, Alaska state director for The Nature Conservancy.

The formal title for this land is now, Etnen Bunkda, or Mother of the Earth.  It comes from the Dena’ina name for the region. There is evidence of several homes from different periods of time, demonstrating a long arc of history for Tebughna as residents.

The site also includes a number of cold storage pits. These were the first refrigerators, deep holes once lined with grass and bark to preserve salmon and other foods for winter consumption. The Mother of the Earth site is a clear example of the Tebughna reliance on fish for a thousand years.

“Land managers do not fully take into consideration the fact that indigenous people have a whole cultural identity that’s related to land and subsistence, an appreciation for what the land provides,” said Heather Kendall-Miller, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. So the agencies responsible for making decisions about land, fish and game did not get the subsistence connection to the land. “The Chuitt River is one of the last rivers in the entire Cook Inlet that still has habitat for King Salmon. And that would have been impacted by the coal project,” Miller said.

The Native American Rights Fund represents the village in the land transfer.

In addition to subsistence, the transfer of this land adds to the larger Alaska debate about tribal lands. This agreement recognizes the possibility of the land being taken into trust by the Interior Department once that process is open.

“For us to again have a land base is just awesome. We have our identity refocused and reconnected back to the land of who we are,” said Goozmer. The village was once a part of the Moquawkie Indian Reservation.

However, he said, “the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act took away our ability to own land.”

Instead the land title was conveyed to regional and village corporations. “So we became shareholders instead of land owners. The corporations … are the owners and we have shares, but it’s not the same.” But the transfer of such a significant piece of land is a step in a new direction. “For us, as Natives, to be land owners intricately tied to the land, its resources, its animals, and what it produces, this is our grocery store and our pharmacy,” Goozmer said. “Hopefully this is just a beginning to get our identity back and reconnect us to the land.”

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

Starting next Tuesday I am beginning an Indiegogo campaign to fund my journalism projects. My official goal is $5,000, but I am hoping to exceed that figure. The money will be used to pay my salary, travel, and to keep my technology current. (The bonus is that if I reach the larger amount, I’d like to visit the Tar Sands next month.)
I am hoping for early support and broad support; campaign will just last 30 days. 
And if you can’t help with funding — please pass along my funding pitches, my regular posts, or just keep reading. Thank you.
  

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The next phase in the epidemic: Reducing the rate of growth and other success stories

MARK TRAHANT

Indian Country has long faced the epidemic of diabetes with rates 2.3 times greater than the general population. The toll from this deadly disease was so great that a federal Special Diabetes Program for Indians was launched some thirteen years ago.

Across America diabetes rates are exploding. A recent piece in The Washington Post put it this way: “Diabetes has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S., due to sugary diets and the lack of exercise. If current disease rates continue, one in three Americans will have diabetes by 2050. Over time, the condition can lead to kidney failure, limb amputations and blindness, among other complications.”

The post linked to a blogger, The Data Dude, and a chart that shows diabetes rates increasing in all but a few counties across the nation, a total of 2,992 of counties. Only five counties had rates that stayed the same and only ten counties showed an actual decrease.

Here is the thing. Two of the ten counties showing a decrease in diabetes rates are found on Indian reservations, Fort Peck, Montana, and Rosebud, South Dakota. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of growth for diabetes in Roosevelt County, Montana, dropped from 13.2 percent to 12.9 percent, a three-tenths decline from 2004 to 2012. And a similar decline occurred in Mellette County, South Dakota, where the rates declined from 13 percent to 12.7 percent.

If these two reservation communities are showing a decline, what do the numbers look like across Indian Country?

Unfortunately the CDC and the Indian Health Service use different data because, of course, the county map is not ideal. The Indian Health Service reported that its data would not be comparable with the county data cited.

However — and this is important — IHS data do indicate a slowing in the rate of rise of the prevalence of diabetes in American Indian and Alaska Native people nationally. From 2001-2005, there was a relative increase in age-adjusted diabetes prevalence in American Indian and Alaska Native adults of 2.2% per year on average. Contrast that with the period between 2006 and 2013 where diabetes prevalence among the same population increased at a rate of 0.8% per year on average.

Another measurement of that trend comes from the United States Renal Data System. The data show that the incidence of end-stage renal disease due to diabetes in American Indian and Alaska Native people decreased by 43 percent between 2000 to 2011. Looking at the numbers another way, between 1995 and 2006, the incident rate of End Stage Renal Disease in American Indians and Alaska Natives with diabetes fell by 27.7 percent—a greater decline than for any other racial or ethnic group.

The IHS says: “This translates into far fewer American Indian and Alaska Native patients with diabetes starting dialysis. Also, obesity rates and diabetes prevalence in American Indian and Alaska Native youth have not increased since 2006.”

What’s working?

