Indians don’t pay taxes? Or why the coming tax debate matters so damn much

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House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate leaders announce their framework for Tax Reform. (Photo: Speaker.Gov)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The Senate has given up on destroying Medicaid and much of the health care system and is now focused on restructuring the federal tax system (and destroying entitlement programs in the process).

Here is what Speaker Paul Ryan said Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation:  “We’re going to double that standard deduction. We’re going to make it so he can fill out his taxes on a postcard. We’re going to lower his taxes. That’s really important. So he has more tax-home pay. But there’s another component to this is, look at this machine shop, this business pays about a 40 percent tax rate but it competes with companies all around the world who pay an average 22 and a half percent on their taxes.”

The GOP Framework begins with this set of principles: “President Trump has laid out four principles for tax reform: First, make the tax code simple, fair and easy to understand. Second, give American workers a pay raise by allowing them to keep more of their hard-earned paychecks. Third, make America the jobs magnet of the world by leveling the playing field for American businesses and workers. Finally, bring back trillions of dollars that are currently kept off-shore to reinvest in the American economy.”

So how does Indian Country fit into that framework? Indians don’t pay taxes, remember? Actually if you Google that phrase it returns 2.17 million hits. It’s still a myth that will not fade away. But the larger issue of tax reform and its impact on Indian Country is still a complicated question, one that starts with the definition of “taxes.” Most so-called middle-income wage earners pay income taxes. Roughly one-third of all wage earners do not pay income taxes — and that would include a lot of tribal citizens, especially those living in their tribal nations. There are nearly 150 million tax returns filed every year and 36 million end up paying no tax at all. Another 16 million had taxable income but didn’t pay anything because of tax credits, deductions and other adjustments.

And, many of Indian Country’s working class especially benefit from one such credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit. This is a hugely successful policy that returns cash money to some 7 million family incomes; a paid bonus of sorts for working.

“Numerous studies show that working-family tax credits boost work effort,” according to The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. “The EITC expansions of the 1990s contributed as much to the subsequent increases in work among single mothers and female heads of households as the welfare changes of that period, extensive research has found. Women who benefited from those EITC expansions also experienced higher wage growth in subsequent years than otherwise-similar women who didn’t benefit.  And, by boosting the employment and earnings of working-age women, the EITC boosts the size of the Social Security retirement benefits they ultimately will receive.

In addition, the research shows that by boosting the employment of single mothers, the EITC reduces the number of female-headed households receiving cash welfare assistance.”

So far, at least, there is no plan to end the Earned Income Tax Credit. However the House Budget Committee has proposed that the IRS require more proof from taxpayers and audit homes with an error. (Auditing the poor seems a long way from the Willie Horton philosophy of tax collection, or bank robbing, and that’s the idea you go where the money is.)

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It turns out there is a lot of data on tax collection by county. So I looked at the counties with significant a Native American population and there is some fascinating data from the Internal Revenue Service, based on 2015 tax returns.

In Oglala Lakota County, for example, some 2,010 taxpayers out of 3,980 collected an average of $3,020. The bulk of that was collected by families earning less than $25,000. And the average tax bill was $7,170. The county is comprised almost entirely of Native Americans and the Pine Ridge Reservation.

The Earned Income Tax Credit is also critical to many Navajo families. In Apache County, Arizona, that includes a large portion of the Navajo Nation, some 27,172 take advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit. And, like Pine Ridge, most are in the under $25,000 category, but the amounts are significantly more, an average return of a little more than $4,000.

In the Bethel Census Area of Alaska there are similar numbers. Nearly 2,400 people claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit and most of the workers earned under $25,000 and averaged a refundable return of $2,738.

My point here is that this is the one policy that is essential to Indian Country because it benefits so many people who have jobs but who barely earn a living wage. Any changes to this tax credit should be opposed vigorously.

It’s also important to remember that most tribal citizens pay  a higher percentage of our income toward payroll taxes, instead of income taxes. A report by the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation says that the 80 million tax filers making $40,000 or less will collectively pay no federal income tax and many will even receive cash payments from the IRS in 2015. But they will pay $121 billion in Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes (including the employer share, which most economists believe falls on workers).

