I skipped watching the State of the Union last night. That was the first time in, well, a couple of decades. There was really no reason to watch. I figured President Donald J. Trump would set out to be presidential in tone, but his words would largely be the more of the same.
It wasn’t a boycott on my part. I just didn’t care to listen. It’s so much less stressful to read the text later.
The State of the Union is a joint session of Congress. The House of Representatives is jammed with its members, the Senate, members of the Supreme Court, the cabinet, and invited guests. A fitting place for these eleven words said by the president: “Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill …”
The topic was infrastructure. But the problem of Congress producing a bill should be the greater question.
Instead of watching the State of the Union I was reading about the Ancien Régime, the end of the monarchy in France, the time just before the revolution.
I am especially interested in the mechanics of the Estates General. This was a legislative body with no official power (the king held that). The First Estate was the clergy, the wealthiest community in France at the time, owning about ten percent of all the land and exempt from all taxes. The Second Estate was the nobility. Still rich. Just not as rich as the priests. At least on a per capita basis. (And did own about a third of all the country’s property.) The Third Estate was supposed to be everyone else, but in practice it was really the bourgeoisie, the merchants, the lawyers, the folks who had some money and some property.
At first each “estate” had an equal vote. But there were only about 10,000 members of the clergy, about 400,000 nobles, and 25 million people. So representatives that accounted for about 3 percent of the population could out vote the 97 percent.
The Estates General had one essential mission: Approve a budget. But for more than a decade that body could not find the votes.
The opening of the Estates General would have been a familiar scene to those watching the pomp of a State of the Union. “Louis XVI … as a peaceful king, he declared himself ‘the people’s greatest friend.’” Make France Great Again, right?
There are two things from that era that ought to be a concern in the United States. The absolute imbalance between representation in the legislature and the population. And the inability to come together and agree on a spending plan.
Two of the three bodies in the Estate General wanted to tax everybody else. The Third Estate, the people, knew that meant them.
The Republican plan at least pretends to cut taxes for everybody (all the while growing the deficit beyond reason). But rich corporations (our version of the Second Estate) get permanent tax breaks while the majority does not. If you look at the data since the 1950s the Corporate Estate taxes have been shrinking dramatically. (The United States has mostly paid for these tax cuts by increasing the payroll tax, the money that comes out of our paychecks.)
Just before the Revolution, the French government was facing all sorts of fiscal problems. As French economists Thomas Sargent and François Velde wrote in the Journal of Political Economy that after wars (including the cost of the American Revolution) there was a call to cut government spending across the board. And tax revenues “grew too slowly, causing debt service to increase. By 1788, as in 1770 and during the Regency, the inexorable compounding of interest brought France to a fiscal crisis. France in the grips of some ‘unpleasant arithmetic.’”
There is unpleasant arithmeticin our future. Especially when Congress cannot reach a reasonable conclusion about spending. The richest country on the planet is budgeting over the course of a few weeks.
The other issue that ought to be a concern is the destruction of basic democracy. The Estates General was completely illogical (one-third, one-third, one third) and it eventually reformed so that the people had at least as twice as much representation as the church and nobles. But that system was still way out of whack.
That, too, is America. It’s not quite as bad. Yet.
“Americans are dreamers, too,” President Trump said when he talked about his ideas on immigration. That’s odd. Which Americans have access, politically at least, to those dreams?
There are 3.5 million citizens in Puerto Rico who cannot vote for Congress, the Senate, or president. There are less than 3.5 million citizens living in Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska and South Dakota. Those citizens are represented by ten United States Senators and five members of the House of Representatives. And don’t get me started about California’s place in this mess. (It’s not democratic and it’s not fair.)
It’s not the electoral college. And it’s mostly not gerrymandering. The imbalance in the U.S. system of democracy is old and structural. It’s about geography and who gets counted as voters. (A problem that is sure to grow in the next census.) And on top of that state legislatures are working to make it harder to vote, even further limiting democratic representation.
The Economist this week published its index of democracies. “America sits in 21st place in the ranking, level with Italy. It remains a “flawed democracy” for the second year in a row,” the magazine said. The index uses index 60 indicators across five broad categories—electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties—and “concludes that less than 5 percent of the world’s population currently lives in a “full democracy.”
Seems to me that would be a good goal for any State of the Union. “So tonight I am calling on the Estates General * cough* I mean Congress to produce a bill …”
Congress has yet to reenact the Children’s Health Insurance Program and states will soon run out of funds to prop up the program. That will mean that thousands of American Indian and Alaska Native children will lose their health insurance. And, the result is the Indian Health Service will have to stretch its already thin dollars to try and cover the budget hole.
The Children’s Health Insurance Program expired Sept. 30. This federal program insures young people and pregnant women who make just enough money not to qualify for Medicaid (but can’t afford private insurance). The idea is to make sure that every child has the resources to see a doctor when they are ill.
It’s hard to break down precise numbers because agencies lump funds from the Children’s Health Insurance Program or CHIP into Medicaid data. But we do know that the law worked really well. We also know there are more than 216,000 children that have health insurance because of Medicaid and the CHIP. Indeed, Native American children rely on Medicaid and CHIP at much higher percentages than other population groups. A study by Georgetown reported that 54 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native children were enrolled in Medicaid or CHIP as compared to 39 percent of all children. “Even though much progress has been made in extending Medicaid coverage to American Indians and Alaska Natives, the uninsured rate for American Indian and Alaska Native children and families remain unacceptably high,” the report said.
Overall the uninsured rate among non-elderly American Indians and Alaska Natives fell by 7 percentage points from 24 percent to 17 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
This is a big deal and here’s why: The Indian Health Service is a health care delivery operation that works best when insurance (third-party billing in government-speak) pays for the medical costs. Medicaid, CHIP, Medicare, and other third-party billing now accounts for 22 percent of the IHS’ $6.15 billion budget.
