Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

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Former state Sen. Dino Rossi, a Republican, is running for Congress in Washington’s 8th district. (Official photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Dino Rossi has an interesting political legacy. He was for several weeks the Gov.-elect for Washington state. Then after much counting (and recounting) Democrat Christine Gregoire took the lead by 129 votes and was she sworn in as governor on January 12, 2005.

Since then Rossi has run for governor again, the U.S. Senate, and was recently appointed to a state Senate seat to fill out the remaining term of a member who had died.

Rossi is Tlingit. One of his first jobs was working for Bernie Whitebear at Seattle’s United Indians of All Tribes.

It’s interesting how some candidates make their tribal affiliation prominent and weigh in on issues that impact Indian Country. That would not be Rossi. But he doesn’t shy away (as many politicians do) from the conversation. It’s just not his focus. He has a fascinating background. From his transition team biography: “Dino’s mother, Eve, came from Alaska. She was half Irish, half Tlingit Alaskan Native. She’d married in Alaska and had five children, but the marriage became difficult. To get away from the situation, Eve took her kids to Seattle. For a time the family lived in public housing in Holly Park while Eve waitressed during the day and went to beauty school at night.” His mother met and married John Rossi and the family eventually moved to Mountlake Terrace. Back to the bio: “The Rossi kids were raised on a school-teacher’s salary. They didn’t have a lot of money, but their house was full of love.”

If you read his story, you’d think it was a classic liberal narrative. Public housing. Government works. But no. Rossi favors the bootstrap side of the story, a working family that raised itself up. He has always run as a conservative candidate. That said. In his Senate role he was willing to reach across party lines and come up with a deal.

I remember a Seattle P-I Editorial Board with then Sen. Rossi where he talked about the shortage of funds for higher education. But then, he suggested, book as much spending as possible on the capital side of the ledger. That’s where serious dollars could be found, he suggested. Creative.

Or as his bio puts it: “In the state Senate, Dino became a leader on budget issues. He eventually became Chairman of the Senate Ways & Means Committee – which writes the state budget – in 2003, when the State faced the largest dollar deficit in history. Dino was able to work across party lines and balance the budget without raising taxes and while still protecting the most vulnerable. Dino also focused on other issues: he spearheaded legislation to punish drunk drivers and child abusers; he worked to fund the Issaquah salmon hatchery; he secured funding for Hispanic/Latino health clinics, and he championed funding for the developmentally disabled community.”

Washington’s 8th District poses a lot of the same challenges that Rossi faced when he ran for governor; the demographics of the district (like the state) are more more diverse and liberal than a few years ago. But he enters this race with one advantage: He will be the only Republican while there will be a half-dozen Democrats.  Washington has a top-two primary, but the winning Democrat will have to build name ID and consolidate support, something Rossi will already have with Republicans.

The seat is now held by Rep. Dave Reichert, a Republican.

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Native American congressional candidates. Interactive map and database.

#NativeVote18 notes:

There are now seven #NativeVote18 candidates for Congress. Three Republicans, Rossi as well as Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole and Rep. Markwayne Mullin. And four Democrats, Carol Surveyor in Utah, Debra Haaland in New Mexico, J.D. Colbert in Texas, and Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols (who’s challenging Mullin).  So far.

I have updated my #NativeVote18 interactive map and database, including early financial reports. (Speaking of that: I have started working on this cycle’s legislative database … if you know of candidates, please let me know.)

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Haaland endorsed by Navajo Nation Vice President

New Mexico candidate Debra Haaland picked up an endorsement by Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez. He wrote: “Let’s honor the voice and rightful place at the table by electing the first American Indian woman to Congress. Deb is a champion for all citizens of New Mexico and will represent us with dignity on Capitol Hill.”

The “first” remains a powerful argument. Here we are in 2017 and Congress has never seated a Native American woman ever. As a Haaland fundraising page puts it: “Congress has never heard a voice like mine.” She is a Democrat.

 

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Carol Surveyor, a Democrat, running for Congress in Utah. (Campaign photo)

Surveyor writes about her mother’s murder

On her Facebook page, Utah candidate Carol Surveyor  tells a powerful, personal story about violence against women. “One has only to live on a reservation or speak to members of the communities to know that rates of missing and murdered women and girls are high. Nearly every Native family has a story of a female relative who is missing, murdered, or whose murder has gone unsolved,” she writes.

“So when my mother was murdered on November 30, 2015 four days after Thanksgiving I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t stop thinking about what were the last words I said to her, did I tell her I loved her, did she know. A week later on a Monday December 7, 2015 18 days before Christmas we buried my mother. I saw her white coffin lowered into the ground. As my mother’s bags that she use to carry with her when she came to visit were also lowered into the ground with her I felt my heart break.”

She writes: “My mother, My mother’s teachings of resilence is what got me this far.” Read the whole post.

This is exactly why it’s so important for there to be representation for all in Congress — including Native American women. We know there is a problem. We need more data and we need solutions. And that cannot be done without more voices where decisions are made.

Surveyor is campaigning as a Democrat.

ICYMI: My first audio election special is on iTunes or Soundcloud. Download here. 

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 do so. Just credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com #IndigenousNewsWire #NativeVote18

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Medicaid has worked under the Affordable Care Act, reducing the number of uninsured in Indian Country. (Kaiser Family Foundation)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

First: A fantasy. Wouldn’t it be cool if once, just once, there was a debate in Congress that could only be decided by a vote that benefits Native people? I don’t know. Something like, “I won’t vote for any bill unless it fulfills the treaty obligations that the United States has promised Native people.” It could happen, right?

Well the current Senate debate on health care has a twist on this pipe dream. States are complaining about the burden, that’s right, the burden of Native American health care. So here’s the deal now: When an eligible Native American gets services through the Indian Health system, the cost is a 100 percent federal obligation. But, if that person or family is on Medicaid they could also get care from any provider. In that case the state would have to pay its share of the cost as it does for any other citizen. 

