Denise Juneau’s eight years of promise

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Denise Juneau at a congressional debate last August. The event was at Frazer High School, one of the community participants in the state’s Schools of Promise. (Trahant photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

HELENA, Montana — It’s easy to think about politics as being about elections. We concentrate so much of our attention, our money, and our energy on campaigns. But then what? Most politicians run because they want to change things. They want government to be effective, to use the machinery of state for We, the People.

Pull back the lens and look at the past eight years and Denise Juneau’s term as Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. Yes, it was a big deal for her to get elected. She is the first, and only, American Indian woman to hold a state constitutional office (such as governor or attorney general). She is a member of the Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara Nation and Blackfeet.

So then what?

“I have had a great time being Superintendent of Public Instruction. Eight years of working with communities across this state on Graduation Matters Montana, on Schools of Promise, on Farm to School, we could run down a whole litany of different topics,” Juneau said last week at the Montana Budget and Policy Center’s Legislative Summit. “There is really a lot to be proud of.”

In what Juneau said was her last public speech as Montana’s school superintendent she credited the work of Montana Budget and Policy Center and other community groups that worked together to bring about change. Take Graduation Matters Montana.

“When I first stepped into office, drop out rates were too high, way too many students were dropping out of school, and we used data, and we talked about information, we talked about reasons,” Juneau said. “The information you can then use to advocate for change. That change has actually resulted in 58 communities across this state pulling people together at a community level to get things done.”

The result: Raising Montana’s graduation rates to historic highs for two years in a row. And, at the same time, raising academic standards in English, math, science, arts, and health, so that that a high school diploma is more valuable.

Another successful effort was the Schools of Promise program in Montana’s tribal communities. That program, which began shortly after Juneau took office in 2009, were grants targeted to reservation communities and “struggling schools.” That program invested state resources, including an unprecedented 22 employees, so that the schools could get grants to improve everything from teaching to school leadership.

“I have learned from this position that being an advocate is so important, being able to use the position that you have, to talk to people about the important things that need to happen,” Juneau said. “I have just had a blast being the top advocate for public education for the last eight years and I could not be more proud of the work that happened.”

The superintendent’s term ends January 2.

Juneau also talked about her recent bid for Congress. She joins a remarkable group of Native American women who have run for that office, including: Jeanne Givens in Idaho, Diane Benson in Alaska, Ada Deer in Wisconsin, Kalyn Free in Oklahoma, and in Arizona, Wenona Benally, Mary Kim Titla and Victoria Steele. I reject the word, “unsuccessful.” It’s true that none of these candidates were elected. Yet. And every campaign, every challenge, only pushes the door open a bit wider. So: One day, soon.

“I am sad that I lost, but I do not feel bad about our campaign because we ran a damn good campaign,” Juneau said. “We raised more money than any Democrat that’s ever been in this race, we had good ads, we had great advocates out in the community, we had organizations helping us, we did everything we were supposed to do. We just lost. Those are bitter pills to swallow, but sometimes that’s what happens.” (Previous: Juneau for president?)

She said it doesn’t mean you get out of the game. “You stay in there and find other avenues to fight in and you make sure you are always, continually pushing what is in your heart and what is in your mind that you know is right,” she said. “Because if we don’t, nobody else will.”

And who knows what door will open next? “I am looking forward to doors opening, figuring out if I want to take advantage of that and bringing people with me,” Juneau said. “That’s what this game is about.”

 

 

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

North Dakota’s new governor misses Standing Rock moment

A YouTube video from North Dakota’s new Gov. Doug Burgum. More of the same about Standing Rock.

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

There is that moment when we take the plastic protection off a new phone screen. Everything was perfect until we peel it away. Then fingerprints, scratches, and the business of life take hold. That new thing is never the same.

That’s exactly where Doug Burgum was as the new governor of North Dakota. He could have taken that screen and made certain that there was a new image of North Dakota for the world to see.

Damn. Think about what was possible: A governor who is framing his entire administration on innovation just dismissed the most disruptive force in his state’s recent history. That is what Standing Rock is about. Instead of saying, “What can we learn from this? What can we do together?” The new governor relied on the screen saver that was there before; the idea that powerful forces will roll over the tribe and build the Dakota Access Pipeline without interference. Thank you.