But if Children’s health is no longer funded (because Congress did not reauthorize the legislation) then the Indian Health Service will have to make up the difference. That means taking money away from other patients and programs. It will be a critical problem for clinics because by law dollars from third-party billing (or Medicaid and CHIP) remain local.
Alaska is the state most impacted by Congress’ failure to act because two-thirds of the children in the Native health system are covered by Medicaid or CHIP. Other states where there will be significant hits: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, New Mexico, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and California.
The House of Representatives passed a CHIP reauthorization in early November. But that bill included a $6.35 billion budget cut to other health programs, including the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which provides money for vaccines, smoking cessation, and other initiatives to improve public health. The House would also ban lottery winners from being insured by Medicaid, tighten the timetable for people to sign up, and to change other rules.
It’s unlikely the Senate will agree. But the Senate is not moving quickly to pass its own legislation. The Senate is too busy working out tax cuts that will benefit large corporations and the very wealthy. (Previous post: What matters? Tax fight is about seven competing values.)
Across the country, some nine million low- and middle-income children rely on CHIP for health coverage. And, according to The Hill newspaper, States have asked the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for funding to hold them over in the interim, and the agency has awarded about $607 million in redistributed funds to states and U.S. territories. Tribes will also lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in CHIP-related grants.
Last month, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, who chairs the Senate committee responsible, called CHIP a “top priority” that had bipartisan support. The committee passed the bill October 2. But it’s up to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to bring the legislation to the floor for enactment. Then the House and Senate would have to iron out and agree on their differences before the bill can become law.
A memo to the publisher (either to the next owner of Indian Country or to any news operation that’s going to serve that readership now.)
First question you have got to ask yourself is “Why?” Why are you doing this?” Odds are you will lose (or my word, invest) a lot of money. There are good reasons, but they have nothing to do with the financial enterprise. Those reasons might range from providing a real service to Indian Country to creating jobs. Howard Rock, the legendary founder and editor of The Tundra Times, once called it “an unselfish venture.”
Yet this is an essential venture. There is no chance that stories important to Indian Country are going to be covered by mainstream media. Oh, perhaps, once in awhile. But nothing systemic. It comes down to this: No one has to explain to an editor of a Native publication why it’s a story. That can only happen in a medium that serves American Indian and Alaska Native readers.
But money has to be part of the equation because it gives you independence. And independence is critical to your success. And, yes, the business model has changed — and will change again. Right now the best business model out there is a hybrid nonprofit, profit operation. I think of the Tyee in Vancouver. It’s web site is well organized. It delivers news through a variety of channels. The first thing you see on its page is a pitch: “Canada needs more independent journalism. Become a Tyee builder.” These days journalism needs people who are willing to write a check for no other reason than the good work you will do. Give them a reason.
My other favorite thing about the Tyee. It has a fellowship for writers. So in addition to paying people for stories, it gives a fellowship through its nonprofit arm for writers to work on a longer story. A few months, a year? No problem. Time to investigate. Time to write. Best of all, time to think.
There are three things a news organization must do to serve readers better.
First, there has to be a visible editor. There is a reason the hiring of an editor at The Washington Post or The New York Times is a front page story. Editors bring their personality (even their quirks) into a newsroom. They set standards. An editor is an evangelist for the mission.
A Cherokee editor, John Rollin Ridge was the founder of The Sacramento Bee. He divided newspaper editors into “true editors” and “apologies for editors.” True editors, he said, must know “everything” and must carry a vast “fund of general information, for there is not a subject which engages men’s minds, in whatever range of science or literature, upon which he is not peremptorily called to write.” Ridge was also clear about what that meant. The Bee should be independent instead of a paper where the editors were “nothing more than the sneaking apologists of scoundrels who pay them for the trouble of lying.”
Another version of that story was told by Ora Eddleman, whose family owned The Twin Territories and the Muskogee Daily Times where she later worked as a wire editor: “There’s nothing like a newspaper newsroom to give you a well-rounded education.” She was a true editor.
Second, tell us what’s important. Every story is not the same. There should be a method for determining what’s important. And the medium then tells its readers. Yes, it’s easy to post stories that get a lot of clicks. But that’s not news. News is something that informs and once in a while, inspires. We are better citizens when we are informed. Elias Boudinot had the best phrase when he was editing The Cherokee Phoenix. He called it “a vehicle of Indian intelligence.” Exactly.
Third, set high standards and be transparent. Hire talented people and then trust them to do their jobs. Be open. No news organization can effectively do its job when its operations are invisible. Make clear who does what with a masthead. Perhaps publish a monthly, or at least an annual report, including numbers. Where does the money come from? What are the costs of business? What’s the overall health?
I have buried (or been around a burial) of many news organizations in my time. And most died without warning. I found out about the Seattle P-I on a ferry; a TV station broke the story. Let people know what’s going on, and, surprise, surprise, they will help.
One more thing: About that why.
This is a moment in history where the free flow of information is critical. Indian Country needs a vehicle of Indian intelligence. As Elias Boudinot wrote in 1832 (as he was losing his editorship of The Cherokee Phoenix) “I do conscientiously believe it to be the duty of every citizen 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.”
Deborah Parker will be a witness to the president’s speech to Congress Tuesday night as the guest of Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore.
A reminder about what’s at stake from Congressional gallery
Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports
President Donald J. Trump is set to deliver a financial blow to Indian Country. His first budget will propose cuts of at least $54 billion and an amount that he will add to Defense Spending.
The president will check off his promises from the campaign (even those that make no sense), according to Politico. “He’s doing what he said he was going to do.”
The budget cuts will come on top of already lean federal spending based on the budget deal that Congress made in 2011 resulting in the sequester. The budget specifics have not been released yet, but to give you an idea about how steep these cuts are, the entire Interior Department budget is $14 billion. So to reach the $54 billion total there would have to be federal programs eliminated.
