Participants at a First Alaskan Institute consider what the next 10,000 years should look like?

Participants at a First Alaskan Institute retreat look at what the next 10,000 years could be like. (Trahant photo)

MARK TRAHANT

What will Alaska look like in 10,000 years? Who will be here? What will they do? And, most important, what will be preserved from the past kilennium?

These are not easy questions. Even thinking about the next decade, let alone thousands of years, is interrupted by every crisis that requires attention. There is business to transact. Cell phones buzz. Unanswered emails compound. And, so, we think about the now, not the next.

What if we step back and only think about the future? We turn off our phones, don’t answer email, and ignore interruption.

The First Alaskans Institute recently gathered a group of people together for a week in Bethel to have that very conversation.  Elizabeth Medicine Crow said that very idea is a part of the institute’s vision and came from the founding board members. “I think intuitively it makes a lot of sense for Native people. But I also think for most people it’s really hard to wrap their arms around, ‘what does that mean? For 10,000 years.’ It’s really not so much of a mystery for us because we can actually turn around and look directly at our past because we’ve been here for longer than that. We know that as stewards of our time, on behalf of our people, that we have at minimum a trajectory of that much time to look forward to.”

First Alaskans President Elizabeth Medicine Crow and Law and Order Commission Chairman Troy Eid.

First Alaskans President Elizabeth Medicine Crow and Law and Order Commission Chairman Troy Eid.

Medicine Crow, who’s president of the institute, said it was a chance to convene a diverse gathering of people who were eager to think deeply about “where we’re going.”

“So it’s not just corporations, it’s not just tribes, it’s not just non-profits, it’s also artists, it’s elders, it’s young people, mothers and fathers, aunties and uncles, storytellers, performers, it was a real mix” she said. “It’s non-hierarchical. So it’s not just people who have a title. Leadership to us is our Native people who are stepping up to help our communities and to help our people.”

Medicine Crow is Tlingit and Haida from Kake. She told a story about a lesson she learned from Polynesian navigators. “The traditional practice of sailing by the stars requires that they set their bow looking forward but they are navigating from the stars behind them because from that they can know the direction their bow is going. I think that is such a powerful analogy about the way our ancestors think about time. And the way we should think about it, too.”

The long story that reflects the Alaska Native experience — or Native America’s for that matter — is mostly about the interruptions from the past century or two. So the current challenges are not the norm, certainly not over a 10,000 year history, but nonetheless require our attention to get back on course.

And some of this course correction requires immediate action. In less than fifteen years, for example, Alaska will have a higher percentage of Alaska Natives, Asian Americans, Hispanics and African Americans than white people. “The state is already super-diverse. It may not look or feel that way depending on where you’re from in the state but as a whole the state is really diverse. As we continue to march through time, especially for Alaska Native populations, most of our population is under the age of 25 and that birth rate is only increasing. So if you apply that to all the other populations, the same thing is happening, plus we’re having so many more people move up. What Alaska will look like on its face is going to be a lot different by the year 2040 than it does today.”

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This means new sources of political power and coalitions will be formed to deliver change in Alaska (and in so many other parts of the country). Medicine Crow said people felt a sense of power, a recognition that it already exists, ready to walk out the door and do something.

One conversation focused on ending sexual abuse and decided to find a way to create more involvement with the Men’s and Women’s houses. “That was so powerful for the participants from the houses,” Medicine Crow said. “But they came out of it knowing that it was something that was good for our community … to be able to talk about the issue and to really say, ‘enough is enough.’ That was really exciting to see because they were not waiting for someone to say, ‘We now deem you authorized to take care of this, this is not your territory,’ but rather, we’re all Native people, it’s all our responsibility and this is something we can do.”

What struck me about the Bethel gathering (and I was only there part of the time) was a sense of optimism about the future. The benefit of a 10,000 year horizon is that it makes every problem solvable because at the end of the arc is people who continue to live and survive in land of their ancestors.

The goal of the week was not a detailed strategic plan, but a framework for conversations that will continue “to make sure that we’re cultural distinct people. Not the same. Not Alaska Natives being the all the same. But culturally distinct societies of people. And these aren’t even my words,” Medicine Crow says with a smile. “They’re my grandfather’s words.”

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.

House Budget Committee report
House Budget Committee report

House Budget Committee report

MARK TRAHANT

The House Budget Committee unveiled its budget Tuesday — and the details are not good news for Indian Country.