Burgum also scratched away at an old story: The Obama administration created this problem.

But his larger message is that the state of North Dakota and its corporate partners are more powerful than any tribal government. Instead of a pause, a moment to engage in a government-to-government dialogue, the new governor emphatically says the pipeline will get built soon. No. Matter. What.

“Make no mistake, this infrastructure is good for our economy,” the governor said in his YouTube video. “And it’s the safest way to transport North Dakota products. Failure to finish it would send a chilling signal to those in any industry who wish invest in our state and play by the rules.”

But the rules are complicated. And the court cases are not resolved. In fact the governor could have taken advantage of the litigation schedule to begin an open dialogue. Even more important: The prospect of more litigation is growing and that is something that will not be resolved by the Trump administration. It will take time.

The new governor could have reset the law enforcement battle lines too. Nope. “As a result of the Obama administration’s refusal to uphold the rule of law on federally owned land, both our citizens and local and state law enforcement have been put in harm’s way,” he said. “These actions are putting daily demands on the scarce resources of our state and local government.”

Those daily demands are because the state of North Dakota made it so. Pick a word: defuse, de-escalate, negotiate. There were so many better alternatives, ones that were dismissed in favor of sending in the cavalry. I have interviewed many government officials over the years that successfully reduced tension instead of using the police powers of a state. In every test the state failed in this regard and the new governor is following the same path.

I had hopes that Gov. Burgum would see the potential of the Standing Rock story as one that could make North Dakota a beacon. Think about this: This moment in history has brought indigenous people together in a way that’s unprecedented. And the world is paying attention to that. What an amazing opportunity, something that could stir the imagination of investors, entrepreneurs, and governments. Potential partners in a state that found a solution by working with tribes to solve an intractable problem.

The former governor blamed social media for this global perception. But that misses the point that the Standing Rock Tribe owns the story. And that won’t change because the new governor posts a video his account. The problem is not social media. It’s the message that the State of North Dakota will use the rule of law, the police power of a state, to roll over a tribal nation. It’s a message of brut force instead of inspiration. 

A missed opportunity? Sadly, yes. The governor says he will meet with tribes. But in North Dakota the context is business as usual. The plastic is off. And the new screen is already scratched.

 

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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Interior secretary pick has a record of listening to tribes

Rep. Ryan Zinke in Frazer, Montana, last summer. (Trahant photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

HELENA, Montana — Just about a week ago it was clear that Cathy McMorris Rodger was headed to the Interior Department. Nope. It was a headfake. President-elect Donald Trump has instead picked Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke for the post.

This is a  much better appointment for Indian Country. Zinke is no less conservative than Rodgers, but since his days in the Montana legislature he has had an open door. He has reached out to tribes in a number of ways. He introduced and championed the Blackfeet water compact and he has supported federal recognition for the Little Shell Band of Chippewa Cree.

“The truth is Ryan does know the value of public lands, he does know, to an extent, I don’t know how deep, the issues of Indian Country,” said Sen. Jon Tester at the Montana Budget and Policy Center’s Legislative Summit Wednesday. He said the Senate confirmation hearing process will be useful in getting Rep. Zinke on record explaining his views on such things as the government’s Trust Responsibility to tribal nations.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, speaking at the Montana Budget and Policy Center Legislative Summit in Helena. (Trahant photo)

 “It’s a big deal for the state of Montana,” Tester said. “He has a chance to do some really good stuff. Compare him to some of the people nominated before, AKA Sarah Palin, we will take him in a heartbeat.”

At a congressional debate in Frazer, on the Assiniboine Sioux Tribal Nation, Zinke said he had been adopted as an Assiniboine. He said he supports tribes and sovereignty. “I don’t think anyone has worked harder trying to get Blackfeet Water Compact done … I have been out here not because I am your congressman, but because I care.” He said he has been to people’s homes, met with tribal councils, and visited powwows.

