Federal Indian programs labeled as ‘high risk,’ but real solutions need Congress

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GAO calls three federal Indian programs “high risk,” the Indian Health Service, the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (GAO video.)

It’s impossible to defy gravity #NativePolicy

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Federal Indian programs have been added to the “high-risk” category by the Government Accountability Office. That designation could not come at a worse time.

The details. This is how the GAO defines its high risk identification: “The federal government is one of the world’s largest and most complex entities: about $3.9 trillion in outlays in fiscal year 2016 funded a broad array of programs and operations. GAO’s high-risk program identifies government operations with greater vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement or the need for transformation to address economy, efficiency, or effectiveness challenges.”

The GAO said it added federal Indian programs to its high risk category because “we have found numerous challenges facing Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education and Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Indian Health Service in administering education and health care services, which put the health and safety of American Indians served by these programs at risk. These challenges included poor conditions at BIE school facilities that endangered students, and inadequate oversight of health care that  hindered IHS’s ability to ensure quality care to Indian communities. In addition, we have reported that BIA mismanages Indian energy resources held in trust and thereby limits opportunities for tribes and their members to use those resources to create economic benefits and improve the well-being of their communities.”

More from the GAO: “Congress recently noted, ‘through treaties, statutes, and historical relations with Indian tribes, the United States has undertaken a unique trust responsibility to protect and support Indian tribes and Indians.’ In light of this unique trust responsibility and concerns about the federal government ineffectively administering Indian education and health care programs and mismanaging Indian energy resources, we are adding these programs as a high-risk issue because they uniquely affect tribal nations and their members.”

The three agencies are lumped together as one in this report, yet the causes of what makes the agencies high risk are considerably different, requiring solutions that go well beyond what the agencies themselves can accomplish.

So let’s break it down.

First: GAO complains that the BIA has a problem quickly approving energy projects. This is Congress’ favorite problem. Congress can’t wait to solve this one by making the approval process faster than filling your car with a tank of gas. But the solutions ahead will also have unintended consequences for the very notion of trust lands, tribal control of energy projects, and the challenge of global warming. What happens when a tribe says, “hell no!” to say, the Keystone XL pipeline? That is a policy question that this Congress has all but answered.

Next the GAO says the Bureau of Indian Education “improves how it manages Indian education … including that Indian Affairs develop a strategic plan for BIE that includes goals and performance measures for how its offices are fulfilling their responsibilities to provide BIE with support; revise Indian Affairs’ strategic workforce plan to ensure that BIA regional offices have an appropriate number of staff with the right skills to support BIE schools in their regions; and develop and implement decision-making procedures for BIE to improve accountability for BIE schools.” My translation: Measure what works. Make better hires (with the right skills). And improve the decision-making process. Easy, right? Only hiring for BIE schools is easier said than done and the decision-making process is complicated by community priorities.

There is another problem at play: Conservative think-tanks have targeted BIE as operating “failing schools” and would replace them with a whacky scheme to create Education Savings Accounts.  (Previous: Day One. Dramatic restructuring of government.) This whole notion is written by people who have no understanding of the geography of Indian Country or the makeup of the Native students. The BIE has unique challenges and there are many, many improvements that could be made. So adding to this discourse a GAO high-risk warning is, well, not helpful.

The third high-risk agency identified by the GAO is the Indian Health Service. The report says: “To help ensure that Indian people receive quality health care, the Secretary of HHS should direct the Director of IHS to take the following two actions: as part of implementing IHS’s quality framework, ensure that agency-wide standards for the quality of care provided in its federally operated facilities are developed and systematically monitor facility performance in meeting these standards over time; and develop contingency and succession plans for replacing key personnel, including area directors.” My translation: Measure what works. Make better hires (with the right skills). And improve the decision-making process. Easy, right? Again, it’s not as if the IHS is not trying to hire people. The problem is funding and a hiring process that is both cumbersome and required by law.