As the Kaiser Family Foundation points out: “Just as with other eligible individuals, AIANs who meet state eligibility standards are entitled to Medicaid coverage in the state in which they reside. AIANs may qualify for Medicaid regardless of whether they are a member of a federally-recognized Tribe, whether they live on or off a reservation, and whether they receive services (or are eligible to receive services) at an IHS- or Tribally-operated hospital or clinic. AIANs with Medicaid can access care through all providers who accept Medicaid for all Medicaid covered benefits. As such, they have access to a broader array of services and providers than those who rely solely on IHS services for care. Moreover, Medicaid has special eligibility rules and provides specific consumer protections to AIANs.”

The Graham-Cassidy plan would change that by making this cost a 100 percent federal obligation. States would be off the hook.

This is where it gets screwy. There are legitimate state concerns — basically it’s a complicated maze to figure out a patient’s path and how the money flows. But it’s still a benefit for states because Native people are citizens and so a full-federal match for most costs is a net gain.

South Dakota (a state that did not expand Medicaid) would gain $795 million from a block grant, but would still lose a significant share of its health care funding between 2020 and 2026, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But (and I can’t believe I am writing this sentence) Sen. Mike Rounds told South Dakota Public Radio that the state would get a “large chunk of funds would cover 100 percent of the healthcare costs for Native Americans who receive Medicaid. Right now, the Affordable Care Act requires a state match.”

This is a fraction of what the state will lose — so this is a straight-faced claim that Native health care is a burden. (Remember this cost is only for tribal citizens who do not use Indian Health Service, a small slice of the population.)

South Dakota is not alone. A state legislative report in Arizona estimated that the state will lose a third of its Medicaid funding ($3.8 billion now, $4.9 billion by 2020). But according to the Capitol Media Services of the Arizona Daily Star, Gov. Doug Ducey dismisses those losses because the numbers are not from an independent review. Yet there is not enough time for the Senate to get a Congressional Budget Office assessment by the September 30 deadline. So this is all being made up on the fly.

“Christina Corieri, the governor’s health policy advisor, said one of those provisions would free the state of its financial obligations to share the cost when Native Americans get care at non-Indian Health Service facilities,” the Arizona Daily Star said. Corieri “could not say what that number would save Arizona other than ‘it’s a very large number.'”

Seriously?

There are roughly 130,000 Native Americans in Arizona on Medicaid, about 6 percent of the state’s version of Medicaid, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System. And of that, we’re talking about a subset, those who choose to go outside of the Indian health system. It’s just not a very large number. Period.

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 / TrahantReports.com

 

 

 

 

 

Trahant Reports

The Kalinago Territory in Dominica took a direct hit from Hurricane Maria.  The indigenous territory (formerly known as the Caribs) is on the remote eastern Atlantic side of the island. There have been no communications from the tribal community.

The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency said Wednesday that it was using a helicopter to assess damage across the island nation: “Of particular concern for CDEMA was the Kalinago Territory between Castle Bruce and Atkinson where the houses are not particularly resilient.”

Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit posted on his Facebook page: “Initial reports are of widespread devastation. So far we have lost all what money can buy and replace. My greatest fear for the morning is that we will wake to news of serious physical injury and possible deaths as a result of likely landslides triggered by persistent rains.

“So, far the winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with. The roof to my own official residence was among the first to go and this apparently triggered an avalanche of torn away roofs in the city and the countryside … We will need help, my friend, we will need help of all kinds.”

Early relief efforts and supplies have been directed toward the island’s cities, mostly coming from Barbados. The International Red Cross reports: “Most of the main roads were impassable and several bridges were blocked or damaged. The provision of essential services (water, electricity) has been disrupted, and landline and mobile phone service is intermittent. The agricultural sector and consequently livelihoods has been significantly impacted due to crop losses. As of 1 September 2015, the National Emergency Operations Centre has confirmed 11 dead and 23 people have been reported missing. ”

“A band of torrential rain caused by the system resulted in the 6 to 8 inches of rainfall in less than twelve hours and triggered massive flooding and several landslides,” according to the Red Cross. “Families have lost their homes to the damage incurred from flooding and landslides, which has also resulted in the loss of lives, personal belongings, and total destruction of subsistence crops.”

Good Hope, a community just south of the Kalinago Territory, was “in dire need of water,” according to the Red Cross.

The island’s capital is on the other side of the mountains from Kalinago Territory.  Some 3,000 tribal members live in the territory. The tribe recently returned to its own name, instead of the one set by Spanish explorers, the Caribe.

More than 70,000 people live on the island. Dominica was already recovering from another major storm, Erika, in 2015. — Mark Trahant

 

 

 

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Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski could once again be a deciding vote on the future of health care. (Senate photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

You have to wonder why the latest Senate Republican plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act did not get written with one senator in mind, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Yet the bill by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) is more conservative than previous approaches. It has lots of wish-list boxes to tick, no money for Planned Parenthood, big tax cuts, and its spends way fewer federal dollars. The bill only needs 50 votes to pass but that must happen before the end of this month.

Medicaid would become a block grant program that states could design (and pay for). So it would likely disappear. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that federal funding for health care would be reduced by $299 billion in 2027 alone with cuts impacting all states. And here’s a fun fact: Big states that expanded Medicaid would be hit harder. A lot harder.

Why 2027? That’s the year block grants disappear.  Graham and Cassidy argue that only a temporary block grant would be allowed under the rules of debate. So no “new” thing. Congress would have to meet “pay for” standards to replace that after 2027; meaning there would be cuts in other federal programs equal to the new spending.