Harry Barnes, chairman of the Blackfeet Nation, told The Helena Independent, that the appointment is “a great day for Montana” and that “Montana tribes will have an ear in the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”

Montana Republicans, many Western Republicans, are eager for an Interior Secretary who will open up more federal lands to oil and gas development. And on this score, Zinke will not disappoint. “I’m excited that the Trump administration plans to unleash the economic power of the resources of the nation,” Jeff Eisman, chair of the Montana Republican Party, told Montana Public Radio. “The federal government does control a lot of resources, especially in our end of the country.”

And it’s not likely tribes will often agree with Zinke. This is a Trump administration and Zinke was one of his early supporters. And Zinke has voted against tribes on other issues, such as the Violence Against Women Act,  a law that expanded tribal authority on domestic violence. 

If Zinke is confirmed by the Senate there would be a special election for his House seat.  (Previous: Juneau for President?)

And Denise Juneau?  She said Wednesday night: “I am looking forward to doors opening, figuring out if I want to take advantage of that, and bringing people with me.” That’s a far better answer than a yes or no. 

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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Sometimes the stars do align: Peggy Flanagan and a run for Congress

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Rep. Peggy Flanagan’s Twitter profile picture. She represents Minnesota’s District 46A and could soon be a candidate for Congress.

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Sometimes the stars do align. The short version: Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison is campaigning to chair the Democratic National Committee. If he wins, that opens up a congressional seat in a special election. And, state Rep. Peggy Flanagan is thinking about running.

Now, the details.  Ellison represents Minneapolis and some of the suburbs, including St. Louis Park and, as he puts it in his biography, is “one of the most vibrant and ethnically diverse districts in Minnesota.” He’s often a leader of the  Congressional Progressive Caucus for the 113th Congress and is often a voice for justice on issues ranging from financial services to Standing Rock.

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Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota.

Ellison wrote last week on Facebook:

“After months of protests, I’m inspired by this victory by thousands of indigenous activists and Water Protectors, and millions of Americans who support them. This is a victory for all people who fight for social justice. And it is a victory won by the power of peaceful protest – a reminder of what people can do when they stand up and organize.

We use environmental impact statements to understand how key projects will impact our environment and communities. I hope that Energy Transfer Partners, and most importantly, the next Administration, recognize the concerns raised by the Standing Rock Tribe.

I also want to acknowledge that the responsibility for this project falls on the Energy Transfer board room, not the workers who are simply trying to do their jobs. Working Americans need our support as well. That’s why I support a broad infrastructure package that creates good jobs for millions of American workers.

We have a responsibility to respect the sovereignty of the Standing Rock Tribe, and to ensure their voices are heard. And we must ensure that the millions of people who depend on the Missouri and Cannonball rivers have access to clean water. As the Water Protectors at Standing Rock remind us every day: Water Is Life.”

This is not exactly the message we have been hearing from the Democratic National Committee. Instead, since the summer, when the presidential campaign was at its height, we heard statements about protecting peaceful protest and workers (without a definition of what was meant).  The Democratic Party has been trying to represent corporate patrons (including those who build and fund pipelines) as well as some of its core constituent groups. That no longer works. If it ever did. In this age of social media and transparency, the people are demanding more accountability and a clear sense of direction about social justice.

And that’s the basis of Ellison’s campaign, building a party that champions grass roots efforts. He said last week: “The Democratic Party must be the party that delivers for working people. We can do that by meeting folks where they are, looking them in the eye, treating them with respect, and working to solve their problems. For me, that means a chair with only one full time commitment.”

So that means Ellison (unlike former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz) would give up his congressinal seat. “I have decided to resign as a member of Congress if I win the election for DNC chair. Whoever wins the DNC chair race faces a lot of work, travel, planning and resource raising. I will be ‘all-in’ to meet the challenge.”

Ellison was a strong candidate before his announcement last week. But since then he is earning more endorsements from elected Democrats. According to Politico, supporters now include: Reps. John Lewis, Raul Grijalva, Luis Gutierrez and Tulsi Gabbard, a former DNC vice chair, as well as Sens. Martin Heinrich, Bernie Sanders, Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, and on Thursday, the AFL-CIO also announced its endorsement.