So that will be another important factor to watch as the debate heats up. Rarely does the payroll taxes — Medicare, Social Security, etc. — sneak into the larger debate about taxes. But it should be about the total taxation, not just income taxes.

And one other unique characteristic of Indian Country tax data is that the amount paid to state and local governments is significantly lower than the general population. In most states tribal members living on their home tribal nation pay zero in state and local taxes. This will be important to remember when Congress debates the deduction of state and local taxes. (A big deal for people living in high tax states such as California or New York, but less so in low tax states and where the sales tax is the primary method to fund state government.)

Congress has a complicated road ahead before it can even pass a tax bill. The plan is for both houses to enact a budget resolution, setting out the priorities for tax reform. This is a document that basically sets limits on spending (so the committees will still decide how to spend money for Indian programs, but will be limited by their budget ceiling). This will not be easy. The House and Senate will need Republicans to stick together on fiscal issues ranging from the border wall to how large federal programs should be cut back.

Basically the same tension that existed during the health care debate will play out between so-called moderates and the more strident anti-government wing of the Republican party.

If a budget is passed, the Senate can start take up tax reform and need only 50-votes to pass the legislation. Remember, if.

Speaker Ryan talked about fixing the business rate. The Republican mantra is that U.S. companies pay more than their global competitors. (Funny: This same argument doesn’t come up with health care where a company like Boeing spends a lot on its employee health care while the French Airbus can rely on its national health care system to save money.) But there is one last issue to watch: Don’t just believe any number that is posted as a tax rate. There may be a tax with 40 percent tax rate, but if the deductions and credits add up, the effective tax rate could be 20 percent. So that’s the number to watch and ask about, how much is that effective tax rate?

One final point: It’s interesting that so much of the discourse is about companies wanting to pay lower taxes as an incentive to create more jobs. Yet many technology companies are moving to the higher tax land called Canada. “As America closes its borders, Canada is playing the longer, smarter game,” Richard Florida and Joshua Gans wrote in Politico this week. “Canada, more than any other place, is uniquely positioned to benefit from Trump’s anti-immigrant posture … If he keeps up his anti-immigration push, the United States’ polite neighbor to the north could soon be eating Americans’ lunch.”

It’s not always about the taxes.

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

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

#NativeVote16 – Why politicians should make a point to visit Camp Sacred Stone

Tribal flags from nations across North America mark the boundary where construction has stopped on the North Dakota Access pipeline. (Trahant photo)
Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

The disconnect between the perception of Camp Sacred Stone and the reality of the moment starts a few miles south of Mandan, North Dakota.

A cement barricade and a handful of law police divert traffic so that people have a slightly slower route to Camp Sacred Stone. Not that it stops anyone. It’s silly. And more than anything else it displays a deep sense of ignorance.

Indeed it’s that ignorance that is systemic. There is a profound regional misunderstanding about so many things. It’s exactly why, in an election year, every politician running for office (or even those in office) ought to take a few hours drive around the barricade and take time to listen.

What will they see and hear? 

The first thing is a remarkable organization. It’s very much like any powwow weekend in America — except more so. Checkpoints (no alcohol, no drugs, no weapons) and a food operation that is extraordinarily complex managing the increasing shipment of donations to the menu of the day. Everybody is fed. People walk around camp handing out water, “make sure you stay hydrated in the heat,” was a common pitch. And the trash is about as organized as you can get: Cans for cigarette butts, recycling bins, and garbage bags. When people forget to separate their plastic – we are dealing with human beings after all – there are regular reminders and more people to help. (My favorite spot: Signal hill. Where people stand because cell phone bars are pretty good alright.)

Politicians would hear speeches, songs, and prayers, one after another. People standing, listening, laughing, nodding, and inspired. They’d also see many symbols of patriotism: From flags to recurring honors for veterans. 