First: The budget calls for more spending cuts than any previous Republican budget, some $5.5 trillion over the next decade. The pay off would be a balanced budget. But most of those cuts fall into “domestic” spending and that’s the source of most of the federal dollars for Indian Country.

Second: The budget repeals the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. “Obamacare is not working for America’s families, doctors or employers. It is imperative that the President’s health care law be repealed so that we can start over and make targeted, common sense reforms that will improve access to affordable health care choices,” the House Budget committee said.

“This budget repeals Obamacare in its entirety – including all of the tax increases, regulations, subsidies, and mandates” the House Budget committee said. That includes the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

The proposal would also transform Medicaid into a block grant program, giving the money directly to states. Medicaid now represents some 20 percent of the Indian health system funding.

In a language that’s not English, the report said, “the budget repeals Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion so the program is able to focus on its core mission of serving those in our communities most in need of assistance.” Translation: We’re cutting insurance for those who can least afford to pay. This is nuts. The Medicaid expansion has been the key to making health insurance more available. Since the enactment of the Affordable Care Act there has been a 35 percent decline in the uninsured, according to new data from the Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly 17 million people have insurance coverage under the law. The House budget offers no replacement provisions for those who would lose their health insurance coverage.

This report is full of Orwellian language. Another of my favorites is this line: “We do not invite the across-the-board sequestration cut that would occur if we were to simply budget or appropriate a defense spending level that is above the existing cap mandated under current law.” In other words, the sequester applies to every other part of government, but not Defense. As I mentioned in my last post, this is an attempt to balance the interests of those in Congress who want deep spending cuts with those who want more money for defense.

The budget does not actually appropriate dollars. That is still the job of appropriations committees. But this document would be an overall limit to spending and would force the folks writing budgets to keep their numbers below the caps. This budget is similar to Paul Ryan’s recent approaches to spending and House Democrats said that would mean a cut of at least $375 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a $637 million reduction for the Indian Health Service. But that’s just in direct appropriations. If you reduce Medicaid that could trim as much as a billion dollars from Indian health programs.

The Senate will unveil its budget later this week as well. The goal is to have a budget enacted before April 15. The Senate’s budget will not require a supermajority, by rule it cannot be filibustered. So this budget will reflect the will of the Republican majority in both Houses. The budget still will face a likely veto, especially since it includes a repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Mark Trahant holds 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 freeTrahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

Capitol

MARK TRAHANT

The battle over federal spending is about to get ugly. Real ugly.

It’s been a Republican promise to balance the federal budget within a decade. And in an election campaign that promise look soooo easy. Cut a penny here, another there, and somehow, magically, revenues match spending and there’s a balanced budget.  Since Republicans now control both the House and the Senate this should be a done deal, right?

But that’s not how it happens in the real world. In the federal system there are all kinds of fiscal obligations that move through the system automatically. If a person is eligible for Medicare or Medicaid … then the money is spent. Congress doesn’t have to appropriate a cent. The automatic side of the budget is growing because Baby Boomers are older and drawing more benefits such as Social Security.

But that’s only the beginning of this complex spending debate.

The money spent on American Indians and Alaska Natives is a tiny fraction, far less than one percent of the overall budget. Yet every idea to cut federal spending ends up significantly impacting tribal communities, making it impossible for tribal leaders to plan ahead, and disrupting ongoing initiatives ranging from education to economic development. The president’s budget would benefit Indian Country.

And while there are supporters of Indian Country initiatives in Congress, the bigger issue is the overall budget and how much pressure there will be to trim spending from all federal agencies.

The president’s budget does address the deficit. The Congressional Budget Office reports that the spending plan would have “no net effect” on the deficit in 2015 but would reduce deficits between 2016 and 2025.

But that’s not enough for those in Congress who demand a balanced budget. And even the sequester was not enough to do that.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, told a Senate panel that “the reality is that balancing the budget for any sustained period is probably not in our immediate future.”  The budget would have to shrink by $5.5 trillion in ten years or eight times the size of the sequester plan and 65 times the Ryan-Murray budget deal (which didn’t last long).

You might think those numbers would be big enough, deep enough, to scare off even committed Republicans. And that’s true — when it comes to Defense spending.

Defense News quoted Sen. John McCain saying he will do “whatever it takes to avert sequester on defense. I will not agree to any budget that does not stop sequestration. We just had testimony this morning that will put the lives of American men and women in uniform in danger if we continue with sequestration.”