And that math is a problem. “Accounting for the increase in Veterans Administration (VA) funding that Congress has already approved for 2018 and assuming that Congress doesn’t cut funding for the Department of Homeland Security below current levels, the cut to all other non-defense discretionary programs would be 15 percent,” writes Sharon Parrott, a senior fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. ” And if Congress raises homeland security funding above this year’s level, as is likely (news reports indicate the Administration will boost funding for border security), or if Congress raises VA funding further (which is also likely), cuts in other Non-Defense, Domestic areas would have to be even deeper.”
Several reports say the White House is planning a cut of 25 to 30 percent for the Environmental Protection Administration, the State Department, and the Department of Energy. Of course Congress, not the president, has the final word. And there is already problems on that front. Many conservatives are not happy that this budget leaves in tact entitlement programs, such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. What’s more: There are Republicans in the House and Senate who will push back against the steep cuts at the agencies. Basically this represents the White House’s opening bid.
One program the White House wants to wipe out is the Justice Department’s Violence Against Women Act office. That agency funds tribal governments “respond to violent crimes against Indian women, enhance victim safety, and develop education and prevention strategies.” The program funded 53 domestic violence programs last year at a cost of some $33 million.
Deborah Parker, former vice chair of the Tulalip Tribes, will be in the House gallery for the joint session. She was invited by Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wisconsin, to act as a reminder that the president’s agenda will hurt real people across the country. Parker is an important voice for Native American women on domestic violence issues. She worked tirelessly to get the Violence Against Women Act reauthorized in 2013 and to make sure that Indian Country was included in its provisions. The most controversial part of the law was the recognition of tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians for domestic violence crimes. The number of prosecutions since the law has been enacted remains small as tribes have been slow to incorporate VAWA into tribal codes.
And wiping out the Justice Department program that funds such efforts will only make that transition more difficult. But there are many allies in Congress for the program and there will be a fight to continue funding this effort.
Parker said she was told she was invited by Rep. Moore because she was “tired of how the Trump administration was treating Native Americans, including Native women. The way he’s treated Standing Rock, the way he’s treated women in general.” Rep. Moore wanted a symbolic gesture, inviting a Native American woman to the Joint Session.
And the bad news ahead? “I am going to pray about it. Prayer is what gets us through everything,” Parker said. “I am going to pray for everyone in that room that they open their ears, their minds, their hearts, to the heartbeat of these lives of the nation.”
Parker said “you never know what to expect when you go to DC.” But she plans on talking to every member of Congress who will listen about the issues facing tribal communities. “Show your face. Being present is a big thing, a Native person present and being able to speak with a member. Not everyone knows the issues. But as long as you are there to shake their hand, let them know who you are, and, to remember the indigenous peoples of these lands. That’s a place to start.”
President Trump’s talking points include an “an optimistic vision for the country that crosses the traditional lines of party, race and socioeconomic status.” The president’s speech will “reach out to Americans living in the poorest and most vulnerable communities, and let them know that help is on the way.”
Empty words when the budget cuts the White House is proposing will only make life more difficult for millions of Americans.
Native American representation in Congress was 0.37 percent before the election and today it’s the same, Rep. Tom Cole and Rep. Markwayne Mullin were easily re-elected to the House.
But Denise Juneau, Joe Pakotas and Chase Iron Eyes were all defeated by wide margins in Montana, Washington and North Dakota.
The tally of statewide office holders will drop, though. Denise Juneau will end her term as Montana’s Supt. of Public Instruction in January. Byron Mallot was not on the ballot and he has another two years as Lt. Gov. of Alaska. But Henry Red Cloud, Ruth Buffalo, and Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun lost their bid for offices in South Dakota and North Dakota.
Native Americans running for state legislatures did not fare better, except, I should point out there are some bright spots.
Rep. Paulette Jordan, a Democrat, won re-election in deep red Idaho. She posted on Facebook: “While it is bittersweet to win in such a large loss both local and national, we must remain hopeful and optimistic that our vision of equality and balance will soon be achieved. Until that day comes: onward!”
And Montana Native legislative candidates won 8 seats from both reservation and urban districts. Elected were Shane Morigeau to represent Missoula, Garrett Lankford in Great Falls, and Frank Smith, Carolyn Pease-Lopez, Susan Webber, Rae Peppers, Jonathan Windy Boy and the lone Republican, Jason Smith.
Four Native women won in Minnesota. State Representatives Susan Allen, Peggy Flanagan, Mary Kunesh-Podein were re-elected, and a new voice, Jamie Becker-Finn.
Rep.-elect Tawna Sanchez in Oregon and Kansas re-elected Rep. Ponke-We Victors.
Still, Indian Country lost some races with really talented people. But elections are not forever. So expect to hear more in the future from: Laurel Deegan-Fricke in North Carolina, Cesar Alvarez, Cheryl Ann Kary in North Dakota, Red Dawn Foster in South Dakota, Bryan Van Stippen in Wisconsin, and, Ronda Metcalf and Sharlaine LaClair from Washington.
Do you ever wonder who will be the first Native American president? That answer might already be found on the ballots across the country. Where more Native Americans than ever are running for office.
Welcome to the Trahant Reports election special. I’m Mark Trahant.
You can find my blog at trahantreports.com or my work on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and, if you have an iPhone, on Apple News. Just look for Trahant Reports.
So often the stories reported about Indigenous people are defined by our challenges. These are the stories we know too well.
Instead we’re going to talk about our successes. We’ll explore how Native Americans are challenging the status quo by running for office and voting.
It’s sovereignty at the ballot box.
I’d like to report this is a record year for Native Americans running for elective office. But there’s a problem. No one has ever measured this before. We don’t have good data.
So is this a record year? Probably. Likely and why not?
Here’s the plan. I have broken this story into chapters. I’ve posted slides (they can be found on the Native Voice One website, many radio station web sites, or on my blog at trahantreports.com) Feel free to take a look at while you are listening, the visual story is one reason why I wanted to create chapters in this podcast.