But the most important lesson for any politician who drops by would be this: A clear message of resolve. There is a serious purpose for the people here, one that’s not going away without a successful resolution. There are so many avenues for that to happen: A favorable court ruling based on the Treaty or federal consultation rules, a potential legal challenge to the failure of Dakota Access Pipeline to secure easements before beginning construction, global interest and support, and, the court of public opinion. As more media arrive it’s this story of resolve and peaceful purpose that will carry the day. 

And for the North Dakota politicians who show up. A few have been here already. Congressional candidate Chase Iron Eyes posted on Facebook:  “Don’t get dragged into this racial division being pushed as a result of the DAPL happenings. We are stronger together. You can’t ignore the ignorant & hateful comments, so represent your character but fighting fire with fire too long burns a hole in the soul. Remember we are all evolving socially, there are racists in each race, and there are liberated people who see race for the superficial human construct it is. We have been living side by side for 120 years, relatives. We are neighbors, like it or not. Mutual respect must reign.”

And Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun, who’s running for the office that would regulate pipelines, spent Saturday in service. She reported handing out  “780 bags of chips for 4 hrs & was promoted to chip supervisor.” This is what politics is supposed to be about, service, and she “observed, & visited friends & family I haven’t seen in a while … had some good, much needed laughs!”

But on her way out. “As I tried to go home today the police that stopped me at the blockade & said ‘for the safety of the protesters, you have to go around!’ So this little country girl took the backroads  (and the country) was just as beautiful as it was when I was a little girl!”

The roadblock is silly. And it’s exactly why North Dakota politicians – especially the Republicans – need to spend a few hours looking at the world from a different point of view.

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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Previous: Standing Rock is the essence of political organizing 

Yes!  Magazine: Three reasons why Standing Rock can stop the pipeline 

#NativeVote16 – Iron Eyes shakes up his campaign, selling more T-shirts to win

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Chase Iron Eyes will send t-shirts to supporters for a $40 contribution to his campaign. (Campaign photo)

 

TrahantReports

Chase Iron Eyes told the Fargo Forum that he is letting his campaign consultants go and is trying to raise enough money to keep his campaign sustainable.

“I was convinced that I needed an advisor, and these advisors brought other advisors who all cost a great deal of money,”he told the Forum. “I didn’t get into this to drag my family through the whole process to end up in debt because of outside consultants.”

Raising money is the toughest challenge for any Native American who runs for office. Most of us just don’t have the kind of network where we can call lots of people up and ask for few hundred dollars. Over and over. Yet it’s an essential task because that money is used to pay staff, develop field operations (such as registering voters and getting them to the polls) and paying for campaign advertisements. It is what is required to be competitive. (HBO’s John Oliver did a great segment on the “call center” approach to campaigns.)

And the Democratic Party is not investing its resources into the Iron Eyes campaign. He’s on his own. (This is not unusual. One candidate told me the party said raise a few hundred thousand dollars … then you will get our money.) It’s that crazy circle: If you need the money, you won’t see it; but if you don’t need the money, it will be there. (Previous: The hidden history of why Native Americans lose elections)

Iron Eyes, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, is running against incumbent Rep. Kevin Cramer.

Cramer has raised $1.06 million compared to Iron Eyes’ $82,137. Most of Cramer’s funding comes from Political Action Committees, some $652,000.

On his new web site, Iron Eyes said this campaign has never been about money. “Money will make you forget we are a democracy dependent upon our direct involvement in that democracy,” according to the Iron Eyes for Congress page. “Money will make ND forget there are 3000 oil spills that big oil refuses to clean up & that a Republican controlled government says there is no money to clean up.”

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FEC.gov campaign finance report for House candidates in North Dakota.

It’s not uncommon for a campaign to reboot (and that’s true at almost every level of politics). Iron Eyes has a new web page, https://ironeyesforcongress.us/ and is building a sort of retail approach to the campaign. (Contribute $40, send a screenshot, and you’ll get a t-shirt.)