And, like other Republican plans, this one would add significantly to the ranks of the uninsured. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates 32 million would lose coverage. States could also end essential benefits, coverage of pre-existing conditions, and allow companies to charge people significantly more when they’re ill. (Health insurance coverage that you cannot afford is the same as no insurance.)

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“Like the earlier version of the Cassidy-Graham plan, the revised plan would disproportionately harm certain states. The block grant would not only cut overall funding for the Medicaid expansion and marketplace subsidies but also, starting in 2021, redistribute the reduced federal funding across states, based on their share of low-income residents rather than their actual spending needs. In general, over time, the plan would punish states that have adopted the Medicaid expansion or been more successful at enrolling low- and moderate-income people in marketplace coverage under the ACA,” the CBPP reports. So by 2026, the “20 states facing the largest funding cuts in percentage terms would be Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. These states’ block grant funding would be anywhere from 35 percent to nearly 60 percent below what they would receive in federal Medicaid expansion and/or marketplace subsidy funding under current law.”

A lot to like in Alaska, right? Murkowski said she is undecided until she sees the Congressional Budget Office assessment. She told CNN: “I will use the governor’s words,” Murkowski said, referring to Alaska Gov. Bill Walker. “He said, ‘I understand that a block grant gives me increased flexibility, but if I don’t have the dollars to help implement the flexibility, that doesn’t help us much.’ So, we are both trying to figure out how those dollars fall.”

Graham-Cassidy plan continues the 100 percent reimbursement to states for patients served by the Indian Health Service and it adds an increase in the federal match to 100 percent for medical assistance provided by non-Indian Health Service providers for tribal enrollees. The idea is more American Indians and Alaska Natives should take their business away from IHS facilities. Let’s be clear about this: It would drain resources away from the Indian health system.

This bill would also allow tribes to set up group plans to buy insurance for tribal members to replace the Medicaid expansion. “Creates new optional coverage group as of January 1, 2020 for members of Indian tribes up to 138% FPL in states that had expanded coverage as of December 31, 2019, who were enrolled in Medicaid as of December 31, 2019, and do not have a break in eligibility of 6 months (or a longer period specified by the state).”

So in summary this bill would not add any new resources to the Indian health system. But it would cut funding significantly (again, remember Medicaid).

The last Senate Republican plan failed by a single vote. It’s likely that Arizona Sen. John McCain will end up being a “yes” this time around (the state’s governor is giving him cover, saying it’s a good plan). However Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul says he’s now a “no.” In his mind this plan does not repeal the Affordable Care Act. Susan Collins remains a likely “no.” If those positions stay the same, then this bill’s fate could end up being decided by Senator Murkowski.

Is there anything in this legislative gem that improves health care in Alaska? No. Does it improve the Alaska Native medical system? No. The Indian Health Service? No. Then why is she even considering this vote. It should be an easy no. Again.

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 / TrahantReports.com

 

 

 

 

 

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Quinault President Fawn Sharp, Manitoba NDP Party Leader Wab Kinew, and former Rep. Victoria Steele (Photos via Facebook, campaign)

Voting on a climate plan and a tax

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

There are two ways to impact public policy through the ballot box. First, people can choose to run for elective office. And, second, ballot initiatives can shape public policy.

The Quinault Nation in Washington is “gearing up for another strategic move to influence state policy,” Tribal President Fawn Sharp said. And that influence might come in the form of a 2018 ballot initiative on climate change that would include a steep carbon tax.

“We hope a citizen driven initiative will be a catalyst for other states to follow as we believe that’s the only path forward given the extent to which corporate interests influence our political institutions,” Sharp said. “What a narrative it will be when the First Stewards occupy the current leadership void in climate policy and influence the U.S. in a pivotal move from the grass roots level.”

The twist in this story is that another group in Washington has been promoting a similar initiative. But that measure left tribes out of the discourse. And the differences are not about style, but substance. Quinault wants to be certain that the tax raises enough money to invest in salmon recovery, forest restoration, and improving water quality.

The News Tribune in Tacoma said The Alliance for Energy and Jobs proposal would dedicate some 70 percent of a billion dollar fund to clean energy projects and only 30 percent to clean water and forest health. The Alliance said it did not do a good job of engaging tribes but there is “no final proposal.”

However Sharp said time is of the essence — so Quinault is moving quickly on its own plan. It will reach out to other tribes at the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians’ meeting in Spokane this week. Sharp is president of ATNI.

The Quinault Nation has a unique view of climate change. It’s an immediate threat. The tribe is planning the relocation of Taholah village to higher ground because of flooding and storm surges. Some 660 people live in that village.

Imagine what a climate fight that’s based on tribal values would look like. One where salmon, forests, and children take center stage.

Ready to fight back in Arizona

 

Former Arizona State House Representative Victoria Steele was a candidate for Congress in 2016. Now she’s set her sight on a state Senate seat representing Tucson (legislative district 9). The current senator in this district, Steve Farley, is a candidate for governor.

“Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that the Republican leaders in our country would turn on the people. It is hard to fathom how nasty and ugly things have become with the Trump Administration’s sexist, racist and dangerous agenda. No group of vulnerable people is exempt from their destruction,” Steele said. “I’ve noticed that when the Trump Administration and the Republicans in Congress can’t do their dastardly deeds in D.C., they push them to the states where Republican controlled legislatures do it for them one state at a time. I have to do something, so I’m rolling up my sleeves and I’m ready to fight back.”

As a state representative, Steele successfully built a coalition to add money into the state budget for Mental Health First Aid. And, during her second term, her campaign said that “out of the 1,000 bills introduced into the Legislature during this last term, only eight of those that passed were Democratic bills ─ and two of those eight were Representative Steele’s bills.”

Steele is Seneca. She is a former award-winning reporter and TV news anchor. After a 25-year career as a television and radio news anchor, including positions at KOLD-TV, KNST and KFYI Radio, she began a second career as a mental health counselor. She is the State Legislative Coordinator and co-founder of the Tucson Chapter of the National Organization of Women. Steele is a public speaker, teacher and trainer experienced in presenting on Native American Culture, empowering women, and a variety of public policy issues.

