Winning the election of ideas

Cover photo: Rep. Paulette Jordan via Facebook


Rethinking tribal policy at the state level

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Elections are about ideas. What should our world look like? How do tribal nations, Alaska Native corporations, and communities fit into the American experience?

Elections are about tactics. Who runs? Are there resources? (And, when I say resources, I really mean, cash money.) And, does that make it possible to win?

Elections are about power. Do you have the votes to change the world? To protect a pipeline? Or to sell coal in a world that is shifting away from fossil fuels?

Elections are about people. The people who expect the Indian health clinic to have enough money to pay for a hospital stay. Or the people that decide how medical care should be funded, and who’s even eligible.

And elections are never forever. There is always another ahead. And that’s true win or lose. If you win, get ready to defend the gains you’ve made. If you lose, pick up the pieces, and start working for the next ballot.

Let’s examine 2016 and what worked, what needed work, and what must be rethought.
At one point more than a hundred candidates were running for Congress, state legislatures, and a variety of state offices. That is fabulous. Yes, the field was narrowed after primary contests, and, of course, the general election. But the point is you gotta run to win. So many talented people from across Indian Country gave elective office a shot. (In fact, for me, the one take away from this election: We have some incredibly talented people out there. And that talent is not disappearing just because voters didn’t discover them.)

There are some extraordinary hurdles. Money is a big one. There has to be at least enough money so that the Native candidates get consideration by voters. Then again. This election was a bit odd. Money played less a role than you would think.

Chase Iron Eyes (Standing Rock Sioux) ran a frugal campaign. At one point he was basically selling t-shirts to finance his enterprise (although he did receive more money toward the end). And the result: His opponent easily won re-election with 69 percent of the vote, while Iron Eyes was stuck at 25 percent. This is not as bad as it looks because the Democrat-NPL candidate for governor only earned 19 percent of the vote. And the party’s Senate candidate: 17 percent.

What this tells me? Iron Eyes has a base of support. It’s his first run and I know he learned a lot. So a next time? Something to think about.

On the other hand, Denise Juneau (Mandan Hidatsa Arikara) broke fundraising records for a Native American running for Congress as a challenger (it’s way easier if you are an incumbent). She raised more than $2 million in an extraordinarily expensive House race. But Juneau demonstrated success. She was competitive. And that will be important in future races, too.

Indeed, the match between a well-funded incumbent and a challenger from Indian Country was true in Washington state, too, where former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas ran against Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, a member of Republican leadership.

And elections are never forever: It’s entirely possible that one of the Republicans that Iron Eyes, Juneau, or Pakootas, ran against could be recruited to the new Trump administration. And, then, well, opportunity time. North Dakota’s Kevin Cramer could end up serving in the Trump administration as Energy Secretary (or more likely, a Deputy Secretary.)

This election cycle at least 31 Native American candidates ran unopposed. Often these were reservation-based districts where there aren’t as many potential Republicans who would surface as opponents. But Rep.-elect Tanwa Sanchez (Shoshone-Bannock) was also in this group, running in Portland, Oregon, as well as Rep. Ponke-We Victors in Kansas.
Another twist this year: Districts where both candidates are Native American. There were two such districts in Montana. Sen-elect Frank Smith (Assiniboine Sioux), a Democrat, defeated Rep. G. Bruce Meyers (Chippewa Cree) in the northern part of the state. And Sen.-elect Jason Small (Northern Cheyenne), a Republican, defeated incumbent Carolyn Pease Lopez (Crow).

This was also true in New Mexico where Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage narrowly won with 5,042 to GloJean Todacheene’s 4,246 votes. Both women are Navajo.

Wyoming will have a new member of its legislator, Affie Ellis (Navajo) was elected to the state Senate as a Republican, defeating an incumbent. She posted on Facebook: “I am humbled. And honored. Thank you for all the kind words of support. We knew it would be a tough race and I’m proud of our efforts. In the end, I secured 60% of the vote and am looking forward to serving in the Wyoming State Senate.”


Nine Native Americans now serve in the Montana Legislature. That’s the most in the country both in percentage terms and as a total. (Trahant photo)

Montana continues to be the state with the largest Native American caucus in the legislature, 8 Democrats and 1 Republican. Rep. Susan Webber (Blackfeet) told The Montana Standard: “We’ve been literally and figuratively the minority’s minority. I know it looks like we have a lot of people in the Indian caucus, a lot of people were elected, but in reality it should be more. But just us getting in there, from my perspective, is a real positive.”