What I don’t get is why the GAO doesn’t see that the IHS mission has changed dramatically. One part of the agency is a funding mechanism, directing resources to tribal, non-profit, and urban health care facilities. The report alludes to that fact with this recommendation: “To help ensure that timely primary care is available and accessible to Indians, IHS should: develop and communicate specific agency-wide standards for wait times in federally-operated facilities, and monitor patient wait times in federally-operated facilities and ensure that corrective actions are taken when standards are not met.” The key phrase here is “federally-operated” because many of the tribal and nonprofit centers have solved this problem. GAO should have said this and focused on what works and why.

Another GAO recommendation about IHS might be the most tone deaf. It says, “we recommend that IHS realign current resources and personnel to increase capacity to deal with enrollment in Medicaid and the exchanges and prepare for increased billing to these payers.”

Clearing my throat here. Umm. Congress is going in exactly the opposite direction. The serious questions — the ones that Congress ought to be answering — are how much will it cost IHS when Medicaid is turned into a block grant? What replaces Medicaid expansion funding at the local unit level? And, will states even fund a federal health care delivery system?

The GAO report makes a big deal about IHS developing a fair method for how it spends money on purchased and referral care. What the report should have said is that Congress is to blame. The problem is not the architecture; it’s the funding. No federal agency. No state agency. Hell, no private medical system spends less than the Indian health system. The real problem here is that it’s impossible to defy gravity.

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

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

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#NativeVote16 – Idaho has a history of success for Native candidates

 

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Louis Archuleta campaigning for the Idaho House of Representatives. He is running as a Democrat. (Facebook photo)

Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

Joe Garry was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives in 1957. He was, of course, the first American Indian to serve in that body. A decade later he moved up to the state Senate and later ran for the U.S. Senate in 1960 and again in 1962. Also a first.  He also was a member and later chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council and president of the National Congress of American Indians.

A few months after he died in 1975, I was covering the Idaho Democratic Party convention for the Sho-Ban News. The party chairman that year was Leona Garry, a Lakota woman, and Joe’s widow. I recall her passion for the political process and for the importance of adding new voices.

 

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Campaign ad for Jeanne Givens, via Google, Spokesman-Review.

One of Garry’s nieces, Jeanne Givens, was elected to the Idaho House in 1982. She was the first American Indian woman to serve. And, like her uncle, she challenged the status quo with a bid for Congress in 1988.

Four years ago another Coeur d’Alene tribal member, Paulette Jordan, ran for the House seat and lost. But what’s cool is that two years later she ran again. And won. (Previous: Paulette Jordan takes a step toward re-election.) This proves what may be the most important lesson: You gotta run to win. Sometimes more than once. Jordan describes Givens as a mentor who has taught her much about politics.

Rep. Jordan already has influence that travels far beyond her district. Last week, for example, in Boise she stood in solidarity at Boise Pride. “Standing together in a sea of love, it was clear Idaho’s citizens demand far more than what they have been drawn,” she wrote on Facebook. “Life is too short to let ignorance rule society, and far to precious to be overcome with threats and fear. … I stand with those who have been victims of hate crimes here in our own state and I will continue to stand with those who face discrimination in their daily life.”

In the southern part of the state, Larry EchoHawk successfully ran for the legislature in 1982. After serving two terms he ran for, and won, election as the Bannock County attorney. Then another first. In 1990 he was elected Attorney General. (One of the few Native Americans to win a statewide office anywhere.) Four years later he ran for governor of Idaho and lost.

So Idaho has a long history electing a Native Americans to public office. What’s remarkable about that history is that Native Americans barely register a blip in terms of demographics. In the first congressional district, for example, Native American votes are two-tenths of one percent. Statewide there are only about 21,000 Native Americans, roughly one percent of the population. So any winning Native politician must figure out how to build a coalition of voters. (Especially if that candidate is a Democrat. Idaho may be the most Republican state in the United States. Not a single Democrat holds statewide office.)

But in 2016 Jordan will not be the only Native American candidate for the state legislature. Louis Archuleta, Shoshone-Bannock, is running for the state House from the Pocatello area. He was a late entry, winning the May primary as a write-in candidate. He has an extraordinary background as a designer and engineer. He helped some of the ground support systems for the Space Shuttle and was a co-director of Idaho State University’s Young Explorers in Space program.