Renewing the New Democrats

 

Wab Kinew has been elected to lead the Manitoba New Democratic Party. Kinew, is a best-selling author, broadcaster, Hip Hop artist, and a Member of the Legislative Assembly from Fort Rouge in Winnipeg. He is a member of the Onigaming First Nation in Northwestern Ontario.

As the new party leader he will lead the New Democrats into the next election in 2020, and, if successful, would be the person responsible for forming a government. (Think governor.) In 2016 the New Democratic Party lost after nearly 17 years in government when the Progressive Conservatives won 40 out of the 57 seats in the legislature. Kinew’s task will be to revive the New Democrats.

“I chose to stand for leader of the Manitoba NDP because I am motivated by the core values we share as New Democrats. Values like love, equality, and social justice,” Kinew said on his web site. “I am so proud to be a member of a party that looks like Manitoba in all its inclusivity, and that represents Manitoba values. With your support, I know I can lead the renewal of our party, build a team that will offer Manitobans a progressive alternative to Brian Pallister and help bring about a brighter day for people in our province.”

Kinew has been open about his personal growth and a past that includes criminal convictions as well as a pardon. On his web site he says: “When I hear about a young person who got in trouble with the law, who is told every day he has nothing to contribute, I think: I was you.”

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Pallister’s Progressive Conservative Party is the current provincial government. A tweet from the PC’s links to a roundup of stories about Kinew’s past, including domestic violence. (It even made the allegation look new by tagging a 2017 date to a 2003 story.) Kinew has talked extensively about his own history.

An opinion piece by CBC News said: “While such websites are now common fare in politics, it does suggest that the Conservatives are at least somewhat concerned  about Kinew.” The post concluded: “The NDP has its new leader, warts and all. Can Kinew rise to the challenges ahead? It would be foolish to think he can’t.”

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 / TrahantReports.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sen. Bernie Sanders proposed “Medicare for all” bill would fully-fund the Indian Health system for the first time in history. (Senate photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Bernie Sanders is expected to introduce his version of health care reform, a plan he calls “Medicare for all.” At least fifteen Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors to the single-payer plan.

“This is where the country has got to go,” Sanders told The Washington Post. “Right now, if we want to move away from a dysfunctional, wasteful, bureaucratic system into a rational health-care system that guarantees coverage to everyone in a cost-effective way, the only way to do it is Medicare for All.”

Sanders’ bill has no chance in a Republican Congress. Yet the Vermont Independent (who caucuses with the Democrats) is adding to the richness of the debate. He is showing a clear alternative to Republican plans (the latest is one by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana.)

But Indian Country should take note. Sanders bill would fully-fund the Indian health system. Let’s do the math. The current budget for the Indian Health Service is $6.091 billion dollars. And of that, roughly $1.2 will come from Medicaid, Medicare and other insurance. This serves about 2.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives in 39 states.

But if Sanders’ proposal for universal care were enacted every one of those 2.2 million patients would have funding from insurance. The national average for Medicare beneficiary is $10,986. The total: $24.191 billion. A four-fold increase (and this does not include appropriations, just insurance dollars). So if you include both, the total is roughly $30 billion.

This sound like an awful lot of money, right? That big number reflects what other health systems already spend. So actually it’s the ideal demonstration of just how underfunded the Indian Health Service is under current law and insurance schemes. This is what a fully-funded Treaty Right looks like.

Of course some of this can be done now, even without Sanders’ bill. Many people in tribal communities are posting on Facebook exactly how to sign up for Medicaid (the government insurance program that so many in Indian Country already qualify for.) They are doing this as an act of defiance, because the Trump administration has recently quit advertising the program and is not actively promoting sign-ups.

But, again, let’s do the math. If every American Indian and Alaska Native was eligible for Medicaid that would net the Indian health system about $7.211 billion (instead of the $1.2 billion from third-party billing now). I actually think this is a more realistic number (even under a Sanders’ plan) because it does not include some of the spending by Medicare (and for that matter, Medicaid) on senior citizens. The national average for Medicaid is a modest $3,278 for an adult and for $2,577 average for children. The total for IHS would be in the neighborhood of $15 billion. More than double what is spent now.

Either Medicare or Medicaid: This is what full funding looks like. And a Treaty Right fulfilled. Finally.

Speaking of children, the Senate has reached a bipartisan deal in the Senate to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Plan or CHIP. This insurance plan covers 9 million young people through Medicaid. The program is set to expire at the end of the month unless Congress acts and then President Donald J. Trump signs a new legislation into law.

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

Note: A correction was made to the original post.   Sen. Bernie Sanders is an independent. 

 

 

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Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Indian Country Today, a national voice for Indian Country, went dark while its owners look for a new buyer or a new business model. The “press,” even a “digital press” is the story.

It’s true that most tribal leaders have been annoyed by media, including tribal media, from time to time. It’s the nature of our roles. When we in journalism are at our best, we’re independent. And tribal leaders have a different charge; to govern. That sometimes puts us into conflict — at least a little bit.

But in the long arc of history both roles are crucial. In fact: Some of the best days in Indian Country occurred during periods of a vigorous and independent press. And, at the same time, some of our darkest days took place when there were few national voices.

To be blunt: An independent press is a pain in the ass. Especially for tribal leaders. But the alternative, darkness, is far, far worse.

One such period was the Indian Removal Era.

The Cherokee Nation was one of many tribes that had an independent press in the 1830s as it was facing the challenge of President Andrew Jackson and ultimately the removal from tribal homelands.