In Minnesota the Native American caucus is also a Native women’s caucus after the re-election of Rep. Susan Allen (Rosebud), Rep. Peggy Flanagan (White Earth Ojibwe), Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein (Standing Rock Sioux) and Rep.-Elect Jamie Becker Finn (Ojibwe).

And every election sows seeds of what can be. This one is no exception. In Idaho Rep. Paulette Jordan (Coeur d’Alene) showed how to get elected as a Democrat in a largely Republican state. Jordan is the only Democrat elected north of Boise and the legislature will be 84 percent controlled by Republicans, a super-majority.

Jordan posted on Facebook: “We worked hard, with great diligence and incredible dignity above all else. However, while we continue moving forward after a shocking outcome, it’ll be up to us, the next generation of millennials to make a more productive change our state and country needs. We have to chalk this up as a valuable lesson learned, while challenging ourselves to be more engaged and begin organizing in all the best ways possible. I remain optimistic for my community, as I have been blessed with your support and tasked to protect our base values for another term!”

Last week’s election will require new thinking and new alliances. And that is already happening in Alaska. A new coalition of Democrats, Republicans and Independents has flipped the state House away from Republicans. The state is facing a multi-billion budget crisis. One of the Republicans who joined what’s being called the Musk Ox Revolt is Gabrielle LeDoux who told The Alaska Dispatch News, “We’re hired to do a job, and the purpose of our job is not to keep our job. It’s to actually do something.”

There are six Alaska Natives in the legislature, five Democrats and one Republican (whose race remains in recount territory).

Elections are about ideas, tactics, and power. Yet the outcomes determine policy. What choices the Congress will make, how a state chooses to implement those policies, and who gets to decide. There will be a lot of action in state houses over the next four years as the Trump administration goes about shedding federal power. This shift could mean a state-based energy policy. Or a new block grant to pay for health care, even for people in the Indian health system.

There will be challenges ahead. But remember: Elections are never final. There is always another one ahead.

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

#NativeVote16 – Solar innovator says pipeline debate shows this as the ideal time to transition to renewable energy

Henry Red Cloud is running for South Dakota Public Utilities Commission as a Democrat. He will visit the Sacred Stone Camp and bring with him solar lighting equipment. He says: “We simply have to stop accepting and approving poorly planned and disastrous projects like this.” (Lakota Solar Energy company photograph)

Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

Henry Red Cloud added his name to those traveling to Cannon Ball, North Dakota, to show support for for the people of Standing Rock and their opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Red Cloud is a candidate for the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, an agency that among its duties, regulates pipelines. He is an award-winning alternative energy innovator. What’s particularly interesting about this visit is that he is the second state utilities commission candidate to show up there, the other is Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun, who is running for a similar office in North Dakota. (Previous: Why politicians should visit Standing Rock camps)

So the Native politicians get it and head to the camps to show support. To date Chase Iron Eyes and Ruth Buffalo (my apologies for not including her in the first piece I wrote) have shared their experiences from the camp. Buffalo wrote: “I have been to the spirit camp and the new Red Warrior Camp a few times. I first went as early as August 11 after co-presenting at the injury prevention conference in Bismarck. On the first trip I brought a box of fruit. The second trip, vegetables from my mom’s (an elder’s) … garden.”

And now Red Cloud says he’s taking the “pipeline fight to the PUC.” He will bring food and solar lighting platforms to the camp.

He said in a news release: “People are uniting against the Dakota Access Pipeline because it is dangerous to people, their land and certainly for our irreplaceable water.  Farmers, ranchers, tribal members and just regular citizens hear almost every day about another oil spill or pipeline bursting. We hear from their own engineers that the work they are doing is hurried. We can’t allow them to put a pipeline under the Missouri River.”

 “What many people do not realize,” says Red Cloud, “is that the Public Utilities Commission has an ongoing and important say in the pipeline’s construction.  The Commission is ultimately responsible for approving or rejecting many of the steps needed for pipelines to pass through South Dakota, and for other new energy projects.”