The election of the DNC chair will happen at the party’s winter meeting, sometime before March 2017. There are at least two other candidates:  Raymond Buckley, a NH party leader, and Jaime Harrison, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. There are other potential candidates as well, including Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.

And that’s the stage setting a Peggy Flanagan run for Congress.

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Flanagan’s entry into the race would be historic. She’s a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and she would be the first American Indian woman ever elected to Congress. That sentence is in itself remarkable when you think about this country’s history and the contributions from so many Native women. Montana and Arizona could, should, have broken that barrier in 2016 by electing Denise Juneau and Victoria Steele. But the geography and the timing weren’t there. Sometimes elections require a bit more, well, luck.

And Minnesota’s fifth congressional district could be the spot. As Ellison’s biography says, it’s one of the most vibrant and ethnically diverse districts in Minnesota. This is a place where voters would appreciate, even celebrate, the historical significance of this first. After all this is a state that just elected four Native women to its Legislature. Another record.

Flanagan also has the ideal background for this job. She’s been an organizer working on social justice issues for more than a decade. More than that: She teaches other people how to win campaigns and elections for Wellstone Action and The Management Center (an organization working for social change). She was executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota.

And, if that’s not enough, she knows how to win a special election. She was elected to the Minnesota House in 2015 when Rep. Ryan Winkler moved out of the country. She jumped into the race early, ran unopposed, and earned 96.4 percent of the vote.

It’s not likely that Flanagan will run unopposed for a congressional seat. But she is already getting early support on social media. (Hashtag: #RunPeggyRun.)

Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak Jr. posted this on Twitter: “Wow! It would be great to have one of the best young leaders in the country be my rep in Congress.” He’s not alone. Others have expressed their fondness for Ellison and then say Flanagan is the right candidate to build on that legacy.

In politics timing is everything. Sometimes the stars do align.

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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If, then, this. The shift from campaign promises to Indian Country policies

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President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office, Nov. 10, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

If, then, this. A series of three words explaining what happens in any new White House. If Donald Trump wins the presidency, then many (not all) of the promises made during the campaign become policy. And it happens starting next month when the Congress races to try and make this so.

But “if, then, this,” is also about people. Who staffs the new campaign, especially those who represent Indian Country? And who represents the opposition?

So let’s start with what we know.

It’s likely that President-elect Donald J. Trump will nominate Cathy McMorris Rodgers as the next Interior Secretary and Tom Price as the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Who joins them? Who has their ear? How will their broad views on public policy impact Indian Country?  (Previous: Trump’s choice for Interior could risk salmon recovery, treaty rights.)

As The Atlantic said about Price. He will be running a massive federal healthcare agency, one that “administers the largest health-research centers in the world, most of the country’s public-health apparatus, the Indian Health Service, the Food and Drug Administration, and a collection of welfare and child-care services. While Price has a less-established policy record on many of these issues, his general philosophy of rolling back government spending and intervention suggests he may scale back HHS’s current efforts.” A less established policy record opens up a lot of questions.

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Another appointment, yet to be announced, would be in the next president’s executive office. Arizona State Sen. Carlyle Begay posted on Instagram: “It’s official … I’ll be working in the White House.” (Begay’s account is private, but it was reposted by Navajo Republicans on Facebook.) He doesn’t elaborate on the job title, but the most likely that post would be as a special assistant to the president on the Domestic Policy staff, a post now held by Karen Diver. Begay is Navajo.

One of the issues that the White House and Congress will have to flesh out is a proposal by Rep. Markwayne Mullin to reform the regulatory structure for tribal lands. A story in Reuters last week compared that plan to the termination, something that Mullin (who is a member of the Cherokee Nation) and former Interior Assistant Secretary Ross Swimmer say is not the case. Swimmer, who is also former principal chief for the Cherokee Nation, told Reuters: “It has to be done with an eye toward protecting sovereignty.”

Mullin said the press misunderstood him. He posted on Facebook: “This is a very personal and important issue for me and I want to clarify my actual comments that were distorted by the media. It is still and will always be my belief that the land entrusted to tribes belongs to the Native American people, and it ought to be up to them alone to decide how to best use and distribute the resources on their own land.”