The editor of The Cherokee Phoenix was often at odds with tribal leaders. In 1832 he resigned as editor because  he believed he could not do his job properly. His duty, as he saw it, was to “reflect upon the dangers with which we are surrounded; to view the darkness which seems to lie before our people – our prospects, and the evils with which we are threatened; to talk over all these matters, and, if possible, come to some definite and satisfactory conclusion.”

This is a simple definition of the role of the tribal press, an instigator of discourse. The power of the tribal press, then, should follow once the people have reached a definite and satisfactory conclusion.

The evils faced by the Cherokees during Boudinot’s time were among the darkest, but they were not the only dangers before us.

I am interested in the pattern suggested by Boudinot: the warning of dark clouds, followed by community discourse, and, if possible, a community-based satisfactory conclusion.

The issue Boudinot wanted debated – the federal government’s desire to relocate the Cherokee Nation – was about as dire as can be imagined, but other schemes have, to varying degrees, also threatened the very prospect of Indian survival.

Consider how some fifty years ago many tribes were faced with removal in a political context – termination. There were a few voices of dissent from tribal media, including a newspaper published at Menominee. But the voices were primarily local.

In 1952 there was no national Indian newspaper or medium of any kind.

So it wasn’t huge news when Congress enacted House Resolution 108 calling for the termination of tribes that were “ready.”

And to get ready, various provisions were inserted into routine legislation that required tribal governments to prepare a plan to accept termination. Imagine that. As part of your government’s regular funding stream, the tribe would need to prepare documents planning termination.

This would have been a great story; had there been a national Native press.

One of the tribes ordered to prepare a termination plan was the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington state. A termination plan was required in order as part of legislation that included title to tribal lands lands. Most tribal members probably didn’t think much about termination – at least at first – but in the decade that followed pro-termination supporters gained support of the tribal business council, telling tribal members that termination would mean a sale of all the reservation’s assets and a distribution of those assets to tribal members. In other words: folks were promised they would be rich.

Beginning in the early 1960s, U.S. Senator Henry Jackson, a Democrat from Washington, introduced Colville termination bills only to be blocked by the House of Representatives. And, at the same time, a pro-termination tribal business council built up a solid majority.

In October 1966, the tribe asked its members this question:

“Do you favor termination and liquidation of the tribal owned reservation assets at a fair value with the proceeds distributed equally to the members of the tribes?”

The result was one-sided: More than two-thirds of the membership approved of termination.

The Colville people, then, had gone on record for termination.

Chairman Narcisse Nicolson, Jr. said it was time for the Colville people to end their relationship with Washington, to stop taking money from the BIA, and to terminate the reservation.

He said the case was clear because “with only a relatively few exceptions, the tribal families of today are self-supporting.” He added, “Lack of employment, to the degree that it exists, is largely due to character faults which cannot be cured by paternalism.”

In Washington, D.C., BIA Commissioner Robert L. Bennett, even though he was personally opposed to termination, said he would “honor and carry out any decisions that are made by the people of the tribe, whether or not this may be in agreement or disagreement with what may happen to be particular policy of the Bureau.”

The stars seemed aligned. Think of the players on board:  Tribal members, its governing body, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Even the Congress was set. Senator Henry Jackson could be counted on to introduce the Colville termination bill again; this time, some thought, it followed by House enactment.

We can only imagine what it must have been like: Every major political force, the state, a powerful senator, the tribal council, and, perhaps, even a majority of tribal members, all wanted termination.

Only someone forgot to explain to Lucy Covington and her allies that it was a done deal.

In 1966 when that membership poll was taken, Covington was a minority member of the tribal council along with Frank George, Paschal Sherman, and a few others.

There were many voices challenging the wisdom of termination.

One of the tools that she used in this fight: A tribal newspaper. She started “Our Heritage,” a newspaper with the mission of informing tribal members about the issues. She would lead a quiet campaign to quiet what she called “the present fever and fervor for termination.”

And like Standing Rock, there was national call put out for writers, cartoonists, and journalists to come (at their own expense) to chronicle this important moment.

Chuck Trimble once wrote why he went. Covington “enlisted me after I gave a brief talk on the birthing plans of the American Indian Press Association at the 1970 NCAI convention in Anchorage, Alaska. She asked if I would come to Colville and help put together a newspaper. She made no offers of compensation for travel and expenses. The Press Association was not yet established and there were no funds for travel or anything else; so I went at my own expense. And when I arrived in Spokane where she met me, she sat me down in a room at the Indian Center there and told me what she expected of me. She wanted a newspaper that would tell what a tribe means to its people, and its true worth to them in terms of land, natural resources, and most of all their cultural heritage. She wanted the newspaper to be called Our Heritage, and she even described the logo she wanted for the masthead. It would be a pair of hands holding together the shape of the Colville Reservation. The logo would signify that the future of their reservation, indeed their nation, was in the hands of the people, not in the U.S. Government or the State of Washington, or anyone else.

“I was not familiar with what termination of a tribe entailed, and how it was carried out. I thought the U.S. Congress unilaterally determined that a tribe’s unique trust relationship with the Federal government would be severed, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs would execute the congressional order. When I learned that the tribe, through its elected leaders, had to approve the dissolution of their own nation, and that a majority on the existing Colville Council was forcefully behind the measure, I felt disheartened. Gaining an anti-termination majority on the Council meant internecine warfare, and Indian against Indian was always mean and messy.”

But Trimble wrote — and he drew cartoons. And Our Heritage was published.

Our Heritage profiled candidates opposed to termination and reported on the legislative battles in Washington about the advancing termination bills.

The anti-termination side won on May 8, 1971. Nicholson was defeated in his district, Omak. He was replaced by a council member who was opposed to termination, joined by a new majority of like-minded representatives.

Mel Tonasket, then-thirty years old, was the elected by the business council as the chairman. The new business council called for more federal support, closed a reservation lake to outsiders and voted to take back law enforcement powers that had been ceded to the state of Washington.