Chapter one: Context
Let’s start with this number: 1.7 percent is the Census Bureau’s estimate of how many American Indians and Alaska Natives there are in this country. (There are a lot of ways you can measure the population of Native Americans. But I wanted one that would be useful because it’s found across many documents and that makes it easy to compare. It’s also the number used by the National Congress of American Indians.) So this is our baseline for discussion.
I should mention that one important election factor is that the population of American Indians and Alaska Natives is growing faster than the general population. By a wide margin. In fact, a third of all Native Americans are under the age of 18, compared to about a quarter of the total population. We are a young people. And our numbers are rising and in politics that’s everything.
And it’s not just American Indians and Alaska Natives who are changing the face of America. It’s a much larger diversity story.
When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 the population of the United States was 80 percent white. Today it’s about 63 percent white.
One demographic profile of voters by The National Journal shows how dramatically the country has changed since President Reagan’s landslide. He won with the support of 56 percent of white voters in 1980. But in 2012, when non-white voters accounted for 28 percent of the electorate, Mitt Romney took 59 percent of white voters—and lost the presidential race by 4 percentage points.
What’s striking about this election so far is that the Republican candidates did not even try to build a coalition with minority voters, young voters, or to fix the gender gap that’s been a problem for decades.
Millennials are now the largest age group – some 90 million people – and are more independent than previous generations.
The country’s diversity trend is just beginning. The U.S. Census reports that American Indians and Alaska Natives grew 1.4 percent since 2013, compared to about 0.5 percent for whites.
So if we are growing, what does that mean in a political context? Well, a couple of years ago, Malia Villegas, director of the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center, said population parity would mean at least two U.S. senators and seven members of the House of Representatives.
That’s the goal. How far away are we from that? Well it’s really the number two because there are only two, Representatives in the U.S. Congress, Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin, both are Republicans from Oklahoma.
Tom Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Tribe, maybe the most important members in the history of Congress.
When the issues involve tribes, and especially tribal sovereignty, Cole is a champion. But more than that advocacy, Cole argues the case for tribes from within the Republican caucus, and, even better, within the House Republican leadership. He is a measured, reasoned voice, not just for Indian Country, but for his ideas about what a conservative party should be. And that recognizes being inclusive.
Cole has history of being the consistent inside-the-party voice calling for more money for the Indian Health system. “We have a lot of people on both sides of the aisle who recognize the Indian country has been historically underfunded,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network in 2012. And, more important, he was the architect of building a coalition in the House to enact the Violence Against Women Act. He told WNYC radio that bill was “a very difficult issue because there were divisions within his own conference that prevented (then Speaker John Boehner) from getting to 218 votes.”
Yet Cole found enough Republicans and Democrats working together to pass the measure into law.
Rep. MarkWayne Mullin is in his second term. He is a member of the Cherokee Nation and he describes himself as a “rancher” and as a “businessman.” He took over his father’s plumbing business and expanded it several fold. His website lists a variety of conservative causes, ranging from too much foreign aid to repealing ObamaCare. Mullin does talk about tribal issues from time to time, but more often is a reliable vote for the conservative factions in the House of Representatives. He’s not the kind of representative to buck his party on, say, the Violence Against Women Act.
Chapter Two: The Presidency
My focus is on Native Americans who are running for office. But you cannot talk about an election project without at least talking about the presidency.
So here are a few thoughts.
Hillary Clinton is a story that’s told in hundreds of tweets from mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, and those who make up the larger American family. One of my favorite images of this campaign shows a young Native daughter watching Clinton walk on stage to accept the Democratic nomination.
That image says so much about what’s possible.
“When there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit,” Clinton said. It’s line we all know to be true.
The limitless sky reminded me about Wilma Mankiller. She was fond about telling a story about the first treaty negotiations between the Cherokee Tribe and the United States. One of the first questions: “Where are your women?”
Mankiller said it was common for Cherokee women to be included in ceremonies and negotiations and it was inconceivable that the United States would come to a negotiation alone. How can you negotiate anything with only half your people or half a way of thinking?
“Where are your women?” That question has a new meaning and it parallels that of Native Americans running for and winning offices across the country. First one person wins, then another, then another, and so on. “Where are your women?” is a question with different answers every election. In state legislatures, Congress, and soon, possibly, the White House. Where are your women? The answer would be, running governments.
WHEN IT COMES TO INDIAN COUNTRY, Donald Trump is running on one issue, energy. There is probably no greater divide between Republicans and Democrats than on energy and climate issues.
Donald Trump calls his energy policy, “America First,” a new energy revolution. “President Obama has done everything he can to get in the way of American energy,” Trump said. Too many regulations make it harder to profit.
But it’s not just costly regulations making profits harder to come by. It’s also market forces. And that’s the part of the story that doesn’t fit neatly into a political debate. Drive across North Dakota, as I have recently done , and you will be struck by the huge “man camps” that were built to temporarily house oil and gas workers. Many of those camps now sit empty or near empty because the jobs have dropped as fast as the price of oil. (It’s now about $50 a barrel, up from its lows, but significantly less than what oil producers predicted.
Trump supports the Dakota Access Pipeline — a project that news reports also say he has invested in.
A political history
Remember the entire premise of the U.S. political system is that tribes are governments. Tribes are political entities enshrined in the Constitution. Yet, and this is huge, tribes are the only such political entity that does not include even minimal, structural representation in Congress.
Even before the Constitution, the Continental Congress made it possible for residents of the territory of Ohio to have a voice.
On November 11, 1794, one James White was seated in the Third Congress as a Delegate. Congress hadn’t even set the rules yet for what that meant. White did end up in the House where his role was described, as quote “no more than an Envoy to Congress” because he could not vote.
Today there are six Delegates in Congress, representing Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., Guam, U.S.Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
This is where Indian Country gets short-changed.
The Navajo Nation, a geographic, political, constitutional entity, is far larger and has more people than the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa or the Northern Mariana Islands.
The thing is Congress makes up its own rules for Delegates. It’s not a Constitutional act.