So that’s fight number one. Republicans who want to live up to a balanced budget pledge versus Republicans who want to end the sequester — at least as far as military spending. In a lot of ways this will be a contest of wills between the House and the Senate.

So which budget will prevail? The president’s budget — at least in terms of overall spending — has no chance. Congressional budgets will be unveiled shortly and then the fight begins and we can start to wonder what kind of last minute deal will be needed to keep the government operational.

As I said, the battle over federal spending is about to get ugly.

Mark Trahant holds 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.

A new coalition? A group of Republicans working with Democrats could be good news for Indian Country in this Congress. (Photo from Speaker’s web page.)

MARK TRAHANT

When I was a young reporter the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Idaho went through a crisis. Four delegates of the seven-member council were recalled; that meant that the governing body could not get a quorum to move forward.  We joked then about how rough it was at “Fort Recall.” But the politics eventually resolved and tribal government continued.

Over the years this same narrative surfaces from time to time in Indian Country. One side or the other refuses to do business and the process stops. Enterprises, even casinos, are shuttered and tribal paychecks get interrupted and the situation just gets “messy.”

When I only covered tribal councils I thought this situation was unique to Indian Country. I wondered why we were so divided, why we could not conduct basic business?

That’s funny now.

Because I realize that our situations — messy as they seemed at the time — do get resolved. The divisions end and folks move on. And they are not unusual.

This messy way of doing business surfaces in all sorts of governments — counties, state legislatures, and, of course, Congress. (Not to mention countries.) It’s human nature.

Our current Congress is human nature amplified.

House Republicans have been promising to strip funding from the Department of Homeland Security to reverse President Obama’s executive orders on immigration. But the House doesn’t get to call all the shots — the Senate has a say, too. And in the Senate it takes 60 votes to end a filibuster. That means if Democrats stick together they can prevent legislation from even getting a vote.

So Speaker of the House John Boehner attempted to patch this difference over with a three-week funding bill — only to have that idea voted down by his own party members.

The end result on March 3 was the speaker let the “clean” funding bill come to the House, the same measure that passed the Senate, and that captured enough support from seventy-five Republicans and all of the Democrats and became law.

On CBS News’ Face the Nation, Speaker of the House John Boehner put it in perspective when he was asked if he liked his job. “Most days,” he said. “Friday wasn’t all that fun, but most days. It was just messy,” he said. “And I’m not into messy. I enjoy being in a legislative body. I enjoy all the personalities. And I’ve got a lot of them.”

But do these personalities change the structure of Congress? Will it take a combination of united Democrats and a smaller band of Republicans to actually govern the country? This is not unprecedented. It happens in state legislatures from time to time.

One of the key brokers in all of this is Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, and a member of the Chickasaw Tribe. He told The Associated Press recently that similar coalitions might be required for other tough battles ahead, including a debate about increasing the nation’s debt limit. This issue requires action because the government (meaning Congress) has already spent the money. Now it’s only a question of paying it back, not new spending. The Bipartisan Policy Center says on March 16 the Treasury Department will begin using what’s called “extraordinary measures” to meet those obligations. And Congress will need to act before the fourth quarter so the government can continue to write checks for Veterans’ benefits, Medicare, Social Security, interest on the debt, and to pay other bills.

So a governing coalition is required. Cole said one way to think about Boehner is that he saved the hard-core Republicans from themselves because he frees them to take absolute positions without the actuall consequences of governing. (That’s tasked to the 75 Republicans and House Democrats.)

It’s hard to tell if this sort of governing coalition will continue to work. It would be good for Indian Country, no, great for Indian Country, if it could. Indian Country’s best allies from both parties are in this congressional majority.

And if this coalition doesn’t work? Well, then we will see what messy really looks like.

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.

I was an early adopter of iWeb. It was easy to use and I could design my pages and posts with ease. But Mac decided sometime ago to no longer support the software. So I knew I had to come up with a new plan. I have been experimenting with several tools but finally decided to learn Word Press. (Now to update Marktrahant.org and book sites.)

This is my first attempt. I’ll refine this going forward.

What I wanted was the ability to post easily from my phone or tablet. That should mean a lot more content than just a weekly column.

Thanks for reading Trahant Reports

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I have been writing for years about the success — well, at least mostly — of Native American voters. During recent presidential election cycles the turnout from Indian Country is inspiring, helping to swing elections from Arizona to North Dakota.