The new council also went further, claiming the inherent power of a government through an affirmation of tribal sovereignty.

And even a longtime supporters of termination reversed course. Sen. Jackson, a Democrat from Washington, in 1972 introduced a repeal of the termination resolution and recast himself as a champion of tribal governments and Indian people.

The dark clouds of termination almost ended the Colville reservation and that tribe’s unique relationship with the federal government (something that did occur in dozens of other tribal communities).

But the danger of termination was identified by both the tribe’s political leadership and the press. This fit Boudinot’s model: A description of the dangers, followed by community discourse, until a satisfactory conclusion was reached.

I recall a tribal politician speaking at the National Congress of American Indians. I am not sure who he was nor where the meeting was but I remember him identifying the tribal news media as “war correspondents.” This image stuck with me because it is so telling: Tribal political leaders identified us as soldiers in the defense of Indian country. Our work is important when we serve that war effort, helping to defeat the enemy. But that metaphor suggests that when journalism moves closer to home, when we do stories that aid the enemy, then not so much.

“Our Heritage” fit this notion perfectly. The newspaper had one purpose: stopping termination. And, at the beginning of the termination era there was no national Native press. But at the end, when tribes won, the press was actively helping tribal citizens reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Perhaps one of the reasons why I remember that NCAI speech about “war correspondents” was because of when it was given in the late 1970s. This was a time when most tribal governments truly felt under siege, it was the era the “backlash” era.

And it was a story that most of us working for tribal newspapers tried to fully cover.

“So strong is this threat and so pervasive is its national presence that Indians are referring to it as ‘the new Indian war.’ Its sources, most observers of the national Indian scene agree, are the results of that very progress; in particular, the long and significant train of court victories in the 1970s upholding tribal rights,” wrote Hopi journalist Rose Robinson from Washington, D.C. “Whatever its sources, white backlash is, by every measure, the major concern of people today.”

The backlash was promoted by organizations with names that suggested a noble calling: South Dakotans for Civil Liberties; Montanans Opposed to Discrimination and the Interstate Congress for Equal Rights and Responsibilities. These groups defined American Indians as “special citizens” who, because of treaty rights, were getting a better deal than the rest of the nation. A book, “Indian Treaties: America’s Nightmare,” was sent by the group to members of Congress, the secretary of Interior and other Washington officials. “The liberal treatment of minorities has reached unheard of proportions in denying equal rights to all citizens of our so-called democracy,” a brochure for the book said.

“Sportsmens (sic) – organizations – fishermen – hunters – land owners – commercial fishermen and just plain tax paying citizens who have just about had it with Indian take-overs make up the membership of ICERR.”

The backlash was a nationwide movement that discounted two centuries of federal-Indian policy. “That the Indians’ claims are being given any legitimacy at all is nonsensical,” wrote a columnist in the Boston Herald American about the land claims in Maine. “Whatever happened 200 years ago, the culprits were not the current land owners, so there is no justification for punishing them.”

“After so many quiet years, what has got into the Indians?” asked a two-page essay in Time. “Probably no other country would take quite so seriously land claims that propose, in effect, the impossible rolling back of history. The inherent absurdity of such a proposition might be clearer, say, in a suggestion that Australia be handed back to the aborigines. …Congress should be able to be fair without suffering the delusion that the country can really be given back to the Indians. The time for that passed forever with the vanishing of the pioneers who took it from them.”

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The movement had one goal: abrogate treaties. These efforts were on two legislative tracks: The first was led by a U.S. Rep. Jack Cunningham, R-Washington, who introduced bills directly calling for treaty abrogation; and, the second track was more moderate legislation that was introduced by a U.S. Rep. Lloyd Meeds.  Meeds, a Democrat, was also from Washington state and his role was interesting because he had once been a supporter of tribes – even honored by the National Congress of American Indians for his work on the Hill.

The Interstate Congress dismissed Indians as “treaty Americans” or “first-class citizens” and it said it had no objection to “being treaty Americans or full-fledged American citizens, but we do object to them claiming both. “Until they decide what they want to be, treaty Americans or first-class citizens, but not both, they will feel the bite of the backlash, and it will get stronger until a more equitable solution is found.”

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The Indian Country Today of that era was Wassaja, a San Francisco-based, national newspaper. Wassaja covered the annual convention of the anti-treaty group because it represented, “the first step toward abrogation.”

Wassaja – and most tribal newspapers – devoted lots of space and attention to the backlash movement. Tribal leaders saw the threat and worked to build coalitions to defeat the ideas behind the backlash, as well as their representatives in Congress.

Again, though, the dark clouds were identified and community discourse was disseminated through the native press. Indeed, the leaders of that era agreed with the label of “new Indian wars,” and even promised a literal battle if things proceeded.

Navajo Chairman Peter MacDonald Sr., for example, called for an emergency summit of all tribal leaders to develop a strategy. He said that if the backlash reached its logical conclusion, taking Indian people backwards, then Indians might return to waging war. “I don’t think anyone wants to go back to that situation.”

MacDonald’s rhetoric was harsh, but his position was not unique. He was joined on the effort in groups ranging from the conservative National Tribal Chairman’s Association to the American Indian Movement.

Discourse prevailed. Tribal leaders developed a successful strategy and their voices reached tribal and U.S. citizens. The national Native press was taking notes.

The termination era as well as the backlash era shared a language. Termination supporters wanted to “free the Indians.” The Interstate Congress proclaimed the goal of “equal rights.”

Of course in a large part what drove both of these efforts was competition over scarce natural resources. All of the tribes that were terminated had a resource that someone wanted  — often timber. And the so-called equal rights effort of the Interstate Congress were led by hunters and fishers who objected to the “preferential” rights of treaty hunting and fishing.