There is also a new social media push using the hashtag #FaceTheStorm. The idea is that people will tell their own stories about why they support Iron Eyes. Iron Eyes explains the idea this way on a video: “Faced with a dangerous blizzard on the Northern Plains, when snow storms are blasting everything that lives here, the buffalo do not hide. Because they have thicker fur, a thicker head, and thick skin, the way they are designed makes it more probable for them to survive if they face the storm. That is what we must do who value people over politics. We must come together and face the storm.”

How are other the other Native American candidates for federal office doing? The latest Federal Election Commission reports show how difficult a task raising money is for new candidates on the #NativeVote16 list. (Edgar Blatchford in Alaska is not yet reporting his campaign contributions.)

Republican Representatives Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin are incumbents so money is not a problem. Cole has raised $1.44 million and Mullin $1.3 million in their bids for re-election.

But in Arizona Republican Shawn Redd has raised a little more than $23,000 for his upcoming Aug. 30 primary for an open seat in the 1st congressional district.

To the south, Democrat Victoria Steele, running in Arizona’s 2nd congressional district, has raised nearly $200,000 while her opponent, Rep. Martha McSally, has tallied more than $5 million.

That same mismatch is occurring in Washington state. Former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas has topped $166,000 from his fundraising efforts, but trails incumbent Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers who has received contributions of more than $2.5 million.

Denise Juneau is raising serious money. Her latest campaign report shows that she trails incumbent Rep. Ryan Zinke, but not as badly. Juneau’s contributions total more than $1.1 million to Zinke’s $3.5 million.

There are better ways to elect candidates. In Canada the party funds the candidates who earn a nomination. Other countries have public financing of campaigns so that every candidate has an equal shot at winning. That’s the direction we ought to be heading. But in this election, money still counts and Native candidates will need a boost in the form of many personal contributions from across Indian Country.

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

 

 

#NativeVote16 – The screwy presidential primary season is almost over

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Hillary Clinton won the Virgin Island primary on Saturday. How screwy are US elections? Islanders have a vote in the primary, but not one in the general election. (Campaign photo)

Votes that count & those that don’t

Mark Trahant /TrahantReports.com

Hillary Clinton won the Virgin Island primary on Saturday. According to The Washington Post, Clinton may pick up as many as six of the seven delegates from the Virgin Island (plus the five super delegates). Sunday a similar election occurs in Puerto Rico.

But here’s the thing. Neither the Virgin Islands nor Puerto Rico get a vote for president in November. The parties open voting for the primary, but the Constitution gives neither of the two territories any electoral college votes. So this weekend is it, the people’s only chance to have a say.

Does the United States have a screwy presidential election process or what?

Puerto Rico has a slightly smaller population than Indian Country. The Virgin Islands has about 105,000 people and is significantly smaller than the Navajo or Cherokee nations. As I have pointed out: Indian Country ought to have a voice in the primary election. And the parties could make that happen now.

Then, the modern primary system makes no sense.  Especially when you add in the nonsense of a caucus (a neighborhood meeting that limits participation to those who can spend the time) or even worse a “beauty contest” where voters go to the polls and cast ballots that don’t mean anything such as in Washington state. (Previous: Another election day: Who does Indian Country back?)

Part of the problem is that today most voters are independent. Forty percent of us don’t register as a Republican or Democrat. And at the state level there are alternatives that recognize that trend and actually give independent voters more sway.

That will happen Tuesday in California. Sort of.

California’s presidential primary is old school. Voters had to pick a party and register last month in order for their votes to count. It will be too late to make that party preference choice on election day.

So many people will go to the polls expecting to vote for Bernie Sanders. Only some will find out that they are registered as “unaffiliated” or independent and cannot vote in the Democratic Party Primary unless they specifically ask for a Democratic ballot. (Then this might not be a problem because the state reports registration is breaking records. Perhaps voters understand that yes, there is paperwork required in order to vote.) For his part Sanders has raised many of the problems within the Democratic primary, such as the use of elected officials, or super delegates, in the primary process. But the problem, the breakdown, is much larger than just with the Democrats.

But in California’s Senate primary voters are allowed to pick any candidate from any party. It’s called the top-two or a jungle primary. So there are 35 candidates, including 12 Republicans, and yet it’s likely that the top two finishers in that will both be Democrats, Attorney General Kamala Harris and U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Orange.