There are two important reasons why regional politicians should travel to Standing Rock. First, to show support, as those Native candidates did. But equally important is for government officials to get a first-hand look. There is no substitute for hearing directly from the people at the camp. That’s what I don’t get. Every candidate for governor,  Congress, current office holders, Interior Secretary Sally Jewel, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, and even presidential candidates, should travel and investigate. (I know the folks I have worked for in government would have done that. It’s common sense.)

Across the country there are political waves rolling from Standing Rock. The entire issue is forcing people to think differently about the cost of energy, not it terms of money, but the cost of healthy living. The Missouri and Cannonball Rivers are cleanup projects that never have to happen. If the right decision is made now.

But not everyone is there yet. In Minneapolis a proposed city council resolution of support turned into another version of moving the pipeline to someone else’s water. According to City Pages, Alondra Cano’s resolution called for “Expressing Solidarity With Indigenous Resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline.” The city council would “stand in support of Indigenous opposition” and support Standing Rock “in any way they can.” But others on the council see the pipeline as a safer alternative to the oil trains that Minneapolis and other cities want stopped.

That’s why this is The Moment. The idea is that we can no longer continue to shove toxic problems from one community to another.

As Red Cloud puts it: “We simply have to stop accepting and approving poorly planned and disastrous projects like this.”

And the solution is for a new era. In his election, it’s the call for South Dakota to “become a world class supplier of renewable energy.”

But that’s true in North Dakota too. And Minnesota. And across the globe.

“South Dakota has huge solar and wind resources and we can be a world leader in clean energy production,” says Red Cloud. “My vision is for South Dakota to transition away from oil and become the renewable energy state.”


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 – Essence of political organizing is found at Standing Rock


Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

My Facebook feed is rolling with new feeds from those headed to North Dakota to join those protecting the drinking water for the people of Standing Rock and Cheyenne River. Other folks are fundraising using a variety of social media tools. And, still other people are gathering food and supplies for the many people camped near the river site. Plus dozens of tribes, organizations, and individuals are sending letters of support.

That combined is the essence of political organizing.

There is a problem, seemingly intractable, because the Dakota Access Project has opted for a route crossing the Missouri River in a location that threatens the drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (and eventually the Cheyenne River Tribe). So the tribes and supporters are organizing on multiple fronts. Litigation, set to begin next week, will challenge the role (or lack thereof) by federal regulators that have a trust responsibility to protect the tribes’ interests. And in the court of public opinion, hundreds of people are bringing the dispute into the new living room of America (that’s Facebook) where the story is often trending for all to see. (This shows how social media really is the new media for most people … but that’s another post.)

The magnitude of the organization is impressive. All it takes is a phone call, a Facebook post, or a picture on Instagram and there is somebody ready to act. Even letters of support are identical to “endorsements” of candidates or ballot measures. This is pure political organizing, 101. It’s the exact sort of passion that wins elections. What’s interesting about this debate, this moment in time, is that so many #NativeVote16 candidates are on the ballot statewide in North Dakota and South Dakota. The same organizational tools that bring food must also be configured to win an election. This election.

Imagine Chase Iron Eyes in Congress who is selling t-shirts to fund his campaign instead of Kevin Cramer who has more than a million dollars in contributions, some $652,000 from political action committees and corporations.

Or specifically on this issue: Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun, Standing Rock Sioux, is running for North Dakota’s Public Service Commission and Henry Red Cloud, Oglala Lakota, is a candidate for South Dakota’s Public Utilities Commission. These are the state regulatory bodies that determine approval process for pipeline companies. One vote in each state might not be enough to change the outcome, but one voice on each of those commissions could raise tribal concerns every single time the issue comes up.

The statements from the current North Dakota Public Service Commission make that very point.  Commissioner Brian Kalk told The Bismarck Tribune: “These groups didn’t come to our hearings.”

But over a 13-month hearing schedule, the commission could have been the one to get out and talk to the people. That would have happened with Hunte-Beaubrun and Red Cloud on the two bodies. They would have made certain to include community voices.

The chairman of North Dakota’s body, Julie Fedorchak, said the permitting process is over because the company’s plans have already been approved.