In both of these examples, too, there were characters willing to advance the ideas. Utah Sen. Arthur Watkins was the champion of termination. And the backlash had Jack Cunningham and Howard Grey (once identified in Wassaja as the “der Fuhrer of ICERR).

That leads me to the next threat: Slade Gorton.

Slade Gorton – who was again from Washington state – took the ideas of an early generation and led them to new, sophisticated heights.

Some context. It doesn’t take a lot of calculating to see that so much of this backlash and termination support came from Washington state. Why Washington? One reason was the intense battle for salmon fishing rights – and the favorable ruling by the federal courts.

Columnist John Mohawk wrote in another national publication, Native Americas magazine, that Gorton was “an anti-Indian activist all his political life. He fought against Indian treaty rights when he was attorney general for his home state, and he leads perennial attacks against Indian rights in the Senate.”

But unlike Cunningham, or even Meeds, Gorton developed a more sophisticated attack against tribal interests. He used his power as a Senator – and later as an appropriations committee leader – to limit how federal dollars might be used to support tribal rights.

He occasionally proposed radical rewriting of federal Indian law, advancing his idea that tribes were social clubs and not legitimate governments.

“Over time, Gorton settled into the style of the Senate, where tone trumps content most days of the week,” wrote Indian Country Today columnist Suzan Harjo. “He began using the scalpel more than the machete, but was ever-focused on his task: undercutting federal Indian law.  He was gaining surgical precision, along with seniority and clout on key committees for energy and natural resources, budget and commerce, science and transportation.

“After the 1996 election, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., announced that he would step down as chair of the Senate’s select committee on Indian affairs. Gorton was next in line for the job. The sound of alarm from Indian country was loud and effective. Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., interceded and Gorton withdrew in favor of Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Republican from Colorado, who became the first Native American to head the Indian panel.”

But Gorton continued his political attacks whenever and when ever he could be effective.

Here is where another difference emerges between Gorton and his predecessors, such as Jack Cunningham or Arthur Watkins. Instead of being a character in a larger drama, Gorton became the lead in the play.

An intertribal coalition built was launched to “Dump Slade.” And when someone said those two very words, nearly everyone in Indian Country knew exactly what was meant. Gorton was a modern-day Custer – and his defeat was essential for Indian Country’s survival. Gorton became the issue.

I remember a conversation I had with Joe Delacruz at an Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians’ meeting. He promised that Slade would be defeated. We’re raising money, we’re building a coalition, he told me, and we’re going to win.

Delacruz was right. The Dump Slade effort worked; Maria Cantwell was elected in his place.

And because Slade was the actor, the issue went away as far as tribal discourse was concerned.

But did Slade really go away? Well, if you think about him as a central character in a drama, then, yes, perhaps.

But what of his ideas? We face many of those same notions today. Even his idea that tribes are more like social organizations than governments was effectively advanced by the Supreme Court in decision after decision. Starting with the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist the Supreme Court quietly transformed Indian law. And not in a good way.

Another story I’d like to tell is from Alaska. The community of Point Hope had a huge problem in 1962. The United States government had this wacky idea of testing nuclear devices in their homeland. There was a removal plan. The government had decided that Project Chariot made sense and should go forward.

The Arctic Slope Native Association turned to a young Inupiat artist by the name of Howard Rock and asked him to start a newspaper. The Tundra Times was born in October 1962.

“He was the most soft-spoken man,” said reporter Tom Richards, who worked at the Tundra Times from 1968 to 1974. “But he had tremendous impact with just a few words.”

The Tundra Times followed Boudinot’s model perfectly. The paper warned about the dangers, the community came together and talked over these matters, and then reached a satisfactory conclusion. The Atomic Energy Commission’s Project Chariot was no more.

But Rock did not stop telling the story. He thought Alaska Natives ought to be a stronger, inter-tribal community. The newspaper’s masthead reinforced its vision of Native harmony that eventually led to the creation of the Alaska Federation of Natives. As AFN said: Rock, through his newspaper, unified Alaska Natives by “knowing the hearts and minds of the people.”

“Perhaps more than anyone else, he (Rock) helped weld together the frontier state’s 55,000 Natives for their successful years-long fight to win the largest aboriginal land claims settlement in American history,” wrote Stan Patty of the Seattle Times. He added that Rock was their voice; at times about the only calm voice when crescendos of dissent threatened to tear Alaska apart.

And that led — along with the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay — and to a modern treaty, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Rock’s Tundra Times had a national voice. Its correspondent in Washington, Tom Richards, worked alongside other native journalists at the key moment in history. The Tundra Times was no cheerleader. It talked about the good of ANCSA and warned readers about some of the consequences.

“Let’s turn it around and look at the real situation,” Richards wrote. “The natives are being forced to give up their land under the traditional American principle of manifest destiny and all they’re asking is a fair shake.”

We lost the Tundra Times in on December 16, 1991. Its announcement said the board voted to “suspend publication” until a March meeting.

Suspensions, rarely result in a re-start. But the financial problems of Tundra Times were well known. The paper had been writing about its own challenges for some two decades. Its readers were familiar with the challenges.

That’s not the case with Indian Country Today. It’s darkness was a surprise, one that left little time to explore options from a broader civic community. This is a fail.

But that also brings me to Standing Rock.

As we all know, Standing Rock was a social media story. News was instant. Shared, reshared, and liked on Facebook.

It’s interesting some of the same elements from Standing Rock were present at Alcatraz or Daybreak Star or Frank’s Landing … but what was different was social media and a viral connection across Indian Country. Technology even played a role: A few months before Standing Rock Idle No More generated the same kinds of stories scattered first across Canada and then worldwide. But one explosive difference in Standing Rock and Idle No More was Facebook live. Someone could turn a camera on and generate an audience of thousands or even hundreds of thousands. We are all related, we are all connected.