In Poplar, Montana, Tessie LeMere, diabetes coordinator for the Fort Peck Tribal Health Department, says a lot of the work is community focused. One important activity encouraging people to drink water instead of sugary soda. “We offer our water system. If you have your own jug, you can bring it in here and we’ll give you clean water. We do home visits. We do community screenings. The community screenings are a big thing because it’s not just for our patients, that’s for everybody just to get the awareness and prevention out there. We have wellness centers. We pay to those so our patients have access. We also have a dialysis program over at tribal health. That I think has brought the awareness more into reality.”

Perhaps that’s it. The success in Indian Country of the diabetes program is about doing everything, reaching out to both patients and those who are at risk for the disease. Again the numbers tell a story. A generation ago, before the Special Diabetes Program for Indians, only about a third of all Indian Health patients had access to diabetes clinics; today that number exceeds two-thirds. And 94 percent of patients have access to diabetes clinical teams, three times more than in 1997. And nearly 100 percent — 99 percent according to IHS — of people in the IHS system have access to diabetes education (up from 36 percent in 1997).

We hear all the time about how bad things are in Indian Country. The story of improving diabetes rates counters that narrative. It shows a lot of things: First, tribally designed programs work, government funding is important and lessons from Indian Country can help the larger nation treat its diabetes epidemic

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

Fort Peck Tribal Health Department is a success story showing how a community can reduce diabetes rates. From left: Janene Padilla, Diabetes Coordinator Tessie LaMere.  Cheryl Bighorn-Savior (RN), and Laurel Cheek.

Fort Peck Tribal Health Department is a success story showing how a community can reduce diabetes rates. From left: Janene Padilla, Diabetes Coordinator Tessie LaMere. Cheryl Bighorn-Savior (RN), and Laurel Cheek.

  
Mike Williams and his granddaughter Megan at a hunting and fishing rights rally last year in Anchorage. (Williams family photo.)

New inter-tribal fish commission formed to give Alaska tribes a say



MARK TRAHANT

Alaska reminds me of Washington state. Let me qualify that. Alaska reminds me of Washington state before the mid-1970s. Back then the region was deeply divided over treaty rights, salmon, and even the definition of what it meant to be an American Indian in modern times. 

The official state government machine, ranging from biological reviews to law enforcement, was geared up to obliterate any tribal claims to salmon fishing. The clashes were not just legal; many were violent and tragic.

But then Boldt happened. Federal courts upheld the treaty rights of Native people. As author and professor Charles Wilkinson wrote: “The truest and most profound fact about the Boldt decision is that it was conceived and accomplished by Indian people. The transcendent meaning of the Boldt decision was to uphold the treaty rights of Northwest tribes, but it was also a national case about national obligations and values. The decision was a gift to all of America.”

The 1974 ruling by U.S. District Judge George Boldt did something else. It established tribes as “co-managers” of the salmon. So tribes and intertribal organizations organized and invested millions of dollars on salmon habitat recovery, management, and even law enforcement to make certain that the tribal side of the bargain was met.  Most important: Tribes gained a meaningful say about wildlife management. Salmon are still under significant threat, but river after river is also showing improvement.

Alaska’s story is a bit different — even as it evolves. The newly created state of Alaska took charge of fish and game in 1960. And a few years later the state began to close traditional fisheries claiming conservation. Instead of a treaty document that outlined a clear tribal right to hunt and fish, the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act ended the formal protection of aboriginal rights. However in 1980 Congress enacted a subsistence title to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The new federal law was supposed to protect customary subsistence uses by Alaska Natives. 

But the definition of that “protection” was assumed by the state and federal governments with little meaningful role for Alaska Natives. And when Native voices did rise, the state’s reaction was mostly litigation or criminal enforcement.

On May 5, 2015, 28 tribes on the Kuskokwim River started down another path, assuming co-management of fish in the river system by creating a Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. It’s modeled on the Northwest Indian Fish Commission, an organization that was led for many years by the legendary Billy Frank Jr. (Frank is really an American hero. He went from being a “getting arrested guy” during the fish wars to a wise elder who was widely respected.) Mike Williams, Sr. of Akiak, was elected chairman of the new commission.

“The people of the Kuskokwim River are no longer satisfied with serving in an advisory role to state and fishery managers,”  says a news release from the new commission. “The message, Kuskokwim River tribes and rural residents desire a “meaningful role” in the management of fish and wildlife as it is expressed by Congress in section 801 (5) of the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act, a role that until now most Western Alaskans agree has been meaningless.

I am convinced that co-management works. In Washington, Oregon and in Idaho there are salmon streams that would have gone extinct without a broader, more comprehensive management approach. Even small tribes hire people to work on habitat restoration or protecting baby salmon from predators. And it’s hard to understate the importance of creating natural resource jobs because it gives Native people a new purpose, working on the land to improve wildlife.