The problem with the jungle primary is that Republicans will essentially be shut out from now until November, losing a voice. And any democratic system ought to be about making sure that citizens, all citizens, have a say.

One proposed reform gets rid of primaries all together and replaces them with ranked voting or Instant Runoff Voting. This system lets every candidate run during the general election, but allows voters a mechanism for second, third, and additional choices. Critics say the problem with ranked voting is that it’s confusing. Voters must make multiple decisions. But that’s not been the result after actual elections. The city of San Francisco’s instant runoff system increased both voter participation and representation from ethnic groups. (Imagine an IRV system for this presidential year: All of the Republicans who started the campaign would probably still be on the ballot. Same for the Democrats. And, for that matter, the smaller Libertarian and Green parties.)

Perhaps instant runoff is not the solution. But something must change. The United States needs experiments with election methods. There needs to be a transition away from the screwy to something else. No system will be perfect. But any reform ought to at least be fair.

Soon we will also be able to observe what happens in Canada as it begins it reform. Canada’s Liberal Party promised improving election mechanics and Parliament is supposed to consider changes as soon as this December.

The election, more than any other in recent memory, exposed the weakness about how we vote. Some ballots count. Others don’t. It’s not democratic.

And speaking of that: This Tuesday’s election is not the last primary. The District of Columbia will vote next week. And unlike the Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico residents of the District do get to vote for president now and again in November. But vote for a member of Congress? Nope. It’s just one more example about how the machinery of democracy is broken.

 

 

 

 

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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#NativeVote16 – Six seats Native candidates can win to flip Congress

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Former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas is running for the House of Representatives in Washington’s 5th district. (Campaign photo)

 

Mark Trahant

TrahantReports.com

Indian Country is a key voting bloc in the Democrat’s campaign to win more House seats. Sort of.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is focusing on 19 seats that the party thinks it can win from Republicans, labeled as the “Red to Blue” campaign. Three of those seats have a signifiant number of Native American voters.

This is good news for Democrats who are competing in these districts because it should mean there will at least be seed money from a national network of donors. (Previous: Trahant Reports on the challenge of funding a congressional campaign.)

The most important seat on the Democrats’ list is Montana where Denise Juneau is challenging Rep. Ryan Zinke. Montana is an ideal state for a Democratic pickup. Montana’s demographics are changing and there will be a lot of ballot and fundraising chaos should the Republicans nominate Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. And, Native Americans already have a good turnout track record during presidential years.

Another House seat on this list is Nevada’s 4th district where former Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, Walker River Paiute, is a candidate. (He still must win a primary.) This district is almost 15 percent Native American.

DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, a New Mexico Democrat, told Politico that “House Democrats are on an offensive and will pick up these seats in 2016, and these effective, hardworking and diverse candidates are the foundation of our success this year.”

In a normal election cycle, a focus on two seats with Native candidates would be a good thing as part of a diversity foundation.

But this year I think Democrats could do more. A lot more. There are congressional districts that could get a huge boost from a strong Native American candidate. One of the best things that the Liberal Party did in its sweep of Canada’s election was recruit strong Aboriginal candidates. (If you want to see how powerful that was in one image, check Adam Scotti’s official picture of Justin Trudeau asking Jody Wilson-Raybould to be the nation’s Attorney General.)

Where this DCCC list most conflicts with the principle of diversity is Arizona 1st congressional district. (Even though it’s already represented by a Democrat, the seat is still a target because it’s expected to be so close). This district is the most Native in the country — more than 22 percent and growing — and it’s time for Native representation. One. Who. Can. Win. The Democrats should be recruiting star candidates from tribal government, academia, or business. In an election cycle where outsiders are being rewarded by voters, this is a “ya’ think?” moment.

Instead Democrats have chosen Tom O’Halleran, a former Republican legislator, turned Democrat. Wonderful. That should excite folks across Indian Country.

Two other districts with Native candidates are not on the list. Probably because they are considered long shots at this point. True. But this will not be a normal election year.

