Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

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Updated interactive version of this graphic, here.  (Trahant Reports)

Native American Republicans include two elected members of Congress; a dozen serving in seven state legislatures

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Indian Country cannot afford to close the door to Republicans in Congress and in state legislatures, especially those Native Americans who have been elected to office and serve as Republicans.

There are two tribal citizens serving in Congress: Representatives Tom Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, and Markwayne Mullin, a member of the Cherokee Nation.

There are at least at least a dozen Native American Republicans serving in state legislatures (compared to 51 Democrats) in seven states. That list includes Alaska Sen. Lyman Hoffmana Democrat, but he caucuses with the Republican majority and now serves as a chair of several committees and sub-committees. Hoffman is Yup’ik. In the Alaska House, Rep. Charisse Millett, Inupiaq, is now her party’s minority leader.

Not all the elected Native American Republicans make tribal issues any sort of priority. Minnesota Rep. Steve Green, for example, does not include tribal membership in his biography or in his campaign literature. Yet his district includes the White Earth Nation.

However most of the Native American Republicans who are elected to office also engage in Native policy issues before state legislatures, including support for enhancing tribal languages, teaching Native history, expanding or limiting tribal jurisdiction, voting rights, and, soon, state measures to shape the next version of health care reform.

One shared trait of the Native Americans who are elected as Republicans is support for fossil fuel energy development. “As a local elected official, I am outraged that Indian Country is prevented from harnessing our own energy resources by ever-increasing regulations,” New Mexico State Representative Sharon Clachischillage said in a Native Americans for Trump promotion. “The Trump Administration will ease restrictions on American energy reserves worth trillions of dollars. Together we will block the bureaucrats holding Native American businesses back and bring new jobs into our communities.”

But even the idea of energy development gets more complicated in Indian Country.  As Sen. Hoffman reports on his biography page: “Every Alaskan deserves affordable energy. As a resource rich state (oil, gas, wind, and tidal), our state should and could, harness all of this energy to benefit all of its citizens. I pledge to continue to work towards reducing the high cost of energy in rural Alaska.” Anyone who’s purchased gas in a village — topping $6 a gallon in Hoffman’s home in Bethel — gets that.

But many of these same communities, especially in rural Alaska, are at the global warming frontline and more money will soon be required to build sea walls, fight more fires, or even relocate entire villages. In his biography, Hoffman only cites the opportunity. “Our backyard is changing opening new ventures, with the thawing of the tundra and the melting of the Arctic ice,” he writes. “It is my intent and my responsibility as your state Senator, to ensure our region participates …”

Then not every Republican even goes that far. Montana Sen. Jason Small, Northern Cheyenne, ran for office against Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, a Crow, to spur reinvestment in coal. Small recently wrote in The Billings Gazette: “Thirty million dollars a year in lost royalties, hundreds of direct jobs lost, thousands of families out of work and out of options, entire towns destroyed, statewide economic ripples, and over $1 trillion dollars in stranded assets, not necessarily because of market forces, but directly attributable to a political agenda. That is what we face in the current and unprecedented assault on reason and Montana’s economy in what has been dubbed ‘the War on Coal.’”

Then market forces will be a test of this notion. Can pro-coal Republicans legislate the revival of the coal industry? Small argued in the piece that “carbon capture and combined cycle technology can solve the global climate challenge posed in part by the world’s more than 7,000 coal-fired power plants.” Coal prices did surge after Trump’s election, at one point topping $110 per metric ton, but have since declined to about $83.50 per ton. Since the election at least one major power plant, the Navajo Generating Station near Page, has been marked for closure in two years. The Arizona utilities that own the generating station say that the low cost of natural gas is their primary reason for closing the plant. That in two words, market forces.

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Waiting for Congress

Most state legislatures are waiting for Congress before taking action before another round of healthcare reform at the state level. And that’s a debate that is still hot. There are three distinct points of view about repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare). The plan by the House leadership (which has not been released yet) is supposed to be designed around tax credits instead of the insurance subsidies that are in the current law. Several of the most conservative members of the House and Senate see that as a new entitlement and have signaled their opposition. A third group of Republican moderates have been working with state governors to preserve Medicaid expansion because that insures some 22 million people (including more than $800 million for the Indian health system).

Rep. Cole is a likely supporter of the plan that emerges from House leadership. That includes a repeal of the Affordable Care Act as well as the Medicaid expansion. He recently told Native America Calling that Oklahoma did not choose to expand Medicaid and that made the system unequal.

However Cole said what ever plan emerges he said the Indian Health Care Improvement Act is a “bedrock” legal authority that must remain. “This legislation was included … purely as ‘vote bait’ to secure Democratic votes and has nothing to do with” the Affordable Care Act,” Cole said. “It is vital and ensures that Native Americans have quality health care available to them and their families. There is no controversy here – it sets the national policy for many programs and services provided by the Indian Health Service.”

A few weeks ago the repeal of the Affordable Care Act seemed like a sure thing. And now? The next week or two could answer that question. And the course that’s picked will have a huge impact on the Indian health system. 

And, over that same time frame, Native American Republicans will be asked to take a stand about deep budget cuts across federal agencies. Several news agencies have reported that the Office of Management and Budget is calling for a $1.3 billion cut at the Interior Department. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke employees that he did look at the budget and is not happy about it, according to Energy & Environment News. “We’re going to fight about it,” Zinke said, “and I think I’m going to win at the end of the day.” E & E News reported that Zinke would engage in a major reorganization of the department, one that focuses the agency on the next one hundred years (including the promotion of tribal sovereignty).

It’s easy to find the issues where Native American Democrats and Republicans disagree. Indeed it would be simple for me to shape every column as doom and gloom, the logic of “Oh, what is that Trump going to do next?” But that won’t help the policy debates that are so important to Indian Country. But that idea discounts how much agreement there is out there — even in this hyper-partisan climate. It was Rep. Cole who helped champion the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, including the provisions for tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians. Tribes still have a lot of work to do to implement that law. Deborah Parker, former vice chair of the Tulalip Tribes, and a key supporter of the act, said tribes should get their law and order codes ready now to comply with the law. Too few tribes have taken that step and VAWA will again require reauthorization in 2018 so Indian Country has to present its strongest case for this Congress.

One example of a Native American issue that cuts across party lines is unfolding in Wyoming. The Indian Education for All, House Bill 76, would require the state’s schools to educate all children about the history and economic contributions by the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes.

Sen. Affie Ellis was just elected in November and is a co-sponsor of the legislation. She’s a Navajo who grew up in Wyoming and she told the Casper Star-Tribune that Native American students sometimes are threatened by verbal abuse during sports trips across the state. “It’s a really important first step to understanding each other a little bit better,” she told The Star-Tribune. “It’s a brief idea, and I think it’s a fitting one.”

At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, Ellis spoke at a panel titled, “Rising Stars in the Conservative Movement.” Back in Wyoming her appearance generated both praise and criticism. The newspaper Planet Jackson Hole asked the question if Ellis was a “sane Republican alternative” to Trumpism? The paper quoted Ellis saying:  “I think our country needs so desperately some thought and some well researched responses …  There’s so many times when it’s easy to name call and have these cute hashtags that stick but we have to have strong facts and start communicating those facts in a very effective way. I think the hard part is the devil in the details of policy you’re working on doesn’t fit into small hashtags. Maybe we just need long hashtags.”

I don’t know about longer hashtags. The one I use,  #NativePolicy, is short. But we certainly need more thoughtful, complex policy debates.

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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