Then again never say never. The strategy for the Dakota Access Pipeline has been all about getting a quick approval process. The original plan calls for completing construction this year. But if the protests and litigation slow that down, that might cause the company to rethink its route. Especially if they are looking at delays measured in years not months. I am not a lawyer but it sure looks to me like there is a lot of evidence that the Army Corps of Engineers failed the consultation protocol — a point that other federal agencies are making. And when local newspapers report that the route was shifted south to protect an urban water source, well, that no longer passes the smell test to say that same pipeline is safe for tribal communities. As the Bismarck Tribune put it: “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers evaluated the Bismarck route and concluded it was not a viable option for many reasons. One reason mentioned in the agency’s environmental assessment is the proximity to wellhead source water protection areas that are avoided to protect municipal water supply wells.”

And when there is an oil spill a river cleanup is difficult, if not impossible. (An irony: Some of the best data about the potential for oil spills comes for the Pacific Northwest, a region that is impacted by the alternative to pipelines, rail transportation of oil.)

Last year a nearly 40,000 gallon pipeline leak on the Yellowstone River resulted in toxic drinking water for the communities near Glendive, Montana.

What makes this spill worth considering is two-fold: First, the volume of oil was only a fraction of what the Dakota Access Pipeline will carry; Second, a harsh winter made it impossible for the pipeline company to stop the leak. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Paul Peronard told The National Geographic:  “None of us anticipated the drinking water problem.”

This time the problem is anticipated. And, like Montana, it’s certain that icy conditions will make any real time reaction to an emergency spill nearly impossible.

Back to politics: How many votes are needed to elect Hunte-Beaubrun? She would need to find 70,000 more votes than the last Democrat who ran for that office. And Red Cloud would need about 100,000 more votes.

Tall orders? Sure. But it’s no different than organizing food, transportation, and lodging for hundreds of last-minute guests. Or protectors, if you prefer.

(Previous post: Pipelines, rail cars, and the price of oil.)

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 – Graphic look at Native candidates for state legislatures

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 10.14.19 AM


What does the election landscape look like? This. I am also updating the spreedsheet that lists all of these candidates. I will post as soon as I have confirmed a couple of races. — Mark Trahant



#NativeVote16 – The Montana Dozen; an idea that’s on the ballot Tuesday

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The Montana Dozen — A dozen Native Americans are on Tuesday’s ballot.  Spreadsheet here
Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

Let’s visualize Montana and do some math. Look at the map. Notice eleven icons each representing a Native American candidate running for the legislature. Then add to that the yellow icon for Sen. Lea Whitford (who was re-elected in 2014). And one more green pin for Denise Juneau’s congressional bid.

We’ll call them: The Montana Dozen.

Tuesday’s primary ballot is better than a map because each pin says so much about Montana. Each icon represents thousands of Native voices from reservations and urban areas. Each pin is a testimony to the value and power of the Native vote. Montana currently has eight Native Americans in the legislature; 5 in the House and 3 in the Senate.

Plus Juneau already has a statewide constituency and her campaign for Congress has “historic” anchored to any sentence. She would be the first Native American woman in Congress. She would be the second woman to ever represent Montana (after Montana sent the very first woman to Congress, Jeannette Rankin).  And she has already won statewide office as the state Superintendent of Public Instruction. Twice.

The Nation magazine profiled Juneau and her team’’s education efforts last week with a program called Schools of Promise. “Montana leads the country in innovations to help reservation high schools turn around, but is it enough?” The Nation asked.

Then, later, it answered. “Yet, even with all the caveats, the Schools of Promise program is likely the best program the country currently has for turning around native schools.”

The Nation also pointed out that the Montana Legislature failed to get enough votes to continue investing in these innovations.

And much of the legislative support for the Schools of Promise program was from the Native American Caucus in the legislature. The bill passed the House, but died in the House Appropriations Committee.

So that’s exactly why more Native American legislators are needed. A couple of more votes could have made a difference.

Then again not every American Indian politician thinks or votes the same.

Two state Senate candidates from Indian Country are running as Republicans. G. Bruce Meyers, who is Chippewa-Cree, said after his House victory two years ago that Native Americans are more conservative than people think. He told The Missoulian newspaper that many things Republicans represent, “strong family values, respect for life, responsibly developing natural resources and the economy – are things most Indians value as well.”