And just last year Alaska Native voters helped dump a hostile state governor and replaced him with Gov. Bill Walker, an ally, as well as electing Byron Mallott, a Tlingit leader, as the Lt. Governor.

But do you want to know something really cool?

The demographic shift that reflects Native voting power is only beginning. What’s more the landscape is changing faster than expected and should bring about dramatic changes in states as “red” as Alaska and Oklahoma.

Four key states for American Indian and Alaska Native voters.

Four key states for American Indian and Alaska Native voters.

A new report looks at the numbers and the results are stunning. In 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president the population of the United States was 80 percent white. Today that proportion stands at 63 percent and it’s likely to be less than 44 percent by 2060. The report, “The States of Change: Demographics and Democracy” is a collaboration of the liberal Center for American Progress, the conservative American Enterprise Institute and demographer William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution. One of the goals is to “document and analyze the challenges to democracy posed by the rapid demographic evolution from the 1970s to 2060.”

One lens that is particularly revealing: States where people of color are the majority. The report said: “Right now, there are only four majority-minority states: California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas. But with the ongoing demographic transformation of the country, our States of Change projections find that this will become more and more common.” So in five years Maryland and Nevada will be in that category. Then by 2060 the number of majority-minority states will reach 22, including seven of the currently largest states, making up about two-thirds of the country’s population.

American Indians and Alaska Natives are very much a part of this new majority because we are younger and growing faster than an older white population.

Alaska is the ideal example. The report says the state will be majority, minority as soon as 2030. Alaska Native voters, Asian Americans, Hispanics and African Americans will make up more than half the population then and by 2040 nearly 60 percent.

Another state that’s about to change dramatically is Oklahoma. That state’s white population dropped 20 percentage points — from 87 percent to 67 percent — between 1980 and 2014. This means Oklahoma is likely to be a majority-minority state by 2045 and should be only 43 percent white by 2060.

Usually I am not please when I see demographic tables that lump the Native American category into the “other” category. But this report clearly identifies Native Americans as a significant development in that category. The report finds that South Dakota, Montana and North Dakota are also seeing a rapid increase in the Native population — and potential voters.

So what do these trends mean for Indian Country?

We are going to have more say. Or else.

Political parties and politicians must compete for American Indian and Alaska Native voters if they want to remain competitive. So it will not be enough to say that Native issues are a federal concern. Soon each state with a new majority of voters will need to adapt, being a better partner with tribal governments.  The new voting majority means a better shot at Medicaid expansion to support the Indian health system or to improve state funding for tribal community colleges (a hot issue in Montana right now) because legislators are going to need to address these issues if they want to remain viable.

Of course none of these demographic trends represent a sure thing. Fact is we still have a gap between the Native population and the number of eligible voters (something the report says is shrinking). And Indian Country doesn’t turnout as many voters as is even possible now. But then again, being in the majority might change that. There’s nothing better than winning elections.

Mark Trahant holds 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.

February 19, 2015

Do Alaska Native tribes posses sovereignty?

A simple question. And, in Indian Country, the answer is usually a quick “yes.” Of course. But in Alaska just asking this question is an act of defiance. The state and many of its citizens have assumed, planned, and operated on the premise that tribal powers no longer exist, so the state is free to impose its will on Alaska Natives.

A simple question that’s framed by dueling narratives. One story says the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act — ANCSA — was a termination bill that should have extinguished tribal sovereignty. The other counters saying ANCSA was primarily a land settlement. A land bill that did create native corporations but did not answer questions about governance.

A simple question with multiple answers. Alaska, however, has stuck to a refusal to recognize tribal authority and has spent millions of dollars on litigation. In one such case, a federal court recognized tribal communities’ authority to put land into trust, removing lands from state control and a recognition of Indian Country (similar to reservations in other states). The state appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.

Then in November a new governor was elected. Bill Walker, an independent, and he promised a new way of doing business. A Walker transition team report said: “Where no tools exist, they must be created, such as establishing a mechanism (e.g., legislation, constitutional amendment, etc.) where Alaska tribes – as sovereign nations they are – negotiate and partner with the state of Alaska on an officially recognized, permanent government-to -government basis.”

