There is that moment when we take the plastic protection off a new phone screen. Everything was perfect until we peel it away. Then fingerprints, scratches, and the business of life take hold. That new thing is never the same.
That’s exactly where Doug Burgum was as the new governor of North Dakota. He could have taken that screen and made certain that there was a new image of North Dakota for the world to see.
Damn. Think about what was possible: A governor who is framing his entire administration on innovation just dismissed the most disruptive force in his state’s recent history. That is what Standing Rock is about. Instead of saying, “What can we learn from this? What can we do together?” The new governor relied on the screen saver that was there before; the idea that powerful forces will roll over the tribe and build the Dakota Access Pipeline without interference. Thank you.
Burgum also scratched away at an old story: The Obama administration created this problem.
But his larger message is that the state of North Dakota and its corporate partners are more powerful than any tribal government. Instead of a pause, a moment to engage in a government-to-government dialogue, the new governor emphatically says the pipeline will get built soon. No. Matter. What.
“Make no mistake, this infrastructure is good for our economy,” the governor said in his YouTube video. “And it’s the safest way to transport North Dakota products. Failure to finish it would send a chilling signal to those in any industry who wish invest in our state and play by the rules.”
But the rules are complicated. And the court cases are not resolved. In fact the governor could have taken advantage of the litigation schedule to begin an open dialogue. Even more important: The prospect of more litigation is growing and that is something that will not be resolved by the Trump administration. It will take time.
The new governor could have reset the law enforcement battle lines too. Nope. “As a result of the Obama administration’s refusal to uphold the rule of law on federally owned land, both our citizens and local and state law enforcement have been put in harm’s way,” he said. “These actions are putting daily demands on the scarce resources of our state and local government.”
Those daily demands are because the state of North Dakota made it so. Pick a word: defuse, de-escalate, negotiate. There were so many better alternatives, ones that were dismissed in favor of sending in the cavalry. I have interviewed many government officials over the years that successfully reduced tension instead of using the police powers of a state. In every test the state failed in this regard and the new governor is following the same path.
I had hopes that Gov. Burgum would see the potential of the Standing Rock story as one that could make North Dakota a beacon. Think about this: This moment in history has brought indigenous people together in a way that’s unprecedented. And the world is paying attention to that. What an amazing opportunity, something that could stir the imagination of investors, entrepreneurs, and governments. Potential partners in a state that found a solution by working with tribes to solve an intractable problem.
The former governor blamed social media for this global perception. But that misses the point that the Standing Rock Tribe owns the story. And that won’t change because the new governor posts a video his account. The problem is not social media. It’s the message that the State of North Dakota will use the rule of law, the police power of a state, to roll over a tribal nation. It’s a message of brut force instead of inspiration.
A missed opportunity? Sadly, yes. The governor says he will meet with tribes. But in North Dakota the context is business as usual. The plastic is off. And the new screen is already scratched.
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
Nearly two years ago the Dakota Access Pipeline and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the tribe about an inevitable pipeline that would cross near their reservation and within treaty lands. The tribe objected. But it was inevitable. A done deal.
And in April the Camp of the Sacred Stones was set up as a center by LaDonna Brave Bull Allard as a center for spiritual resistance. Crazy, right? A few people standing together cannot do anything against the absolute power of the state of North Dakota and the oil company billionaires who want this done. Inevitable. A done deal.
Then in August Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II defied state authorities and was arrested in the pipeline’s path. He told Indian Country Today Media Network: “The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is doing everything it can legally, through advocacy and by speaking directly to the powers that be who could have helped us before construction began.” So what? The $3.8 billion pipeline was inevitable. A done deal.
Then in September the tribe and its allies won a battle when the Obama administration said it would review the matter. “Construction of the pipeline on Army Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe will not go forward at this time,” said the joint statement from the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Army. “We request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.”
But the Dakota Access Pipeline’s owners ignored that request. Why should they stop? This entire pipeline route was designed to avoid federal interference. So what if the federal government was reviewing the record. This project was inevitable. A done deal.