But full authority or not, at least Delegates are there. Seated. At the table. Their very presence would be a reminder about the unique political status of tribal governments.
There’s another interesting thread of history: And that’s about the office of Vice President. It may be worth at least a footnote in the long history of tribal, federal relations.
Charles Curtis was Herbert Hoover’s vice president and running mate. He had been the Senate Majority leader, representing Kansas. He was a member of the Kaw Tribe,and spoke Kanza, but instead of being an American hero, he’s most known for being the author of the General Allotment Act of 1887 – the Curtis Act – the very vehicle used to rob Native people of some 90 million acres of land.
Curtis is not alone in one respect. More American Indians have been candidates for the vice presidency than any other national office.
In the 2000 and 2004, Winona LaDuke, a member of Minnesota’s White Earth Chippewa Tribe, was on the presidential ballot as Ralph Nader’s running mate for the Green Party ticket. The Greens, she said, would “stand with others around this country as a catalyst for the creation of a new model of electoral politics.”
And before LaDuke, LaDonna Harris, a Commanche, and a founder of Americans for Indian Opportunity, was the vice presidential nominee of the Citizen’s Party in 1980. She ran with ecologist Barry Commoner in the year of Ronald Reagan’s landslide win.
Another historical thread, the motivation of some Native American candidates.
After World War II there was a disastrous policy called termination – the idea of ending the federal-treaty relationship with tribal governments – there were two distinct reasons. Some believed it was the next logical step for Indian progress, an economic integration. While others hated government and used termination as a method to shrink and attack government.
Utah Republican Senator Arthur Watkins was from the shrink-and-attack government camp. He was zealous about termination, badgering tribal witnesses when they came to Capitol Hill, refusing to even consider alternatives. He dismissed treaty obligations outright. Indians, he said, “want all the benefits of the things we have – highways, schools, hospitals, everything that civilization furnished – but they don’t want to pay their share of it.”
This was a real threat and Native American leaders responded by encouraging people to vote.
Joseph Garry was president of the National Congress of American Indians during this era. In a period of about 30 years, more than a hundred tribes were disbanded and tribal governments dissolved. The result was huge losses of land and natural resources in Oregon, Utah, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Texas.
Garry saw voting as the strongest weapon in this battle. So the chairman of the Coeur d’Alene tribe ran for the Idaho House of Representatives and was elected in 1957. Later, he won a seat in the the Idaho Senate, and in 1960 he sought the Democratic Party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate.
Idaho is a surprising birthplace for Garry’s legacy. Not many Native Americans live in Idaho, where they comprise roughly 1 percent of the population. But Garry’s successes there (even then) showed that someone from a tribal community could be a leader for all citizens of the state.
And it’s an active legacy. In 1975, Garry’s niece, Jeanne Givens, became the first Native woman elected to the Idaho House of Representatives. Like her uncle, she challenged the status quo with a bid for Congress in 1988. Givens lost, but four years ago another Coeur d’Alene tribal member, Paulette Jordan, ran for the Idaho House seat. She lost that attempt but two years later she won and that illustrates what may be the most important lesson in politics: You’ve got to run to win—sometimes more than once. Jordan describes Givens as a mentor who has taught her much about politics and both have earned the legacy of Joe Garry.
When a state like Idaho has a history of electing Native Americans to public office, you have to wonder, “Where else?” It’s almost been a story of success-by-stealth.
There is a win in Arizona, another in Kansas. And when you add them up, there are at least 73 American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians serving in 19 state legislatures.
Chapter 3: The People’s House
It’s easy to be optimistic about the prospects for American Indian and Alaska Native candidates in this election and beyond. Our numbers are growing, organizations are getting stronger, and, best of all, the most remarkable, talented people are giving elective office a shot.
So then I hear a voice inside: “Ahh, yes, but good people lose.” That’s true. But at the same time politics has a long arc that brings about change. It’s not one election. Or one candidate. It’s the constant push.
This year several talented people did just that. My former colleague at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Edgar Blatchford, ran for the Senate in Alaska. He ran with little money, promoting his candidacy largely via social media. He was the only Native American running for the U.S. Senate.
There are two areas of the country where it’s a question of “when” not “if” there will be Native representation in Congress. Alaska is one and Arizona is the second.
Victoria Steele ran for the House from southern Arizona and in northern Arizona, two Navajos, both Republicans, did campaign for that seat. State Senator Carlyle Begay and Shawn Redd.
Perhaps it’s an election or two away but one day … there will be Native American members of Congress who represent Arizona and Alaska.
Across the nation this year there are five Native American candidates for Congress. The two Republican incumbents, plus three challengers, Denise Juneau in Montana, Joe Pakootas in Washington, and Chase Iron Eyes in North Dakota.
Denise Juneau is Montana’s superintendent of public instruction. She’s a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikakara Tribes and grew up in Browning, Montana, in the Blackfeet Reservation. Juneau has a track record. She’s already won two statewide contests and knows what it takes to win a House seat. This is how U.S. politics often works: A candidate wins at the state level, does a good a job, and then she moves on to Congress. Juneau is running against Rep. Ryan Zinke. And, lately, there has been back and forth about who has been in Montana longer. Seriously.
Joe Pakootas would be the first former tribal leader ever elected to Congress.
Then in North Dakota, there is Chase Iron Eyes. He’s from Standing Rock — the center of attention for Indian Country (and for the planet). He’s an attorney. And he’s running for Congress from North Dakota out of necessity. “I take a look around and I see that our government is broken, and I feel responsible to do my part to try and fix this on behalf of North Dakota.”
In addition to Congress, more Native Americans than ever are running for state offices.
Let’s start in North Dakota. Where there is a lot of news right now.
The rush to build a new oil pipeline from the Bakken oil fields to Patoka, Illinois, was supposed to be routine. It was designed to avoid regulation, especially federal oversight, and get built without fanfare.
The Dakota Access Pipeline issue united Indian Country in a way that’s unprecedented.