But on Feb. 9, the state of Alaska fell into its old patterns. It asked the appeals for a six-month stay to rethink its policy followed by some sort of status report. The state said: “The central issue in this appeal is purely legal: whether the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act precludes the creation of new trust land in Alaska. However the decision whether to continue to pursue a judicial remedy, seek congressional action, or determine and implementing strategies for integrating trust land into Alaska’s ownership pattern — with the resulting impacts to state regulatory jurisdiction — are policy matters entrusted to a state administration that was inaugurated only a few weeks ago. As the state’s chief executive, the governor has the authority and obligation to frame state policy.”

I can think of a lot of governors who like the notion of absolute state authority, especially when it conflicts with tribal communities. But the hashtag would read: #NeverGonnaHappen. Native Americans have a right, even an obligation, to govern ourselves.

“Why now is the state choosing to continue its hostile litigation stance against tribes in Alaska instead of attempting to understand the potential benefits that would come to the state if it were to stop fighting and start working with tribes and start working with tribes and assisting those tribal communities in achieving the goals of public safety and issues that have been recurring problems in the state for years?” asks Heather R. Kendall-Miller, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, representing villages and individuals who filed the suit. “We believe the land into trust option is one very strong tool that can and should be used to enhance tribal autonomy.”

Last year’s federal Law and Order Commission report was particularly blunt about the state’s role in law enforcement. The “problems in Alaska are so severe and the number of Alaska Native communities affected so large, that continuing to exempt the state from national policy change is wrong. It sets Alaska apart from the progress that has become possible in the rest of Indian Country. The public safety issues in Alaska — and the law and policy at the root of those problems — beg to be addressed. They are no longer just Alaska’s issues. They are national issues.”

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act might have been the largest land treaty ever. But the act clearly did not resolve the issues of tribal authority (or a host of other issues). And now the weight of history is coming down on the side of Alaska’s tribes. So forget asking “do Alaska Native tribes posses sovereignty?” Instead demand to know when will the state figure out that a partnership with tribes is better for everyone involved? As it’s been said, the answer is not an Alaska issue. It’s a national issue.

Mark Trahant holds 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.

February 12, 2015

Congress has recognized the importance and the value of tribal colleges. A Senate resolution sets Feb. 8 as the “National Tribal Colleges and Universities Week.”

There are 32 fully accredited tribal colleges and universities on some 75 campuses across the country, reaching thousands of students, delivering higher education for a fraction of the cost of other public institutions.

“All across America we have teachers helping students in some of the poorest, most remote corners of our nation. We have students who are committed to persevering, have been raised with the cultural strength of their tribe, and are determined to shine brighter to make this world a better place,” said U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, and sponsor of the resolution. “In North Dakota, I’ve been awestruck by the commitment I’ve seen from our educators and staff at all five of our tribal colleges to engaging with our Native kids – to showing them that they can achieve higher and grow stronger both personally and professionally.”

But when it comes to public policy, tribal colleges do not get the resources required.

A few weeks ago, The Atlantic published a critical report about tribal colleges and called them a “poor return on more than $100 million a year in federal money.” And, a top line of a hundred million sounds like a lot of money. The primary complaint was that the schools’ graduation rates are lower than other institutions.

But here is the rub: The same report acknowledged how much less is being spent on Native students. “Congress sets tribal college funding and is authorized by federal law to give schools a maximum of $8,000 per student. But in reality the schools get $5,850 per student on average. And that funding can be used only for Native American students; nearly a fifth of those enrolled don’t identify as Native,” wrote Sarah Butrymowicz for The Atlantic. “Howard University, a historically black college, by comparison averages more than $20,000 per student from the federal government.”

And that’s just the beginning. A report by the Century Foundation estimates the total cost for a community college averages $10,242 per student.

But The Atlantic piece seemed to blame tribal colleges themselves for inadequate resources — and a performance metric based only on graduation rates.

Fortunately there is another way to look at this issue. The Montana Legislature is considering legislation that would boost funding non-Indian students who attend tribal colleges on a per student basis. A bill by Rep. Susan Webber, D-Browning, would match the amount of funding that state community colleges receive on a per capita basis. Under current state law tribal colleges — seven based in Montana — receive about half as much per student as community colleges. Non-Indian students make up nearly a third of the student body at Montana’s tribal colleges. As Blackfeet Community College President Billie Jo Kipp put it: “Compared to what Dawson Community College gets, we get $3,000. They get $6,740. We provide similar services, we provide similar—if not more—training programs, workforce development programs, to non-Natives as well.”

Tribal colleges remain, in my mind, an unfair bargain. A bargain because they deliver higher education at a much lower cost per student. And an unfair bargain because they should not have to do that. There should be the resources available to get the job done.