And a Northern Cheyenne candidate, Jason Small, is running to revive coal mining. Small was the guest of Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, at January’s State of the Union where he said: “Coal supports good-paying jobs for union workers and tribal members in eastern Montana and is a critical driver of our state’s economy. But Washington, D.C.’s out of touch regulations are hurting Montana families. It’s important that we send a strong message to President Obama that these job-killing regulations need to be stopped.”

(Previous: Investing in coal or, better, a transition away from coal)

Most of the Native American candidates are running unopposed in Tuesday’s primary election.

However in a Missoula House race, Shane Morigeau faces Curtis Bridges.

Morigeau, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, is a former prosecutor and tribal attorney. He says he is running because “I know that our great state can and should be a place of opportunity for all Montanans. We have accomplished a great deal, but there is much more work to be done. It is time for us to fully achieve equality for women, minorities, and low-income families. It is time for us to candidly face our issues in addiction, mental health, homelessness, and student debt. As an attorney who has assisted in passing legislation in 2013 and 2015, I have the skills and working relationships to hit the ground running as your state legislator in 2017.”

In Arlee, Joey Jayne, an attorney and tribal judge for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, is a former legislator, and a member of the Navajo Nation. She faces Tom France in the Democratic primary.

Montana’s Senate District 16 crosses the northern part of the state stretches across the northern part of the state, including the Powwow Highway, U.S. 12. Reservations: Rocky Boy, Fort Belknap, and Fort Peck.
And in Senate District 16 — one of the more unusual looking districts — there are four Native American candidates, Republican Myers, as well as three Democrats, Bobbi Favel, LeAnn Montes and Frank Smith. (The current senator Jonathan Windy Boy who because of term limits is running for the House.) The district stretches across much of northern Montana and will represent tribal communities from Rocky Boy to Fort Peck.

Favel is Chippewa Cree Tribe from Rocky Boy and has a background in economic development. Smith is from the other side of the district (and state) and is a member of the Assiniboine-Sioux Tribes at Fort Peck. And Montes is a tribal member and the attorney general for the Chippewa Cree.

After this election, Montana’s Native people could actually have representation equal to, or even greater, than the population. As I have written before: Indian Country has much better representation in state legislatures than Congress, about one percent compared to one-third of one percent in Congress.  And in Montana, depending on the outcome of the election Tuesday (and again in November) that percentage could top the seven percent that is the Native population of the state. Add to that the potential for Juneau to represent the entire state of Montana in Congress. That’s representation. (Previous: Say Montana .)

The math is inspiring because The Montana Dozen is not an actual number, but a powerful idea.

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 – The deep political divide on energy and climate issues

Donald Trump on the campaign trail. His “American First” energy policy promises more coal, gas, and oil production. (Campaign photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

There is probably no greater divide between Republicans and Democrats than on energy and climate issues. And right in the middle: Tribal governments, Native people who work because of resource extraction, and, well, everyone who has a stake in a healthy planet.

Last week in North Dakota the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee Donald Trump outlined his “America First” energy policy, a state he said was “at the forefront of a new energy revolution.” And the evidence? “Oil and natural gas production is up significantly in the last decade. Our oil imports have been cut in half. But all this occurred in spite of massive new bureaucratic and political barriers. President Obama has done everything he can to get in the way of American energy. He’s made life much more difficult for North Dakota, as costly regulation makes it harder and harder to turn a 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 done recently, and you will be stuck by the huge “man camps” that were built to temporarily house oil and gas workers. Many of these 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.) On CNBC Wednesday Bob McNally, an industry analyst, said the energy sector will rev up again “if we see crude go back to $55-$60 level we’re going to see rigs going back to work.” And even then, he added, “the real question is how quickly they can get labor back.”

As if. 

Republicans love market forces and capitalism, except when they don’t. And the production of energy is when Republicans want government power used to force land owners to allow pipelines or major projects.

Trump, for example, called for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline because it would create 42,000 jobs and be the safest pipeline every built and “would have no significant impact on the environment.”

Even if the pipeline had approval from the United States its construction is not a sure thing. The Alberta oil fields are expensive (and dirty) and capital for the project becomes more of a problem every day. That’s markets, not over regulation. Yet another pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline, is sailing through most of its regulatory reviews. As soon as today Iowa could grant construction permits across that state’s farm and pasture land.