Archuleta’s Facebook page also promotes his Latino roots, part of an important coalition in Idaho. Archuleta says his “education is the cornerstone of my campaign, my passion is helping Idaho children be the smartest and best prepared pupils in the country.”

There are 105 members of the Idaho legislature. So two Native candidates is a big deal. Why? Because if both get elected that would be double the state’s percentage of Native American people. And why not? As I wrote above: Idaho is not a state with a large Native American population. But there is a history of success.

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? One time use is free for web, publication or broadcast.
Please credit: Mark Trahant / Trahantreports.com
 

 

 

 

 

#NativeVote16 – Haskell student produced video on Native voting

 

 

Produced by Haskell Indian Nations University students.

Robert Hicks Jr. 

Chelsea Jenkins 

Rachel Whiteside 

Rhonda LeValdo – @rhondalevaldo on Twitter

Faculty, Media Communications,Haskell Indian Nations University

Native American youth and a million lines of code

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have lunch with youth from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe at We The Pizza/Good Stuff Eatery in Washington, D.C., Nov. 20, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have lunch with youth from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe at We The Pizza/Good Stuff Eatery in Washington, D.C., Nov. 20, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Investment in Native youth equals a million lines of code

MARK TRAHANT

No child grows up hearing — or asking — for numbers. Instead the four words, “tell me a story,” are the ones deeply embedded into our human software. And that will never change. But the power of numbers, the importance of data, is growing exponentially and becoming essential to how we understand larger narratives.

Then this is not new. The use of statistics, counts, numbers, all have always been a part of how we tell stories. Buffalo hide paintings are great examples from another century. Pictographs recorded people, buffalo, soldiers, villages, and meteor storms. The data was recorded.  Then we did the same things with ledgers, books, computer tapes, and a couple of decades ago floppy discs, CDs, and thumb drives. Today we carry more data capacity in our phone than we ever had in our offices and homes. And what’s on that recording? IBM once estimated that the content of all of human history totaled some 5 exabytes (or five billion gigabytes of information). Now we produce that many videos, pictures, and words every couple of days.

We need more useful numbers — and this is one of Indian Country’s great challenges in an era of both austerity and transparency. In 1900 the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget was $8.2 million. It took nearly 80 years before that funding level topped a billion dollars. Then the first $2 billion was  in 2001. Last year $ 2.6 billion. And the Obama administration’s current request is for $2.924 billion. (I am working on a history of Indian appropriations — more on that soon.)

So I have been thinking about these numbers in the context of the recent narrative about Native youth. The stories themselves are inspiring, starting with the president’s visit with young people in North Dakota, followed by the recent meeting at the White House. As First Lady Michelle Obama put it: “So we all need to work together to invest deeply — and for the long-term — in these young people, both those who are living in their tribal communities … and those living in urban areas across this country. These kids have so much promise — and we need to ensure that they have every tool, every opportunity they need to fulfill that promise.”

This is where the numbers and the story intersect.

A commitment to invest deeply and for the long-term requires serious cash and resources. The president’s budget matches that rhetoric with a budget request of $1 billion to promote Generation Indigenous, an initiative designed for Native American youth. “In today’s global economy a high quality education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity – it is a prerequisite to success,” the Interior Department said. “President Obama set out a vision for a 21st century education system grounded in both high academic standards and tribal values and traditions. Making advanced education opportunities available for tribal members is a high priority for tribes, who see education as the path to economic development and a better quality of life for their communities through an educated and skilled tribal member workforce.”

Today’s Native youth are perfectly cast for this initiative. Even on remote reservations or Alaska villages this is the digital native generation. They have grown up collecting more data on their phones — music, Facebook posts, video and photographs — than any other generation in history. They grow up connected to other Native youth across the country making deep digital friendships with dozens, even hundreds of other Native American youth. That’s new. It’s exponential.

I also think about the digital opportunity ahead for young people who live in a remote community. You can live anywhere in the world and produce videos for YouTube. Or write computer code. In 1971 a Unix computer had a couple hundred thousand lines of code. Today the software for a modern car has more than 90 million lines of code. That’s a lot of jobs for young people who have the right skills. And why not Generation Indigenous?