But there’s another important chapter. No state in the history of the country has ever had three Native Americans running as major party nominees for statewide offices. To put that in perspective in recent years: Larry EchoHawk, Pawnee, ran for attorney general and won and governor of Idaho (he lost). And there have been a few others candidates, but my point is they’re scattered, one candidate is a big deal. So three Native American candidates, well that’s beyond extraordinary.
Iron Eyes as I mentioned is running for Congress. Buffalo for the state’s insurance commissioner. And, Hunte-Beaubrun is running for the Public Service Commission, the agency that would regulate pipelines. They are running on the North Dakota Democratic-NonPartisan League Party ticket.
Iron Eyes travels the state’s roadways pulling a cargo trailer with his campaign signs inside and on display outside. It’s probably his most visible campaign advertising. On a Saturday he made certain to park his vehicle where the University of North Dakota was playing football. More eyeballs. His fundraising is authentic grass roots. He posted on Facebook recently: “16,227 people have contributed an average of $3.80 to our campaign. Send $3.80 today!”
Three. Dollars. Eighty. That’s it. Think of what that means in a world where the wealthy write checks and buy access to politicians from both parties.
Ruth Buffalo may be the hardest working candidate in the history of North Dakota. Every time you open Facebook you see here knocking on doors, making telephone calls, or supporting the other candidates who are running. When people look at her resume, her background, she is clearly prepared for this job. As Greg Stites, a former counsel for the North Dakota Insurance Commission, wrote in The Grand Forks Herald: “Ruth Buffalo is the best candidate for the job, with an academic background essentially built for the role of insurance commissioner. She holds a master’s degree in public health from North Dakota State University. Her depth of knowledge of the health and insurance needs for our state are unmatched by her opponents. And her accomplishments do not end there.”
There is not only history, but irony, in Hunte-Beaubrun’s candidacy for the very agency that would regulate pipelines in North Dakota. She’s from Cannonball. The Dakota Access Pipeline dispute is her community; her water. Imagine how history would be different if on a regulatory agency there was one person who could object to a routine pipeline drawing.
The rules would be different “because we would have a seat at that table,” she said. And we would be able to help everyone understand culturally where we’re coming from.”
There could have been a solution without controversy.
This is the essence of why representation is so critical. We have so many states, counties, cities, where decisions have been made without even hearing a Native voice, let alone considering what’s said. That’s not democracy. And it will no longer work in a country where the demographics are changing this rapidly.
Yes, it’s historic that three Native Americans are running for statewide office. But you know what’s even cooler than that? This trend is just beginning. Even better, think about what history that could still be created. What if everyone in Indian Country, every ally, everyone who wants change, saw the merit of voting for a candidate who’s proud of contributions measured in pocket coins instead of the million-dollar access that we’ve come to accept as normal?
Next door, in South Dakota, a Lakota man is running for the state agency that regulates energy.
South Dakota Democrats nominated Henry Red Cloud as the party nominee for a spot on the state’s Public Utilities Commission. Red Cloud is the founder and owner of a renewable energy company based in Pine Ridge, Lakota Solar Enterprises. The company says. “We believe that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is important. And on tribal lands, it is imperative. We hope you will join us in helping tribes achieve energy sovereignty.” He calls renewable energy “a new way to honor old ways.”
This is a great story to tell during an election campaign. Voters will be introduced to a creative and innovative energy path that’s creating real jobs now, employing people to build and install solar energy systems. Contrast this with the usual discourse about energy or even the nonsense about how climate change isn’t real.
Chapter Four: Shhh! Secret success
Who will be Indian Country’s Barack Obama? She’s probably already elected to a state office.
At least 73 American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians serve in 19 state legislatures. This is important. First, if you look at the body of work of these state senators and representatives, you’ll find them advocating for better service, more funding and improving relationships between tribal nations and state governments. Second, state offices are a source of talent for higher elective office, ranging from Congress to the White House. Remember it was only 1996 when Barack Obama was elected to the Illinois state Senate.
Montana best demonstrates the growing influence of Native Americans in politics.
Twenty years ago, Montana was pretty much like any state with a significant Native population. There were only one or two Native Americans serving in the legislature. Then a Native American candidate won in 1997. And again in 2003. And by 2007 Native Americans in Montana reached ten seats in the legislature; representing 6.6 percent of that body. Montana’s population is 7.4 percent Native American. Today there are 3 Native Americans in the Senate and 5 in the House, some 5.3 percent of the legislature.
To put the Montana percentages in national terms: If Congress were 5.3 percent Native American, there would be 5 U.S. Senators and 21 members of the House. Even if you adjust for population, the number of Native American members of Congress would have to more than double to equal the representation found in Montana.
Why is Montana the model? Hard work. Good candidates. And, when neccessary litigation to enforce the Voting Rights Act.
And there’s another reason why the Native American electoral experience in Montana is different.
The 2004 election of Brian Schweitzer as governor was a game changer. “Never before in Montana’s history has an entire Administration reached out to Indians to ensure they were acknowledged, respected, and most importantly, included,” During those eight years more than 250 “First Montanans” were appointed to boards, councils, commissions and state offices, including many firsts, such as appointments to the Fish and Wildlife commission, athletic commission, building code council and health-related boards. These offices made it clear to the citizens of Montana that Native Americans were a part of the body politic.
The track record of Native American legislators is also pretty good. According to Montana Budget and Policy Center, last year’s session produced a number of innovative laws, including Medicaid expansion (which is a financial boost to the Indian health system) as well as laws that will improve funding for tribal colleges, supporting tribal languages, and streamlining Indian business ventures. The record of Native American legislators was not 100 percent, but it’s likely that during the next session many of the ideas that failed to pass will be back on the agenda.
Oklahoma is the the largest state number of Native American legislators at 14. It’s also the only state with a balance between Democrats and Republicans (8 Democrats and 6 Republicans). To put that number in perspective: Nationally of the 70 elected Native Americans in state legislatures, 58 are Democrats and 12 are Republicans.