Tribal colleges serve another critical role. Let me explain. If you look at the economy of a local community, pick the town, you’ll find that there are often four pillars of activity that create jobs. These are: government, health care, higher education and private sector. We know that government (tribal and federal) plays a huge role in any reservation economy.   It’s the same with Indian health (now Indian Country’s single largest employer). In communities with strong tribal colleges, that becomes a third leg for economic development because there’s an infrastructure surrounding a campus that creates good gigs ranging from professors to maintenance workers. The fourth leg, the private sector, is usually the weakest link for a lot of reasons.

Tribal colleges already contribute to a reservation economy. Economists call these “anchor institutions” because of their payroll and other infrastructure building characteristics. (In fact, if you look at just about any community, the largest employers are hospitals and universities.)

I also see a role for tribal colleges that’s growing more important because higher education has the power to generate ideas that turn into something else, especially private sector jobs. Yes, graduation rates are important and should be improved. But that’s just the beginning of what a tribal college does. Mostly, I think, these are institutions where ideas grow. It takes good ideas to create permanent, sustainable tribal communities.

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.

February 5, 2015

The House of Representatives voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act on February 3. Then, this is not new. The House has voted nearly sixty times to either revoke the law or to make huge changes. But this time the House and the Senate are in Republican hands. So that means what was a symbolic act now has the potential of becoming law.

Well, maybe.

The Affordable Care Act is like a national soap opera that should rivet any audience. Will the law survive? What sort of challenges does it face legally and politically? And, most important, what does this daytime drama mean to Indian Country?

Here is the story so far.

Turn back to to 1974. President Gerald Ford signed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act into law, a measure that modernized the federal delivery of health care in Indian Country. But that law had an expiration date; it needed another act of Congress to renew it. And that did not happen. Congress let the bill lapse despite repeated attempts. That’s where the story takes a turn. The whole health care reform debate was heating up and folks in Congress decided to roll the Indian Health Care Improvement Act into the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. This language was shortened to the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare” — and it’s now the law of the land. The Indian health provisions were made permanent so future Congresses would not have to renew them.

The Affordable Care Act had other benefits to Indian Country. The law improved funding channels for Indian health facilities, a source of money that’s growing during lean budget years. Next year’s Indian Health Service budget estimates more than $1.1 billion collected from Medicaid, Medicare, Veterans Health Administration and private insurance.

But Republicans have been adamantly against the Affordable Care Act. Four years ago a Republican House was elected and that body started voting over and over to repeal the law.  But nothing ever happened because the Democratic controlled Senate ignored the actions in the House.

But like any good soap opera there are new characters joining the story. The Supreme Court could strike down part of the law, causing a lot of confusion. And the Senate is now run by Republicans who will definitely consider the House legislation to repeal the law. This will not be easy. The Senate usually needs 60 votes in order to pass legislation (stopping the threat of a filibuster). And there are not 60 votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

That’s another twist. Democrats were short 60 votes back in 2010 — so they turned to an arcane process called budget reconciliation that allowed the legislation to pass with a simple majority, or 51 votes. Now many Republicans are asking their party leaders to do the same thing and use the budget reconciliation to repeal the Affordable Care Act. That idea would probably work if there was a Republican in the White House. But you can bet that President Barack Obama will veto any attempt to roll back his signature health care legislation. So that means Congress would need a two-thirds majority to override a presidential veto. There are not nearly enough votes in either the House or the Senate to do that.

But many Republicans see repeal (enacted or not) as an important statement that will define the 2016 election campaigns.

If Republicans find a way to repeal the Affordable Care Act that would raise new questions and chaos. For example what happens to those people who’ve purchased insurance now or who signed up for the expanded Medicaid programs? Would people lose coverage and get nothing in return?

The questions for Indian Country are troubling, too. What happens to the Indian Health Care Improvement Act? Or how will the Indian health system replace money from Medicaid and other sources opened up through the Affordable Care Act?

A few Republican Senators have started a “framework” about what kinds of alternative law they would pass to replace the Affordable Care Act. Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Finance Committee, said in a Senate floor speech:  “Our plan rests on four simple principles. First: Repeal Obamacare – with all its costly mandates, taxes, and regulations – in its entirety. Second: Reduce costs by taking the government out of the equation, and, instead, empowering consumers to make choices about their own health care. Third: Provide common-sense consumer protections to protect individuals with pre-existing conditions. And, finally: Reform our broken Medicaid system by giving states more flexibility to provide the best coverage for their citizens.”