Those districts are Washington’s 5th district where former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas is running again; and Arizona’s 2nd district where Victoria Steele, a Seneca, is polling well but lacks money. Both Steele and Pakootas face primary challengers.

I would add one more seat to any target list: Alaska. Rep. Don Young is vulnerable even if that doesn’t show up in polling. And, like Arizona 1st, it’s time for an Alaska Native to represent Alaska. Democrats should be relentless in their recruiting (and that actually should be easy) and make certain that any candidate has enough money to be competitive. There are so many talented Alaska Natives who could win. (Note to Democrats: Do I need to put a list together for you? Or will you do your homework yourself?) It’s time.

The DCCC says this is only the first list. There will be more down the road. The sooner the better.

In case you are counting: There is a total of six seats where American Indian and Alaska Native voters could make a difference. When the goal is to win 30 seats, that’s not bad.

There has never been an election with more opportunity for Indian Country. Why? Because we are the ultimate outsiders. And in 2016 that’s the winning hand.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A changing Arctic presents incredible challenges and opportunities for Indigenous Peoples

Ambassador David Balton speaking at an Arctic Council press conference last week. (Trahant photo)
Ambassador David Balton speaking at an Arctic Council press conference last week. (Trahant photo)

ANCHORAGE — A changing Arctic? It’s a region that presents incredible challenges and opportunities for Indigenous People.

One of those unique opportunities involves governance. The Arctic Council is eight nations who work together on complex issues ranging from climate change to a sustainable future. The Arctic Council met last week as the U.S. began a two-year chairmanship of the body.

What makes this international body unique is that it includes indigenous representation as “permanent participants.”

The six permanent participants are:

Aleut International Association (AIA)

Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC)

Gwich’in Council International (GCI)

Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC)

Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON)

Saami Council (SC)

US Ambassador David Balton explains: “I am not aware of another international forum that has representatives of Indigenous groups engaged the way the Arctic Council does. They are at the table as, essentially, equal partners.”

Balton said these Indigenous populations “span multiple countries,” except for the Russian organization.

“Officially they don’t participate in decision-making as such,” Balton said, “but the reality is, at least in my experience, the governments will not take decisions opposed by the permanent participants.

Suicide in Indigenous communities was also considered at the Anchorage meetings.

“Political, scientific, and community leaders from across the Arctic have described mental health – especially suicide – as one of the region’s most pressing public health problems,” the Arctic Council reported. “Despite the best efforts and considerable expenditures of our respective governments, the problem of suicide continues to be a barrier to health and development in the North.”

The council has one initiative, The Rising Sun, Reducing the Incidence of Suicide in Indigenous Groups — Strengths United through Networks, explores cross-boundary suicide prevention efforts. The goal is a “toolkit of common measures … applicable across the Arctic, which could expand Arctic states’ capacity to evaluate the implementation of evidence-based interventions to combat suicide.”

One of the issues that’s of particular interest to me involves climate change and “adaptation.” Most of the debate about climate change involves “mitigation.” That idea is humans are the primary cause of climate change so if we reduce our carbon emissions we can limit the impacts. But the second topic in climate change is “adaptation.” That means doing what’s required to build higher sea walls, protect pipelines from permafrost damage, and, all too often, move villages inland because of eroding shorelines. But it also means figuring out how animals and fish will react to the loss of habitat, when sea ice, and plant life disappear. And, of course, less wildlife and fish too often means less food for Native people.

The Arctic Council includes and incorporates “Indigenous knowledge” into its research. As one recent document states: “Indigenous Peoples’ traditional knowledge and its potential to advise adaptation mechanisms across the Arctic is a common theme. Moreover, scientific, traditional and experience-based knowledge in combination are recognized as key factors for a sustainable Arctic future. Generating grassroots support is the most important condition for sustainability.”

How do we build a sustainable future in the Arctic? That’s the key question as we try and figure out how we and our children will live in this changing environment. An idea that should be important to people who live far beyond the Arctic Circle.