Economist Terry Anderson has been making this case for years first from a think tank in Montana, The Property and Environment Research Center, and rom the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He wrote just last month: “President-elect Trump is well positioned to grant more freedom to Native Americans.” (Note to Republicans: If you are serious about making this a policy, I would avoid the ‘free the Indians’ narrative. This was Arthur Watkins’ pitch during termination. The phrase has a definite and failed context.)

As will often be the case in a Trump White House, Anderson’s argument focuses on energy. “Considering the fact that tribes have an estimated $1.5 trillion in energy resources, President Trump should start by promoting more tribal authority over those resources,” Anderson wrote. “Such legislation is helping tribes like the coal-rich Crow. In 2013 it signed an option with Cloud Peak Energy, LLC to lease 1.4 billion tons of reservation coal. For the option, Cloud Peak paid the tribe $3.75 million and payments could increase to $10 million by 2018 if they start mining. These kinds of deals give Indians some reason for hope.”

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If, then, this. Except. I would question at least one variable in this argument. If tribes have more say about resource extraction, then will tribes also have more say about environmental concerns? Does this logic give tribes a veto over resource extraction? Would that include approval or rejection of the Missouri River crossing of the Dakota Access Pipeline?

And specifically on coal, if there is a smaller global market for coal, then what’s the point? The International Energy Agency last year reduced its prediction for coal demand (after a decade of growing sales) in part because China’s consumption is dropping sharply. “The coal industry is facing huge pressures, and the main reason is China, but it is not the only reason,” said the agency’s executive director Fatih Birol. “The economic transformation in China and environmental policies worldwide – including the recent climate agreement in Paris – will likely continue to constrain global coal demand.”

That study predicts coal from India and Australia are growing and that the pipeline is already exceeding the capacity. “Probable” new export mining capacities amount to approximately 95 million tonnes per annum. But the current market environment strongly discourages investments as a substantial rebound of coal prices before 2020 is unlikely. Consequently, further postponements or cancellations of projects are expected.” So it’s not a great time to unleash coal as a market force (unless even lower prices are the goal).

If the world is moving past fossil fuel expansion, then the markets will not be there. This will not change in a pro-coal administration.

If there is to be a Secretary McMorris Rodgers, then who would develop and implement policy for Indian Country as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs? There are a lot of talented Republicans who will be making their case in the next few days and weeks. You would hope that people who have served in previous administrations, such as Swimmer, will have a say in what qualities should be sought to match the requirements of the office. Same goes for elected leaders such as Mullin, Rep. Tom Cole, and even those in state governments, such as New Mexico Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, a member of the Navajo Nation.

The idea of “if, then, this,” is also important to the opposition party, the Democrats.

McMorris Rodgers must give up her congressional seat. And already there are three candidates. But former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas said he will not run in a special election. He’s now chief executive of Spokane Tribal Enterprises.

But there are other ballot possibilities. Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison is a candidate to chair the Democratic National Committee. If he were to win that job, then he has said he would give up his seat in Congress. Already on Twitter there is speculation that the best candidate for the House seat would be Minnesota Rep. Peggy Flanagan, White Earth Band of Ojibwe.

If, then, this.

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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Trump’s choice for Interior could risk salmon recovery, treaty rights

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Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, will head to the Interior Department in the new Trump administration. (Photo by Gage Skidmore, Wikipedia Creative Commons)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers is President-elect Donald J. Trump’s choice to head the Department of the Interior. If confirmed by the Senate, she would managed federal lands, including those that produce energy, as well as national parks. She would be oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

McMorris Rodgers has all the necessary qualifications: Pro oil and gas development? Check. Climate change skeptic? Check. Skeptical about federal land ownership in the West? Check.

And, if you need one more check mark, her record in the House does not reflect her being a particularly close ally of tribes from the Republican side.

The Violence Against Women Act is one example. In 2013, McMorris Rogers met with Deborah Parker, then vice chairman of the Tulalip Tribes,  where they explored language that would get Republican support and open tribal jurisdiction on domestic violence. But when Rep. Tom Cole’s alternative bill surfaced that did just that, McMorris Rodgers voted no. Slate magazine said he dismissed tribal concerns as “a side issue” and voted the party line against the Violence Against Women Act.