There are key issues here for Indian Country. First, the Indian health system is not part of the debate. It must be. Any repeal of the Affordable Care Act is also a repeal of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. Second, there is no easy way to eliminate “government” from the Indian health system. And, finally, a reform of Medicaid, especially one that grants more power to states, will reduce health care funding for Indian health facilities. Already nearly half the Indian health system is shortchanged by the states that refuse to expand Medicaid. This is a real problem.

Cue the organ music. This daytime drama has many twists and turns ahead. But the story’s ending should be simple: the United States promised American Indians and Alaska Natives healthcare. The only question should be, “how will that promise be delivered?” Stay tuned.

Mark Trahant holds 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.

January 27, 2015

This is the Climate Moment. A possible turning point.

Consider the massive storm that resulted in a state of emergency throughout much of New England with temperatures in the teens, gusty winds, and snow measured by the foot not the inch. We know from the science that climate change will make storms more severe and more common.

It’s also the moment when the Obama administration stepped up to preserve the environment  — as well as protect Alaska Native communities — by limiting future oil and gas development in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and along the Coastal Plain.

A White House blog put it this way: “This far northern region is known as “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins” to Alaska Native communities. The Refuge sustains the most diverse array of wildlife in the entire Arctic — home not only to the Porcupine caribou, but to polar bears, gray wolves, and muskoxen. Bird species from the Coastal Plain migrate to all 50 states of the country — meaning that no matter where you live, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is part of your landscape.”

But pretty much all of official Alaska saw this issue differently. On Capitol Hill, Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski  said the administration has “effectively declared war on Alaska. That’s my view of it.”

“It’s a one-two-three kick to the gut of Alaska’s economy,” she said, adding that the governor told the Secretary of Interior that Alaska has a budget hole of about $3.5 billion — a problem that will be made worse without more oil production.

And this is an odd time for Alaska. The state budgeted for oil to be selling at more than a hundred dollars a barrel — and now the price is less than half that. This is a state that an oil and gas trade group brags that 92 percent of the state’s revenues come from that single industry.

So Alaska has had a grand old time with its oil money. Instead of a personal income tax, Alaskans receive their version of a tribal per capita every year. In fact Alaska ranks second lowest in the country in overall taxes (Wyoming is first) but that figure is skewed because nearly all of the money comes from corporate taxes. There is no income tax or sales tax.

Perhaps this serious budget shortage might actually force Alaska citizens to contribute to their state and pay taxes the way, oh, 49 other states and the District of Columbia do.

But let’s talk climate. Neither the White House nor the Interior Department cited climate change as their reason for limiting development in Alaska.

Then again, a new analysis published in Nature in January said that more fossil fuels will have to be left in the ground in order to prevent further damage from climate change. The piece said that known reserves of coal, oil and gas, including the Canadian tar sands, all Arctic oil and gas, cannot be developed and still keep temperatures under current limits. The authors wrote: “Our results suggest that, globally, a third of oil reserves,half of gas reserves and over 80 per cent of current coal reserves should remain unused from 2010 to 2050 in order to meet the target.”

That means no new Arctic oil and gas developments. No more tar sands. And, by extension, no Keystone XL pipeline.

What’s interesting about the research is how specific it is about developing Arctic resources.

The authors, Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins from University College in London, estimate “100 billion barrels of oil (including natural gas liquids) and 5 trillion cubic meters of gas in fields within the Arctic Circle that are not being produced as of 2010.”

That production alone could tip the globe and warm more than is considered safe. “The results indicate to us that all Arctic resources should be classified as unburnable. To conclude, these results demonstrate that a stark transformation in our understanding of fossil fuel availability is necessary. Although there have previously been fears over the scarcity of fossil fuels in a climate-constrained world this is no longer a relevant concern: large portions of the reserve base and an even greater proportion of the resource base should not be produced if the temperature rise is to remain below 2 degrees” above pre-industrial levels.

The president’s action is not final. Congress would have to do that. But this action means the Interior Department can manage the lands as if Congress had acted. (Congress could reverse Interior, but remember in the Senate that means finding 60 votes. That’s not likely to happen.)

Is this the Climate Moment? The turning point? There is a lot of work ahead, but the Obama administration is acting as if the answers are a “yes.”

Mark Trahant holds 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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