“My thoughts go to my ancestors that have managed our resources for over 10,000 years. They have done a great job in making sure we have food security,” said Chairman Williams. “We have traditional science and knowledge as we live right where they always fished. In recent times, the federal and state governments have begun to manage our resources. The policy is coming from far away.”

Williams said that there have been too many advisory boards that many Native people felt were wastes of time because they weren’t followed up with cooperation. 

“I sat down for many hours with my uncle, the Late Joe Lomack, Traditional Chief, on the climate and natural resource issues,” Williams said.  “We got very concerned on the reports about Chinook disappearing up north then the Yukon River and then our Kuskokwim River. Now that we have established our Fish Commissions, both in the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers, we have a structure in place to start to engage our involvement in a meaningful ways to help manage our resources instead of always giving advice.”

This is the moment when Alaska should embrace this approach. For too many years the state has spent significant resources litigating against a tribal say instead of listening. This is both expensive and ineffective.  On the other hand, a meaningful role for tribes on wildlife issues has proven to be successful in Washington and other Northwest states.

It’s time for Alaska to deliver this gift to America.

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts go to trahantreports.com or, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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Budget targets $246 million below last year’s committee levels, says Democrat on House Interior Appropriations

MARK TRAHANT / TRAHANTREPORTS.COM

House and Senate negotiators have reached a deal on a budget resolution. That agreement then would go to each House for a vote. (An outcome that is not certain.) But, if it passes, it would be the first budget enacted by Congress in six years.

Let’s be clear about this plan: It would require deep spending cuts in federal Indian programs.

While the budget itself is not law, it sets limits for each of the appropriations committees to follow. According to a report from The Associated Press the draft document adds some $40 billion to military spending and calls for deep cuts to all domestic programs, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service.

“The plan sets broad budget goals but by itself has little teeth; instead, painful follow-up legislation would be required to actually balance the budget,” the AP said. “It also permits the GOP majority to suspend the Senate’s filibuster rule and deliver a special measure known as a reconciliation bill to Obama without the threat of Democratic opposition. Republicans plan to use the special filibuster-proof bill to wage an assault on Obama’s Affordable Care Act rather than try to impose a variety of painful cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, student loans, and other so-called mandatory programs over Obama’s opposition.”

The House budget is blunt about the next steps required to balance the budget within a decade, including another repeal of the Affordable Care Act. “None of the reforms proposed in this budget will be able to solve the underlying challenges in our health care system so long as Obamacare remains on the books. Our budget fully repeals Obamacare,” according to the budget plan.

This very notion sets up a debate. President Barack Obama would need to sign any appropriation into law — so a veto threat has merit. But the Congress still must pass a bill to appropriate money that would defy their own budget rules on programs such as the Indian Health Service (because some of that agency’s authorizing legislation is the Affordable Care Act. Remember: The Indian Health Care Improvement Act is a chapter of the ACA.)

So the actual final budget is going to be difficult to resolve.

At the same moment that the Congress is pursuing its latest “repeal” of the Affordable Care Act more states, even states controlled by Republicans, are moving forward with an expansion of Medicaid. This may be the most important part of the Affordable Care Act, especially for Indian Country because it’s adding new dollars to the underfunded health care system. Montana is the latest state to expand Medicaid.

A new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation says hospitals in states with Medicaid expansion are reporting a significant decrease in uncompensated care and a boost from Medicaid revenue. “Overall,” the report said, “hospitals in Medicaid expansion states saw increased Medicaid discharges, increased Medicaid revenue, and decreased cost of care for the poor, while hospitals in non-expansion states saw a very small increase in Medicaid discharges, a decline in Medicaid revenue, and growth in cost of care to the poor.”

In past budget years, American Indian and Alaska Native programs have been able to get support from the appropriations committees, but in this cycle there will be less flexibility because of the instructions in the budget. The ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Nita Lowey from New York, said the “Majority’s allocations, which are based on the House budget resolution that passed on a party-line vote, are insufficient and fundamentally flawed.”

She said: “The Interior bill’s allocation paints a similar picture with an allocation that is $246 million below the FY 2015 enacted level. We will still have to cover the increased costs to combat deadly wild fires, provide contract support costs in the Indian Health Services, and prepare for Centennial anniversary of the National Park Service, all from an allocation below last year.”

This budget resolution would cut deeper than even the sequester. As Lowey said in a press release, “I think my colleagues on the other side generally agree that sequestration was a failure, and a return to those sequester-level caps threatens important defense and non-defense priorities alike.”

The Republicans have yet to identify specific spending numbers based on their budget targets.

No Democratic votes are required in either the House or the Senate to enact this budget resolution. The president does not need to sign the resolution, but he will need to sign into law any future appropriations based on the spending plan.

Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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