Social media — well, Facebook — can even take credit for informing the President of the United States. A year ago tomorrow — imagine that — a year ago President Obama was asked about  the Dakota Access Pipeline and the #NoDAPL movement at Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative  town hall. This social media story popped the presidential bubble. It alerted him to an issue that he could no longer ignore.

A social media story to be sure. And important because we all remember the many, many stories asking, where were the mainstream reporters? Why was Standing Rock not the front page, network TV news story that was required? When a few armed protesters take center stage in Oregon and Nevada and it’s a big story; but when thousands of people come to stand with Standing Rock …  it’s only occasional news.

So it was a social media story.

But here’s the thing. If you go back and look at the many social media stories the ones that were the most shared, the most liked, and most respected, were stories generated by the press, and often that was Indian Country Today.

The reason is clear and easy: No one had to explain to editors at Indian Country Today why it was a story. As one editor told me: “We knew we had to blow out our budget for this one.”

Early on Valerie Taliman was on site working with reporters and letting them know that Indian Country Today was going to extraordinary lengths. I have counted more than a dozen bylines on this story, including my own. Jenni Monet was compelled to leave a teaching post and write full time from here. And to this day she faces criminal, legal peril for her reporting — something that should never be allowed in a country with First Amendment protection. “Congress shall make no law … “ yet a prosecutor in Morton County is doing just that, making up a law.

This was a story of a generation — and Indian Country Today answered. 

But it’s also a story without an ending. The newspaper helped tribal citizens across the country consider the darkness before us and the evils with which we are threatened. It helped us talk over these matters. But we still have a lot of work to do before we come to some definite and satisfactory conclusion.

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 / TrahantReports.com

(This is a speech Mark Trahant gave to the Tribal Leaders Summit September 6, 2017, in Bismarck, North Dakota.)

 

 

 

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President Donald J. Trump in North Dakota on Wednesday talking about his tax reform plans. (WhiteHouse.Gov)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Big news: The rest of the year will have less drama than the ups and downs we’ve been experiencing since January. The federal government will more or less operate on schedule, the federal debt limit fight has been pushed back to the end of the year, and President Donald J. Trump has successfully reached out to Democrats.

What a week. When it began, I wrote: “Congress is back today and one of two things will happen: It will either do its work or all hell will break loose.” But I was off. It wasn’t exactly Congress doing its job, it was the president. He bypassed his own Republican party leaders (catching them off-guard by all accounts) and struck a deal with Democrats in the House and Senate to fund government for the rest of the year and push the debt limit fight back until December.

This is exactly what the president should have been doing all along. This is governing. It means, for now, at least, that he’s reaching out to the majority in Congress (moderate Republicans plus the Democrats) instead of catering to the far right wing of the party. It’s smart politics. But it’s also dangerous because his action undermined both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. If it’s a one-time event, Ryan and McConnell will get over the snub. But if this is the new way of doing business, well, then, there will be a different kind of drama ahead.

There is also movement this week on the Republican plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. According to The Hill newspaper, John McCain now favors legislation proposed by Senators Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana. This plan would push more of the decision making about health care to the states through block grants. It would even let states keep many aspects of the Affordable Care Act such as Medicaid expansion, as long as they’re willing to pay for the extra costs. That’s a deal breaker.

The problem for the Indian health system in such a scheme is that states neither understand nor want to invest the resources required. The ideal scenario would be for Indian Country to be a 51st state and get funding directly. But that’s not a part of the legislative proposal.

This bill would have to be considered fast under Senate rules. The current set-up is to vote on a replacement plan using the budget reconciliation process. That only requires 50 votes instead of the more common 60 vote standard (to interrupt a filibuster). The Senate parliamentarian has ruled that reconciliation goes away on Sept. 30 unless there is a new budget in place. That’s unlikely.

Another health care issue that impacts Indian Country is the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Plan or CHIP. The current law expires Sept. 30. It pays for the insurance of 8.9 million children through Medicaid. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that “Medicaid plays a more expansive role for American Indian and Alaska Native children than adults, covering more than half of American Indian and Alaska Native children (54%) versus 23% of nonelderly adults.” CHIP would be included in that number.

CHIP also pays for school programs and other health care outreach efforts. The federal Centers for Medicaid and Medicare said: “In 2014, CMS awarded $3.9 million in CHIPRA grants to engage schools and tribal agencies in Medicaid and CHIP outreach and enrollment activities. Grantees included Indian Health Service organizations, tribal health providers, and urban Indian health providers across 7 states.”

Important stuff. We need another presidential deal with Democrats. Quickly.

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 / TrahantReports.com

 

 

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Trahant Reports

Congress is back today and one of two things will happen: It will either do its work or all hell will break loose.

Crazy thing is Hurricanes Harvey and Irma could help Congress stay on task. The federal reaction will be costly and money will need to be appropriated. On top of that, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says Congress should tie Harvey funding to an increase in the debt limit. Conservatives don’t like that idea at all. But are there enough Republicans (along with Democrats) to make it happen anyway.

The agenda is a tough one: Federal spending must be set by September 30 and we could hit the debt limit sooner rather than later (because of all that emergency spending). My recent post on the potential of a shutdown. 

The Associated Press reports Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, saying, “People need to know there’s some stability here. We’re not going to have to worry about defaults, we’re not going to have to worry about government shutdowns, these guys are all grown-up, they’re adults, and that ought to be the aim.”

Indeed. That ought to be the aim.

I will be posting later this week as events unfold.

Meanwhile, I am speaking Wednesday in Bismarck at the Tribal Leaders Summit sponsored by United Tribes Technical College. I will talk about the federal government, media history, Standing Rock, and Indian Country Today’s hiatus.

Later in the week I’ll be at the Native American Journalists Association and Excellence in Journalism conference where I will be exploring journalism and the health care debate.

And, be sure to take a listen to my Trahant Reports election special for Native Voice One.  We’re now a year away from an awfully important election. — Mark Trahant

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