The most problematic issue for Northwest tribes might be salmon.

She describes herself as “a champion of our dams and the power they produce.” She recently told Washington Ag Network:  “There are some who believe the Snake River dams are not allowing for adequate salmon recovery. However, thanks to collaboration between states, tribes, federal agencies, and private property owners, our salmon are returning at record levels. Since 2014, more than 2.5 million adult salmon and steelhead passed Bonneville Dam, the highest returns since they began counting in 1938. The Sockeye, Fall Chinook, and Coho were also among record and near-record runs as well.”

But will salmon recovery continue without removing dams on the Snake River? A federal judge in May rejected the government’s recovery plan and said the government had to calculate at least the potential of removing dams.

An irrigation group responded by calling for the government to give up on salmon and declare the species extinct (using an odd provision in the Endangered Species Act that assembles a committee, “the God squad,” to make a determination that nothing more can be done to save salmon). Darryll Olsen, representing The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association,  said in the Tri-City Herald, that “the association is hoping for a fair and equitable ruling that would end a cycle of repeated litigation, and escalating and more expensive plans for what is already the most extensive fish protection and enhancement program in the world.” The debate pits salmon recovery against the four Snake River dams that make it possible to barge agricultural products from Lewiston, Idaho, to Oregon ports. And the dams generate inexpensive electricity for some 800,000 Northwest homes.

As a Tri-City Herald headline put it: “People passionate about saving Snake River dams.” But then the newspaper didn’t talk to tribes who are just as passionate about saving salmon.

And, even if the God Squad is assembled, and even if the Snake River salmon are declared extinct, there will be more litigation ahead, including the assertion of tribal treaty rights.

But the Snake River dams will have the best advocate, the Secretary of Interior.

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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Op-Ed: Standing Rock is historic win for Native American religious freedom

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The message from Standing Rock is a rare win for religious freedom. (Photo by Dale Kakkak, News From Indian Country.)

By Charles C. Haynes / The Newseum Institute

On Dec. 4, the two-year struggle by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to protect their sacred land and water ended — at least for now — when the Obama administration denied the easement needed to complete the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The cancelled route, located one half mile from the tribe’s reservation in North and South Dakota, would have allowed the pipeline to cross under the Missouri River, a action that the tribe believes would threaten their life-giving water and destroy sacred sites.

Human rights advocates are savoring the moment. In the long, ugly history of persecution, exploitation, broken treaties, unkept promises and adverse court decisions, the victory at Standing Rock is a rare win for Native American religious freedom.

What is considered sacred by indigenous peoples — including, in this case, water, burial sites, sacred gathering spaces — has been, at various times in our history, debased, mocked, bulldozed or completely ignored by government officials and courts. In fact, for much of our history, many Native American ceremonies were illegal and people were imprisoned for practicing their religion.

The First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause is supposed to protect all religious groups, including those with rites and rituals rejected, feared or misunderstood by the majority. But the Supreme Court has often failed to treat Native American religious practices on a level playing field with other religious claims. In fact, Native Americans have never won a Free Exercise case at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Consider the 1988 Supreme Court decision in Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association. At issue was a plan by the U.S. Forest Service to build a road and harvest timber in a section of the Six Rivers National Forest considered sacred by the Yurok, Karok and Tolowa tribes. 

Although the justices acknowledged that the development plan would effectively destroy an entire religion, the Court ruled 5-3 that the constructing the road would not violate the free exercise of the tribes. As a result, Native Americans now have little recourse under the Constitution as they battle to preserve sacred sites on federally owned land.

Centuries of religious tradition can be wiped out — and invoking the First Amendment does nothing to prevent it.

Against the backdrop of this sad history, Native American protesters — calling themselves “water protectors” — gathered by the thousands and would not be moved. Representatives from more than 300 tribes flocked to Standing Rock, joined by human rights activists, veterans and ordinary citizens who know injustice when they see it.