And it’s a similar story with coal. It’s not over regulation that’s wiped out coal, it’s cheaper natural gas. The only hope for that industry was to export more coal to China and that’s not going to happen because the most likely port locations are against expansion, including Northwest Treaty tribes who fear what coal dust will do to salmon. But even then: Coal consumption in China is dropping anyway and the competition from closer mines makes coal from the United States a tough bet. Again, markets, not regulation.

Yet as Trump put it: “We’re going to save the coal industry and other industries threatened by Hillary Clinton’s extremist agenda.”

Then that “extremist agenda” is climate change. Trump would cancel the Paris climate agreement that calls for countries to reduce carbon emissions. As one of the negotiators, Todd Stern, wrote in The Washington Post: “Climate change is happening now, intensively, all over the world. It’s getting worse. We can’t hope to contain it without joint global action. The Paris Agreement is our vehicle for doing that. Trump would have us walk away? Really?”

Hillary Clinton has called climate change “an urgent threat and the defining challenge of our time.” Her notion is to make energy “the world’s clean energy superpower, and ensuring no Americans are left out or behind as we rapidly build a clean energy economy.”

That’s a challenge. How do you transition energy field workers to the economy when the old jobs pay so well? 

Even beyond that challenge there is a split within Democrats about how fast to move restructuring the energy economy. Clinton’s plan calls for a decade of change, ranging from cutting energy waste to phasing out dirty fuels. And reduce oil consumption by 300 million barrels per year.

Bernie Sanders calls for an acceleration of that transition. “That means we must leave the vast majority of global reserves, coal, natural gas, oil in the ground.” He, too, says there must be investment in a transition because it’s “fair to those currently working in the energy sector, which means those workers and their families must be able to depend on safe, living wage jobs.”

It’s that transition that puts energy producing tribes in the middle. Montana’s Crow Nation says it has a treaty right to sell coal and that means a Northwest port from where that coal can ship to China.

And that’s where the divide makes no sense. Republicans, including Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, defend the Crow’s coal push. While those opposed to the port, including many Democrats and tribes, say the port should not even be considered. But no candidate, Democrat or Republican, has proposed a major federal investment to pay for the Crows (as well as other tribes and communities) to transition away from coal. Or oil. Or any other extractive resource. (Brookings suggests a carbon tax to pay for that investment.)

It’s not enough to say no more coal. There also has to be a what’s next? 

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 – Bernie Sanders in Indian Country is a story (someone should tell the media)

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaking at Pine Ridge. (Campaign photo)
## See update below. ##

Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

You have to give Bernie Sanders credit for elevating American Indian and Alaska Native issues. He traveled across Montana, South Dakota, and North Dakota, and at every stop (as he has been doing for months now) he called for a new relationship between the federal government and tribes.

At Pine Ridge, Sanders said: “The reason we are here today is to try to understand what is going on in Pine Ridge and other reservations,” Sanders said. “There are a lot of problems here. Poverty is much too high. There are not enough decent jobs in the area. The health care system is inadequate. And we need to fundamentally change the relationship between the U.S. government and the Native American community.” (Previous: Bernie Sanders brings out the crowds, but what about voters?)

Of course just bringing Native American issues to the surface is a good thing because it forces other candidates to talk about the same issues and come up with possible solutions.

Only that’s not what’s happening. Sanders is getting some press on Native issues, but it’s really limited.

A quick Google search tells the story. Search Bernie Sanders and Native Americans and there are some 771,000 hits, including videos of his speeches and a few news clips, mostly from regional newspapers. There has not been a major story from any TV network. In fact if you use a TV network as a filter, such as NBC News, you are just as likely to get a story about a six-year-old who was removed from a temporary foster home and returned to her family. Actually the NBC story goes like this: “6-Year-Old Girl Removed From Foster Home Over Native American Heritage. Because Lexi is 1/64th Choctaw Native American, her case falls under the purview of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.”

If you Google Native Americans plus Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump there are more results, and the stories being told range from Clinton’s ill-considered “off the reservation” remark to Trump’s attack of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and how her “phony Native American heritage” kept her from running for president.

This is why people hate politics. Instead of having a serious election discussion about Native American policy most of the campaign news stories focus on the headline grabbing stories. Sure, it’s ok to debate the Indian Child Welfare Act, especially if the news media adds historical context about why it’s a law. It’s even worth talking about Sen. Warren, tribal identity, and citizenship. But those debates only make sense if we pull back and look at the big issues, the relationship of tribes and the federal government.