In fact a few days later, in an extraordinary exchange before the U.S. Court of Appeals, the company admitted that the process was incomplete. Judge Thomas B. Griffith asked: “Why not wait until you see whether you’re going to get the easement?” asked the judge. “To a neutral outside observer, it looks like you’re forcing their hand … So it’s a gamble. You’re gambling you’re going to win.”
And why not gamble? The easement was inevitable. A done deal.
But inevitable blew up Sunday night. On the same weekend when thousands of veterans showed up to support Standing Rock, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it will not grant the easement under Lake Oahe. And the corps will now require an Environmental Impact Statement.
So what now? That invincible force known as the oil industry is still out there, saying the project is inevitable.
U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer said: “Today’s unfortunate decision sends a very chilling signal to others who want to build infrastructure in this country. Roads, bridges, transmission lines, pipelines, wind farms and water lines will be very difficult, if not impossible, to build when criminal behavior is rewarded this way.”
(Remember the company was proceeding without an easement.)
And from Washington, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers Jay Timmons said the decision “defies logic, science and sound policy-decision making, and the consequences can be measured in lost work for manufacturers and those in the manufacturing supply chain. If a project that has involved all relevant stakeholders and followed both the letter and spirit of the law at every step of this approval process can be derailed, what signal does that send to others considering building new energy infrastructure in this country? We can only hope that President-elect Trump will stand by his promises to invest aggressively in new infrastructure in America and start by overturning this misguided decision and allow the completion of the pipeline.”
There we go again. Inevitable. A done deal. If only the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Cheyenne River Tribe, hundreds of other tribes, and people from across the planet would not have got in the way.
But there are three critical things to think about in that chronology and the idea of the inevitable.
First, no energy company can roll over a community that’s united. And that’s all of the communities involved, not just the people of Standing Rock. As Chairman Archambault said today in a news release, “throughout this effort I have stressed the importance of acting at all times in a peaceful and prayerful manner.”
Second, President-elect Donald J. Trump can revisit this issue. He probably will. But it will not be easily undone. I have been writing for months that President Obama would likely take this action but it had to be done in concert with the federal agencies involved. A president’s power is not absolute. (I am really interested in the structure of the Army Corps’ decision to see just how complex it will be for a Trump administration to unwind.)
Third, and most important, this is a moment when North Dakota can tell the world what it really wants to be. The timing is ideal for a new beginning.
Is this a state where the sheer power of police, looking like military, will roll over the legitimate interests of a community? Is this how you tell the world, come to North Dakota, invest, we’re open? Or, does the state now take advantage of this unique opportunity to show what can be done in a spirit of reconciliation. This is the time for the state to get serious about an environmental impact statement, a smarter route, to work with the tribes, end prosecutions, and pardon those who are in the criminal justice system now. Even better: Take one more step and build bridges by investing in the Standing Rock neighborhood.
This whole pipeline encounter was a fiasco that was a better story for the 19th century instead of the 21st. It represented the total breakdown in communications between the tribes and the State of North Dakota. However there’s now a path toward the healing that needs to occur. And that is what should be inevitable. A done deal. #HealNorthDakota
The period between an election and a new presidential administration is nothing short of frantic. There is just not enough time to fill all the positions that open up on Jan. 20, 2017, some 8,000 posts that are political in nature. About 1,200 of those jobs require Senate confirmation. President-elect Donald Trump is interviewing a lot of people, moving fast to staff his administration.
The extraordinary thing is that this huge federal hiring spree opens up prospects up and down the line.
At every newspaper I have worked at over the years there were always those December stories about prospective appointments from back home to DC. North Dakota, for example, has several candidates ranging from Rep. Kevin Cramer to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. Sen. Heitkamp makes sense as Energy Secretary in a Trump administration because she’s supported the oil and gas industry, including the Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Let’s be clear here: No one against pipelines or demanding a quicker transition to green fuels is going to get this job.) Her appointment would also mean one less Democrat in the Senate (and two years ahead of schedule).