Sprayed with water cannons in freezing weather, pelted with rubber bullets, tear gas and concussion grenades, the water protectors attempted to open a bridge barricaded by police, arguing that the barrier blocked emergency services from reaching their camp and the nearby Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Fortunately, tribal elders defused that confrontation. But more serious conflicts were anticipated after state officials gave the protesters a Dec. 5 deadline to leave the area; an order protesters promised to defy. The Obama administration’s action on Dec. 4 ended the standoff, handing Native Americans a rare religious freedom victory.

Not surprisingly, proponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline are outraged. Energy Transfer Partners, builders of the pipeline, accused the Obama administration of “currying favor with a narrow and extreme political constituency” by halting the project. North Dakota Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer described the move as a “chilling signal to others who want to build infrastructure.”

Given the political clout of pipeline supporters, the tribes are aware that their victory is fragile — and could be undone after Jan. 20. A spokesman for Donald Trump has already announced that the president-elect supports completing the pipeline and will revisit the Obama administration’s decision once he is in the White House.

What the new administration will soon discover, however, is that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, supported by hundreds of tribes from across the country, will not fold their tents and quietly disappear. If construction resumes, threatening sacred water and land, the protest camps will grow in size and strength.

The Trump administration will face a stark choice: Once again remove Native Americans by force — or, at long last, protect Native Americans to preserve and practice their religion on land they hold sacred.

Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Newseum Institute and founding director of the Religious Freedom Center. Contact him via email at chaynes@newseum.org. Follow him on Twitter at @hayneschaynes

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Standing Rock Tribe defied history; what happens next is anything but inevitable

 

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Amazing day at the Oceti Sakowin Camp as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denies an easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline. It’s a huge victory for the Water Protectors. (Photo by Dale Kakkak, News From Indian Country.)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has defied history.

Nearly two years ago the Dakota Access Pipeline and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the tribe about an inevitable pipeline that would cross near their reservation and within treaty lands. The tribe objected. But it was inevitable. A done deal.

And in April the Camp of the Sacred Stones was set up as a center by LaDonna Brave Bull Allard as a center for spiritual resistance. Crazy, right? A few people standing together cannot do anything against the absolute power of the state of North Dakota and the oil company billionaires who want this done. Inevitable. A done deal.

Then in August Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II defied state authorities and was arrested in the pipeline’s path. He told Indian Country Today Media Network:  “The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is doing everything it can legally, through advocacy and by speaking directly to the powers that be who could have helped us before construction began.” So what? The $3.8 billion pipeline was inevitable. A done deal.

Then in September the tribe and its allies won a battle when the Obama administration said it would review the matter. “Construction of the pipeline on Army Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe will not go forward at this time,” said the joint statement from the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Army. “We request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.”

But the Dakota Access Pipeline’s owners ignored that request. Why should they stop? This entire pipeline route was designed to avoid federal interference. So what if the federal government was reviewing the record. This project was inevitable. A done deal.

In fact a few days later, in an extraordinary exchange before the U.S. Court of Appeals, the company admitted that the process was incomplete.  Judge Thomas B. Griffith asked: “Why not wait until you see whether you’re going to get the easement?” asked the judge. “To a neutral outside observer, it looks like you’re forcing their hand … So it’s a gamble. You’re gambling you’re going to win.”

And why not gamble? The easement was inevitable. A done deal.

But inevitable blew up Sunday night. On the same weekend when thousands of veterans showed up to support Standing Rock, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it will not grant the easement under Lake Oahe. And the corps will now require an Environmental Impact Statement.

So what now? That invincible force known as the oil industry is still out there, saying the project is inevitable.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer said: “Today’s unfortunate decision sends a very chilling signal to others who want to build infrastructure in this country. Roads, bridges, transmission lines, pipelines, wind farms and water lines will be very difficult, if not impossible, to build when criminal behavior is rewarded this way.”

(Remember the company was proceeding without an easement.)

And from Washington, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers Jay Timmons said the decision “defies logic, science and sound policy-decision making, and the consequences can be measured in lost work for manufacturers and those in the manufacturing supply chain. If a project that has involved all relevant stakeholders and followed both the letter and spirit of the law at every step of this approval process can be derailed, what signal does that send to others considering building new energy infrastructure in this country? We can only hope that President-elect Trump will stand by his promises to invest aggressively in new infrastructure in America and start by overturning this misguided decision and allow the completion of the pipeline.”