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

Canada’s Aboriginal Day has potential to change the conversation & the government

Canada's National Aboriginal is an opportunity to talk about larger issues. (Photo by Jaynie Parrish)
Canada’s National Aboriginal is an opportunity to talk about larger issues. (Photo by Jaynie Parrish)

MARK TRAHANT

WHITEHORSE, YUKON TERRITORY, CANADA — Dozens of people, tribal leaders, public officials (including Yukon’s premier and the area’s Member of Parliament) gathered around a fire in a prayer circle. It’s the solstice, the longest day of the year, and National Aboriginal Day. For nearly two decades, Canadians have celebrated June 21 as a national holiday to honor the Inuit, First Nations and Metis people.

“For me, National Aboriginal Day is a day of celebration, acknowledgment, and remembrance,” said Jessie Dawson, a councilor with the Kwanlin Dun First Nation Government.

Especially this year. The recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission report chronicled what it termed as Canada’s physical, biological, and cultural genocide against Aboriginal people. Yet the report said: “Despite the coercive measures that the government adopted, it failed to achieve its policy goals. Although Aboriginal peoples and cultures have been badly damaged, they continue to exist. Aboriginal people have refused to surrender their identity.”

Dawson said that “report represents a break through in time and a new day for our people. It calls on our citizens to make peace. It gives us hope and a restored faith that appropriate measures will be taken.”

It’s that very debate, about what is “an appropriate measure” that Canada has yet to conclude. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission proposes one standard: “Reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country.”

On Friday, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police updated its report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, saying that while Aboriginal women make up 4.3 percent of the population, they account for 16 percent of all female homicide victims. The federal policy agency once again said the overwhelming majority of those murders stemmed from family violence.

However First Nations advocates say the report is not broad enough because it does not include statistics from municipal governments.

“All jurisdictions need to look at what they can do to ensure that Indigenous women and girls are safe and secure,” Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Cameron Alexis said in a news release. “We need a national inquiry to get to the root causes and find long-term solutions, and we need immediate action to ensure they’re safe now. All municipal and accredited police services in this country including the military police need to work together on Aboriginal policing issues such as missing and murdered Aboriginal women.”

That again begs the question about appropriate measures as Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has dismissed calls for any national inquiry. But federal elections are coming in October. The leader of the New Democratic Party, Tom Mulcair, tweeted:“On , the stands w/ Canada’s Indigenous peoples to celebrate & work towards a better future.” The Liberal Party, too, has demanded action. Its leader, Justin Trudeau, said “Harper is on the wrong side of history. This issue requires national leadership and action to put an end to this violence.”

A three-party election will be an interesting one to watch — as well as how and where Aboriginal voters participate. In a recent provincial election, Alberta voters tossed out the Conservatives after a 44-year run. According to the Aboriginal People’s Television Network, a high number of Aboriginal voters turned out for the New Democratic Party. The new premier, Rachel Motley, is promising a stronger partnership with Aboriginal people. (The big question in any three-way election is can any party win a majority? In nations around the world, multi-party elections mean that governing coalitions must be formed, something that’s rare in Canada.)

Back to Aboriginal Day and why it matters. It’s true that holidays are often dismissed as merely days off. It’s too easy to forget why there’s a Veterans’ Day or especially a Labor Day. It’s true that Canadians are no different — as is this holiday.

But National Aboriginal Day does have the potential to change the conversation. On Saturday, for example, a Aboriginal Day Live broadcast from Winnipeg and Edmonton showcased the incredible wealth of native talent. Thousands of people attended the concerts and shows and more than a million people watched on television (and tweeted their reactions).

That’s not bad. Perhaps every year more people will be inspired by the native artists who are raising issues that celebrate, acknowledge, and remember, the Aboriginal place in modern Canada.

It’s also an idea worth emulating in the United States. It would be fantastic if for a moment, even for a single day, we were defined by our remarkable talent, and not our challenges.

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

Kwanlin Dun elder Ann Smith and her "grandbabies" at the Whitehorse celebration. (Photo by Jaynie Parrish)
Kwanlin Dun elder Ann Smith and her “grandbabies” at the Whitehorse celebration. (Photo by Jaynie Parrish)