It’s also worth noting that tribes in Maine have three automatic delegates to the legislature. The offices are similar to delegates to Congress from the District of Columbia and U.S. Territories. The practice began in 1823 and Maine tribal delegates can serve on committees but cannot vote.
Across the country it’s clear that Native American representation before state governments significantly trails the population of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. For example there are 40 members serving in Alaska House and 20 in the state Senate. Yet only five Alaska Natives represented in the House — or 12.5 percent — and two in the Senate. Yet Alaska has the highest voting age population of Native Americans in the country, some 17 percent.
The growth of Native American voters — and elected officials — is only the beginning of a trend. We know our population is growing faster than the general population. And in many states there is already the number of voters required to build a winning coalition that includes Native communities.
Most of the action in the decade ahead will be at the state level. If you look at the list of some seventy elected state officials it’s clear that there is a wealth of talent such as Alaska’s Sam Kito III or South Dakota’s soon to be Senator Kevin Killer.
Look across the country and you will see why the Native Americans who now serve in state legislatures are the next generation of leaders in Congress — and even the White House.
So if you want to know who will be Indian Country’s Barack Obama, look to the states.
Her name will be Peggy, Paulette or Winona.
A final note: There are many people I want to thank for making Trahant Reports possible. Shyanne Beatty and Nola Moses at Native Voice One. It was Shyanne’s idea for my weekly commentary. Nola has been listening to one mic after another, helping me improve the sound for this program. Thank you to both.
I have also had financial support from the First People’s Fund. A special thank you to Jackie Tiller and Rebecca Adamson. Also thanks to Paul DeMain and the Native American Educational Technologies.
Jo Ann Kauffman and Kauffman and Associates was the first sponsor of Trahant Reports — so important, and so helpful, thank you.
And a special shout out to Cara and Ken Hall who gave me an unexpected “family” contribution. Thank you and that’s humbling.
And thank you to the people who listen to this podcast, the weekly commentary on Native Voice One, and the many people who read my reports on my page and across social media. I’m grateful.
We’re about to close the books on the 2016 election. But be assured I will keep writing about the policy choices ahead and what it means for Indian Country.
Until next time. This is Trahant Reports and I am Mark Trahant.
Two weeks and a day to go and the crazy season has begun. North Dakota’s Chase Iron Eyes was a guest on a right wing radio program where he said he faced a series of loaded, baited questions. Such as: “do you believe in abortion, even after new science developments? Should people be able to just choose which bathrooms to use?”
No worries. Iron Eyes said he ain’t scared of them, ain’t scared to go toe to toe with any of them in a debate, you guys are done.”
And the proof of that? Iron Eyes said Republican Kevin Cramer “won’t even debate me in front of people. What is that?”
Arizona First Congressional District is supposed to be one of the Republican’s best opportunities. It’s a rural district, but it’s also the most Native American of any district in the country. It’s represented by Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick who’s now running for the Senate against John McCain. And, Mitt Romney picked up more votes from that district than Barack Obama.
But it’s time to scratch Arizona First from the competitive list. A poll commissioned by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee shows Democrat Tom O’Halleran with a ten-point lead over his opponent, Republican Paul Babeu.
Nearly a quarter of Arizonans have already voted.
Rep. Ryan Zinke, who’s being challenged by State Supt. of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, is tired of people questioning his residency saying he spends more time in Southern California. A story in the Helena Independent Record says Zinke’s Second Street house is a bed and breakfast. Zinke says the plan was always for the family to live upstairs.
But here is the good part: Zinke says “he can go back and forth” with Juneau, too. “Is it 54 generations?” Zinke told the newspaper. “Born in Oakland. I don’t think that counts as 54 generations. And why 54 or 52 or 51? I haven’t gone there because quite frankly I think Montana and America are tired of the slams over things that don’t matter.”
A debate over 54, 52 or 51. This is where he wants to go? Seriously? SMH. I’ll stick with this number: Fifteen days.– Mark Trahant
Vermont casts 22 votes for its senator, Bernie Sanders. A minute later, Sanders asks the rules be suspended and that Hillary Clinton be nominated by acclamation. And so the Bernie Sanders’ chapter comes to an end. The question is, “what’s next?”
Let’s explore this from a couple of different points of view.
What’s Sanders’ story going to be? What’s he going to do to advance causes that are progressive? And, more important for my readers, what will he do to improve life in Indian Country?
It’s interesting to explore what happens to senators after they run for president. Most disappear. Some fifty senators have run and lost (only Obama has won the office in recent times) so the “what’s next?” question is actually the norm.
One candidate who came up short was George McGovern from South Dakota. His landslide loss to Richard Nixon did not define his legacy because he recruited so many young people to his cause. Bill Clinton is a beneficiary of the McGovern campaign. McGovern, like Sanders, was not particularly interested in Native American issues before his presidential campaign. But in 1972 campaign McGovern called for the complete restructuring of the Bureau of Indian Affairs either as a White House program or as a cabinet-level agency.
Ted Kennedy is a another example of how someone can build a progressive legacy after his failed White House bid. “Freed at last of the expectation that he should and would seek the White House, Mr. Kennedy devoted himself fully to his day job in the Senate, where he had already led the fight for the 18-year-old vote, the abolition of the draft, deregulation of the airline and trucking industries, and the post-Watergate campaign finance legislation,” The New York Times wrote in his obituary. “In the years after his failed White House bid, Mr. Kennedy also established himself as someone who made “lawmaker” mean more than a word used in headlines to describe any member of Congress.”
Imagine what Sanders the “lawmaker” could do. He could be the architect for many new initiatives, better Indian health or education funding, or, basically taking the best of the Democratic Party Platform and making is so. This is what he told Deborah Parker on a live Facebook feed this afternoon: “We are very proud of the work that Deborah as done (writing the platform) … and we will make sure that the language is implemented.”