There we go again. Inevitable. A done deal. If only the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Cheyenne River Tribe, hundreds of other tribes, and people from across the planet would not have got in the way.

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Exactly so. (Photo by Dale Kakkak, News From Indian Country)

 

But there are three critical things to think about in that chronology and the idea of the inevitable.

First, no energy company can roll over a community that’s united. And that’s all of the communities involved, not just the people of Standing Rock. As Chairman Archambault said today in a news release, “throughout this effort I have stressed the importance of acting at all times in a peaceful and prayerful manner.” 

Second, President-elect Donald J. Trump can revisit this issue. He probably will. But it will not be easily undone. I have been writing for months that President Obama would likely take this action but it had to be done in concert with the federal agencies involved. A president’s power is not absolute. (I am really interested in the structure of the Army Corps’ decision to see just how complex it will be for a Trump administration to unwind.)

Third, and most important, this is a moment when North Dakota can tell the world what it really wants to be. The timing is ideal for a new beginning.

Is this a state where the sheer power of police, looking like military, will roll over the legitimate interests of a community? Is this how you tell the world, come to North Dakota, invest, we’re open? Or, does the state now take advantage of this unique opportunity to show what can be done in a spirit of reconciliation. This is the time for the state to get serious about an environmental impact statement, a smarter route, to work with the tribes, end prosecutions, and pardon those who are in the criminal justice system now. Even better: Take one more step and build bridges by investing in the Standing Rock neighborhood.

This whole pipeline encounter was a fiasco that was a better story for the 19th century instead of the 21st. It represented the total breakdown in communications between the tribes and the State of North Dakota. However there’s now a path toward the healing that needs to occur. And that is what should be inevitable. A done deal. #HealNorthDakota

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

 

 

Juneau for president? As Trump interviews administration candidates

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Denise Juneau, Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, is a potential candidate for President of the University of Montana.

 

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The period between an election and a new presidential administration is nothing short of frantic. There is just not enough time to fill all the positions that open up on Jan. 20, 2017, some 8,000 posts that are political in nature. About 1,200 of those jobs require Senate confirmation. President-elect Donald Trump is interviewing a lot of people, moving fast to staff his administration.

The extraordinary thing is that this huge federal hiring spree opens up prospects up and down the line.

At every newspaper I have worked at over the years there were always those December stories about prospective appointments from back home to DC. North Dakota, for example, has several candidates ranging from Rep. Kevin Cramer to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. Sen. Heitkamp makes sense as Energy Secretary in a Trump administration because she’s supported the oil and gas industry, including the Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Let’s be clear here: No one against pipelines or demanding a quicker transition to green fuels is going to get this job.) Her appointment would also mean one less Democrat in the Senate (and two years ahead of schedule).

Cramer has a lot of options. His side won. He can move up to the Senate. He can take a post in the administration. Or he can be the reliable voice for oil and gas in the House (as if that’s an underserved community). Any of the North Dakota seats that open up would be long-shot prospects for Chase Iron Eyes, Ruth Buffalo or Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun. All three learned a lot during recent statewide campaigns. But a special election in a deep red state is especially difficult. Then again. Stranger things have happened.

Another potential Trump appointment is Cathy McMorris Rodgers, possibly as Interior Secretary. (She’s being considered as is Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin.) A couple of points. First, McMorris Rodgers has shown little interest in Native American issues while in Congress. She almost always sides with opponents. On the other hand, a McMorris Rodgers appointment opens up the House seat. And former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas already has an organization and name identification. In this case, a special election could be an advantage. Fallin, however, would have the ear of many Oklahoma tribes who have worked with her in the past. If she were to head Interior, many of the appointments in Indian Affairs would be familiar names.

And one potential job shift that’s outside of politics: Yesterday Royce Engstrom, the president of the University of Montana, resigned. The Board of Regents has appointed an interim leader and a search committee will begin looking for a spring hire. But one name is already surfacing: Denise Juneau. She will soon end her time as the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. A petition from change.org calls Juneau “a rising star” who is well suited to reform the university and taking on the challenges of declining enrollment, budgets being slashed, and students not being able to take the courses required for graduation.

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