Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

 GOP candidates for president gathered in South Carolina last week to talk about poverty in America. It was an event sponsored by the Jack Kemp Foundation. Kemp, who died in 2009, was a quarterback for the San Diego Chargers and the Buffalo Bills. He entered politics running for Congress in 1970 and described himself as a “bleeding heart Conservative.” He was no stranger to Native American issues, at one time promoting a tax-incentive for reservations and Alaska Native villages called “Promise Zones.” His ideas never become law but he did continually raise issues about equality within the Republican Party.

So how are Kemp’s ideas received in today’s conservative era?

Well, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is a huge fan. He helped organize the poverty conversation. In one of his first speeches as Speaker, Ryan said, “There are the millions of people stuck in neutral: 6 million people who have no choice but to work part time, 45 million people living in poverty. Conservatives need to have an answer to this–because we do not write people off in this country. We just don’t.”

The conversation in South Carolina, however, was less inspiring. Candidates promised more of the same bland ideas: Turn more federal programs over to the states (always a problem for tribal governments) as well as rejecting any national increases to minimum wage. And, of course, repeal the Affordable Care Act.

It’s too bad Republicans couldn’t dip into their own history and come up with a program that does meet the needs of Indian Country. There is, after all, a conservative argument that tribes are constitutional governments that would work well with a smaller federal government. That was part of President Richard Nixon’s thinking that helped launch the self-determination era. On top of that: You’d think there would be a better understanding of the constitutional issues regarding Treaty promises. 

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TUESDAY is President Barack Obama’s last State of the Union. He will outline his vision for his final year in office. This will be an interesting speech. He’s facing a Republican-controlled Congress, so it’s not likely that any new legislation will be serious. But it will be the ideal time for him to reflect on his two terms in office. Agree or not with his politics, Obama has been remarkably successful. He entered office when the country’s economy was collapsing, the worst crisis since the Great Depression, and fighting two wars. Then Obama has reshaped the health care system, improving the funding for the Indian Health Service, And, he worked with other nations to forge a climate change plan. That’s a lot for nearly 8 years.

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One of the First Lady’s guests at the State of the Union will be Lydia Doza representing the “Generation Indigenous” initiative. The Alaska Native works to get more young women involved in the STEM fields, or, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. One of the cool things she does is teach others how to “code, the tool to write formulas that make computer programs work.

You have to say that Generation Indigenous represents much of this president’s commitment to Indian Country. He really sees an opportunity to improve the lives of young Native Americans and is using the weight of his office to make things happen. Many suspect that this is something that Barack and Michelle Obama will continue to do after they leave the White House.

And that date is coming fast. Next January a new president will take office with new priorities. It will be interesting to see how much of Obama’s initiatives become permanent, such as Indian health funding through the Affordable Care Act to the annual White House government-to-government meeting with tribal leaders. Obama will be gone, but these issues ought to be at least topics during the 2016 campaign from both Democrats and Republicans.

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

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