It’s clear that Sanders travels to Indian Country changed him. His observations and experiences are bound to stir reform. As Jane Sanders also told Parker today: “He didn’t win the presidency, but he’s a senator.” And now, perhaps, a lawmaker. A lawmaker that will be most effective if he has an ally in the White House.
There is one more thing I would like to see Sanders do: Invest his time and considerable fundraising ability in helping elect five Native American Democrats to Congress. He could especially make a difference in the next few days by raising money for Victoria Steele in Arizona and Joe Pakootas in Washington state. These two candidates have primary elections in August. Both would make great members of Congress (and allies for any Sanders’ legislative agenda).
Ideally Congress is only the start. What about a Sanders’ grassroots movement that supports Native progressive candidates for legislatures, county commissions, and city governments.
What about Sanders’ supporters? (Some of whom continue to maintain they will never support Hillary Clinton. Several are even posting how disgusted they are with Sanders for giving up too easily.) So the options are: Don’t vote in November; vote for Donald J. Trump; vote for a third party candidate; or vote for Clinton.
Staying home and voting for Trump are essentially the same option. A Trump presidency is not the same as Clinton.
Three stark differences:
* Clinton would tip the scales toward climate action; Trump would favor oil, gas and coal.
* Clinton would boost Indian health programs and Medicaid expansion; Trump promises repeal of the Affordable Care Act, including the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.
* She would build on the legacy of President Obama; Trump promises a rollback of the past eight years which he calls a failure.
On top of all that: There is a vacancy on the Supreme Court and conservatives would be eager to reshape abortion law, the Indian Child Welfare Act, and tribal jurisdiction.
What about voting for Jill Stein and the Green Party or the Gary Johnson-Bill Weld Libertarian Ticket?
Philosophically that makes a lot of sense. I’d really like to see third parties be included in the presidential debates and the national conversation. This country ought to have more than two governing parties. But how do you get there and how does it impact the prospect of a Trump presidency? The fact is only two parties are at present competitive. It’s a wild card vote. In some states, say, Montana, or Utah, it could help Clinton pull off a surprise win. But in Florida or other swing states it’s really an unknown about where the votes would come from (Trump or Clinton). Down the road this is one of those structural electoral problems we need to fix. Our vote should count if we go Green. But not in 2016.
Sanders said as much today. He’s quoted in The Washington Post saying, “If we were in Europe right now, in Germany or elsewhere, the idea of coalition politics of different parties coming together — you’ve got a left party, you’ve got a center-left party, coming together against the center-right party. That’s not unusual. That happens every day. We don’t have that. We have and have had [two parties] for a very long period of time — and I know a little bit about this, as the longest serving independent member of Congress.”
Will the people who followed Sanders do that once again. Most will. Some won’t. (My first question to those who say, #neverhillary is where do you live? In some states you really do have a free vote. But in a swing state? No.)
So there the Democrats have a nominee — and it’s not Bernie Sanders. Yet he has chapters to add to his story.
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
First the news: Montana Democrats hired Amy Croover as director of the Native Vote program. A Democratic Party press release said her task is to increase the number of Native American voters.
The message is significant. Montana Democrats are investing real resources to give American Indian voters a greater say. “As a country and as a state, we’ve moved the needle in the right direction when it comes to our cherished Native American communities and culture, but more work needs to be done,” said Nancy Keenan, executive director of the state’s Democrats.
Croover has a solid resume. She’s a Ho-Chunk tribal member and has worked with Montana tribes. She’s worked with young people at the Salish Kootenai College. And she was Sen. Jon Tester’s Native American liaison for seven years. “I jumped at the chance to be a part of the team that elects Denise Juneau as the first Native American woman to Congress,” Croover said. “I believe that when Democrats govern, Indian Country wins.”
This is a nice turn of the phrase. It’s a flip of what Denise Juneau often says in her stump speech, when Indians vote, Democrats win.
Now the context. At its core politics is about two things: Policy and mechanics. Policy is the ideas, often the stuff that happens after elections; mechanics is how policy gets made.
Another way to think about the difference: Policy is usually what politicians talk about. Mechanics is the work that’s actually done by people whose names we may never know.
Political parties (both Republicans and Democrats) talk a lot about American Indian and Alaska Native policy. President Nixon’s 1970 message that declared an end to termination and the promotion of self-determination was a policy prescription. But the mechanics of that pronouncement was left up to Congress, largely, Forrest Gerard working with Sen. Henry Jackson and Franklin Ducheneaux, who was Rep. Morris Udall’s counsel in the House. The idea was not enough. Someone had to do the work.
It’s the same with elections. It’s one thing to lay out an American Indian policy, most candidates who have an interest in Indian Country do just that, but it’s another step entirely to invest in the mechanics.
This is important because no matter how many of us want to vote for Denise Juneau (or any of the seven other Native federal candidates) that will not happen unless we have registered first. The process is mechanical. Register voters. Then count them. Find out where the numbers could be higher and then register more people. Repeat as often as necessary.
It’s the same step by step process for voting. (I especially like absentee voting because it’s a way to bank and count actual votes.)
And this election is the right one to test the mechanical approach to democracy in Indian Country because there are so many Native candidates on the ballot. The incentives are aligned for people to vote for Denise Juneau as well as Native Democratic candidates for the legislature.
Other states have seen initiatives to improve the mechanics of the Native vote. Two years ago, for example, Sen. Mark Begich made Alaska Native voters a key element of his unsuccessful bid for re-election. But. The thing is. Begich made the election a lot closer than it would have been had he not made the effort. And, his staff work in the many villages probably helped elect Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot. The mechanics paid off.
The most common complaint I hear from Native candidates (especially former candidates who have lost) is that they get no help from their state or national party. That needs to change because in the years to come Indian Country will need more investment in the mechanical side of politics. As the demographics of the nation shift, there will be more and more states and districts where the Native vote will make the difference. But for that to happen, someone has to do the work.
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