Of course the news media has no way of knowing what’s important to American Indians and Alaska Natives. There are no Native American reporters working at any of the television networks and none on the campaign trail. There’s no one there to say, “this is a story, and here’s why …”

This is a story because no president can improve the relationship between tribes and the federal government. It takes a president, the Congress, the courts, the bureaucracy, and, the media, to help people understand the solemn promises they as Americans have made. It’s a story that requires research and history so that reporters can explain complex ideas. It’s a story because tribes are constitutional governments, not special interests. It’s a story because Native Americans deserve a say over what happens on our lands.

I like numbers so here are three: The number of Native Americans in Congress; 0.37 percent. Number of Native Americans on the federal bench; 0.11 percent. And, Native Americans working in the national media, 0.00 percent.

Note to editors and producers: It’s really bad when even politicians kick your ass.

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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## A few days after I wrote this piece, on May 16, ABC News did a story. I stand corrected.



#NativeVote16 – Battle over federal land surfaces in presidential debate

Rightful owners of Nevada’s land?




Mark Trahant

Ted Cruz just joined the Sage Brush Rebellion.

A new 30-second spot, “Nevada Land,” says the land belongs to the people of Nevada, “not Washington bureaucrats.”  To make his point Cruz features a picture of cattle grazing, presumably on federal lands.”If you trust me with your vote, I will return full control of Nevada’s lands to its rightful owners, its citizens. Count on it.”

Count on it? Rightful owners? The whole Sagebrush Rebel narrative misses the point that tribes in the region have called the area home for more than 10,000 years and if there’s any claim to rightful ownership then it’s the first owners who have the rightful claim.

Indeed at the MSNBC Town Hall on Thursday night, former Moapa Tribal Chairman William Anderson asked Sen. Bernie Sanders about more land that ought to have stronger federal protection.


“My people, the Nuwuvi, the Southern Paiutes here, we’re trying to go ahead work towards Gold Butte as a national monument too. There is a lot of recent issues that came up here, and what I want to really ask is is that there are those who oppose the American people’s ownership of public lands, and would see those lands sold to private interest. As president, how would you ensure that our public lands remain in public hands, and preserve our heritage and lives by stopping corporations from destroying Mother Earth? ”

Sanders answered the question broadly.

“I don’t have to explain to you, or I hope anybody in this room, or anybody watching the outrageous way, unfair way, that governments have treated Native Americans from day one. It is a disgrace.

“Number two, I will — you know, you’re raising issues in terms of extraction of fossil fuels, for example. I believe that climate change is one of the great challenges facing this planet, and what I have introduced legislation to do, by the way, it to say that we will not extract fossil fuels in the future from any public lands.

“Number three, I understand that it is absolutely important that the federal government do much more than it is now doing to work with the native american community in preserving their heritage, and their way of life. And, I will do everything I can to bring that about.

What is the Gold Butte issue about? It’s already federally-controlled land but a number of tribes, environmentalists, and Nevada cities have called for either presidential or congressional action to give permanent protection to the area’s wildlife, including desert tortoise, desert bighorn sheep, the banded Gila monster, great horned owls and a great variety of reptiles, birds and mammals, as well as protecting archaeological resources, including rock art, caves, agave roasting pits and camp sites that date back some 3,000 years.

Generally Republicans say the land should not have additional protection from the federal government and Democrats want legislation to make the monument status permanent. Nevada Sen. Dean Heller said last year that any federal action would be an escalation “in a region of our state where tensions are already presently high.”

But that’s also the point of Cruz’ new ad. He says Donald Trump is not sufficiently a rebel. Trump told Field and Stream magazine that he didn’t like the idea of the federal government turning over land to the states. “I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do. I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold. We have to be great stewards of this land. This is magnificent land.”

Stewards? Magnificent land? For sage brush rebels those are fighting words. And Gold Butte just happens to be where one Cliven Bundy and his militia supporters forced the Bureau of Land Management to back off last year after threats of violence. Except the federal government was patient. Now it’s Bundy who’s awaiting trial. Perhaps that’s why Cruz tried to capture the spirit of the movement without mentioning any names.