Of course that means Congress will have to actually appropriate the kind of dollars to make youth a priority. Not just a story, but a future that’s bolstered by real numbers.

Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He 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.

Planting ideas: Tribal colleges are essential for developing reservation economies

February 12, 2015

Congress has recognized the importance and the value of tribal colleges. A Senate resolution sets Feb. 8 as the “National Tribal Colleges and Universities Week.”

There are 32 fully accredited tribal colleges and universities on some 75 campuses across the country, reaching thousands of students, delivering higher education for a fraction of the cost of other public institutions.

“All across America we have teachers helping students in some of the poorest, most remote corners of our nation. We have students who are committed to persevering, have been raised with the cultural strength of their tribe, and are determined to shine brighter to make this world a better place,” said U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, and sponsor of the resolution. “In North Dakota, I’ve been awestruck by the commitment I’ve seen from our educators and staff at all five of our tribal colleges to engaging with our Native kids – to showing them that they can achieve higher and grow stronger both personally and professionally.”

But when it comes to public policy, tribal colleges do not get the resources required.

A few weeks ago, The Atlantic published a critical report about tribal colleges and called them a “poor return on more than $100 million a year in federal money.” And, a top line of a hundred million sounds like a lot of money. The primary complaint was that the schools’ graduation rates are lower than other institutions.

But here is the rub: The same report acknowledged how much less is being spent on Native students. “Congress sets tribal college funding and is authorized by federal law to give schools a maximum of $8,000 per student. But in reality the schools get $5,850 per student on average. And that funding can be used only for Native American students; nearly a fifth of those enrolled don’t identify as Native,” wrote Sarah Butrymowicz for The Atlantic. “Howard University, a historically black college, by comparison averages more than $20,000 per student from the federal government.”

And that’s just the beginning. A report by the Century Foundation estimates the total cost for a community college averages $10,242 per student.

But The Atlantic piece seemed to blame tribal colleges themselves for inadequate resources — and a performance metric based only on graduation rates.

Fortunately there is another way to look at this issue. The Montana Legislature is considering legislation that would boost funding non-Indian students who attend tribal colleges on a per student basis. A bill by Rep. Susan Webber, D-Browning, would match the amount of funding that state community colleges receive on a per capita basis. Under current state law tribal colleges — seven based in Montana — receive about half as much per student as community colleges. Non-Indian students make up nearly a third of the student body at Montana’s tribal colleges. As Blackfeet Community College President Billie Jo Kipp put it: “Compared to what Dawson Community College gets, we get $3,000. They get $6,740. We provide similar services, we provide similar—if not more—training programs, workforce development programs, to non-Natives as well.”

Tribal colleges remain, in my mind, an unfair bargain. A bargain because they deliver higher education at a much lower cost per student. And an unfair bargain because they should not have to do that. There should be the resources available to get the job done.

Tribal colleges serve another critical role. Let me explain. If you look at the economy of a local community, pick the town, you’ll find that there are often four pillars of activity that create jobs. These are: government, health care, higher education and private sector. We know that government (tribal and federal) plays a huge role in any reservation economy.   It’s the same with Indian health (now Indian Country’s single largest employer). In communities with strong tribal colleges, that becomes a third leg for economic development because there’s an infrastructure surrounding a campus that creates good gigs ranging from professors to maintenance workers. The fourth leg, the private sector, is usually the weakest link for a lot of reasons.

Tribal colleges already contribute to a reservation economy. Economists call these “anchor institutions” because of their payroll and other infrastructure building characteristics. (In fact, if you look at just about any community, the largest employers are hospitals and universities.)

I also see a role for tribal colleges that’s growing more important because higher education has the power to generate ideas that turn into something else, especially private sector jobs. Yes, graduation rates are important and should be improved. But that’s just the beginning of what a tribal college does. Mostly, I think, these are institutions where ideas grow. It takes good ideas to create permanent, sustainable tribal communities.

Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He 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.