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 – Connecting to tribal voters in Nevada

Fascinating profile of young Native American voters in Nevada by Tristan Ahtone (On Twitter: @Tahtone ). This video is worth watching; story raises the kinds of questions that candidates and journalism organizations should be asking.



So should candidates for president really campaign on reservations in such a close contest? As reported in the piece, Nevada is only about 2 percent Native. So this near the caucus a visit to a tribal community doesn’t make a lot of sense (except, perhaps, where the delegate rewards are rich, such as Walker River Paiute.)

But. And this is huge. This is something both candidates could have done before Iowa, before their world got crazy, when they actually had time to listen. (Sanders is in Elko today, so some tribal issues may surface.) Still, an early visit to Schurz or Owyhee would helped the candidates see Indian Country in a new light.

— Mark Trahant






#NativeVote16 – Iowa issue that should be on the table: Self-determination

Screenshot 2016-01-31 09.21.40
C-SPAN’S report from the 2008 Iowa caucuses. The 2016 caucus is Monday, Feb. 1.


Iowa is 92 percent white; state’s American Indian population is 0.5 percent, but that’s not the whole story



The media surrounding the Iowa caucuses reduces the story to one basic theme: Who’s winning and what does that win (or loss) mean for the New Hampshire primary? Lost in that coverage is a thoughtful discussion about issues and policies. So we get political promises that might fit better in cartoons than in governing papers.

My ideal? Presidential campaigns would focus on policy, not the politicians, and the first votes would be cast in states like Arizona, New Mexico, or even Montana, where issues that impact First Americans would get a full airing by all the campaigns. Indeed, we know so many reasons why Iowa should not vote first. The state is 92 percent white, the caucus system favors rural voters and the population of American Indians is roughly one-half of one percent.

But that’s not the whole story.

There are 1,400 enrolled members of the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa/Meskwaki Nation located in central Iowa. And in Tama County, the population of American Indians exceeds 6 percent of the population. Democrats hold their precinct caucus at the Meskwaki Tribal Center. (The Republican caucus is at the Tama Civic Center.)

The Sac and Fox Tribe Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa/Meskwaki Nation. Members of the 1,400 tribal community will be among the first to cast their vote for president on Monday night.

There are even hot issues that ought to surface in a presidential campaign. The Iowa Senate last week enacted a resolution to end state criminal jurisdiction over Meskawaki tribal members, essentially repealing Public Law 280. The bill has been sent to the Iowa House. Tribal members have been supported such a bill for several sessions with the goal of tribal jurisdiction.

This would be a great presidential campaign discussion. We all know the United States goes through dramatic swings when it comes to federal-Indian policy. Congress enacted Public Law 280 when the idea was to break up reservations and assimilate tribal people into the states. That policy, of course, was nonsense. And eventually rejected in favor of the self-determination policies of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. But here’s the thing: The underlying legislation that promoted assimilation remains the law.
Congress never repealed its termination resolution, nor PL 280, but left them on the books as a legal layer that only causes confusion. That’s why the Iowa legislature is enacting a repeal; It’s ahead of the Congress on getting rid of a failed policy.

This is not the first attempt by Iowa. A similar resolution passed in 2015, but without the force of law. The Tama News-Herald says U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told Iowa to act first “before the federal government can act.” And, he told the paper, “A mere resolution that doesn’t have the force of law isn’t enough to allow Congress to move forward on any possible changes.”

The Iowa House will take up the legislation next. And then Congress? We shall see. But it would have been a great topic for the Iowa presidential campaign.

The only candidate to campaign on the Sac and Fox settlement was Bernie Sanders. In September he held a rally and answered a few questions about federal-Indian policy. The Des Moines Register quoted him: “The federal government, the U.S government’s relationship to Native Americans has been a disaster from day one. … Everything else being equal, we want decisions being made by the peoples themselves, not dictated by the government. There has to be a relationship, but at the end of the day I would like to see local decisions being made by local people themselves.”

The Register said Sander’s rally “won an enthusiastic response” and reported a tribal member who said his presence could translate into support on caucus night.

And for the Republicans? I mentioned that the Democrats are meeting Monday at the tribal center. The GOP is at  the Tama Civic Center. One reason for that might be in 2012 not a single person attended the Republican caucus at the precinct representing the tribal community.

Watch for my live tweets on Monday night, @trahantreports and the hashtag is #NativeVote16 on Twitter.

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