Cramer has a lot of options. His side won. He can move up to the Senate. He can take a post in the administration. Or he can be the reliable voice for oil and gas in the House (as if that’s an underserved community). Any of the North Dakota seats that open up would be long-shot prospects for Chase Iron Eyes, Ruth Buffalo or Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun. All three learned a lot during recent statewide campaigns. But a special election in a deep red state is especially difficult. Then again. Stranger things have happened.
Another potential Trump appointment is Cathy McMorris Rodgers, possibly as Interior Secretary. (She’s being considered as is Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin.) A couple of points. First, McMorris Rodgers has shown little interest in Native American issues while in Congress. She almost always sides with opponents. On the other hand, a McMorris Rodgers appointment opens up the House seat. And former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas already has an organization and name identification. In this case, a special election could be an advantage. Fallin, however, would have the ear of many Oklahoma tribes who have worked with her in the past. If she were to head Interior, many of the appointments in Indian Affairs would be familiar names.
And one potential job shift that’s outside of politics: Yesterday Royce Engstrom, the president of the University of Montana, resigned. The Board of Regents has appointed an interim leader and a search committee will begin looking for a spring hire. But one name is already surfacing: Denise Juneau. She will soon end her time as the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. A petition from change.org calls Juneau “a rising star” who is well suited to reform the university and taking on the challenges of declining enrollment, budgets being slashed, and students not being able to take the courses required for graduation.
The Rule of Law. Four words that are cited over and over as the reason why the water protectors at Standing Rock should back away from their efforts to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. The reasoning goes: The Rule of Law makes it ok to stand over there, hold a sign, until this dispute goes away. Shhh! Be quiet. The pipeline will be built as planned.
And on Monday, using a snow storm as an excuse, the governor dipped into his legal tools and called on the most powerful words in his arsenal. “I, Jack Dalrymple, Governor of the State of North Dakota, order a mandatory evacuation of all persons located in areas under the proprietary jurisdiction of the United States Army Corps of Engineers located in Morton County …”
The Rule of Law. The governor issued this proclamation knowing full well that none of the people at the camp will leave after his lofty proclamation. He knows that in order to enforce The Rule of Law there will have to be a massive law enforcement action where hundreds of people are rounded up and incarcerated.
And the word from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its allies is as expected. “This state executive order is a menacing action meant to cause fear, and is a blatant attempt by the state and local officials to usurp and circumvent federal authority,” Chairman Dave Archambault II said in a news release. “The USACE has clearly stated that it does not intend to forcibly remove campers from federal property. The Governor cites harsh weather conditions and the threat to human life. As I have stated previously, the most dangerous thing we can do is force well-situated campers from their shelters and into the cold. If the true concern is for public safety than the Governor should clear the blockade and the county law enforcement should cease all use of flash grenades, high-pressure water cannons in freezing temperatures, dog kennels for temporary human jails, and any harmful weaponry against human beings. This is a clear stretch of state emergency management authority and a further attempt to abuse and humiliate the water protectors. The State has since clarified that they won’t be deploying law enforcement to forcibly remove campers, but we are wary that this executive order will enable further human rights violations.”
But that’s it. Every time the state of North Dakota and Morton County have had the opportunity to de-escalate, they favor the more violent course. Instead of crossing the bridge, acting as a governor of all the people, Dalrymple responded to the crisis by calling up the National Guard and then writing checks as fast as he could for more law enforcement to act as a military. The state’s clear and consistent message is comply or else.
And that’s because there is an urgency that’s driven by the corporate sponsors of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Truth be told: The Rule of Law takes too long. The pipeline has a schedule. So any disagreements about interpreting that rule of law must be accomplished as a matter of academic debate. The pipeline must be built. Now. (The company can’t even seem to wait for a court to rule on its own action.)
Then, The Rule of Law is such a funny phrase. One I have heard many times. It’s what was said in Washington, Oregon and Idaho when Native Americans insisted that treaties gave them the right to fish for salmon. The states disagreed and used the power of government to arrest people. Many, many Native people. Until finally the courts said, wait, the rule of law has to include the Constitution of the United States and the powerful article six that declares “treaties as the Supreme Law of the Land.” In the end the states were wrong. One idea that came out of that litigation was that treaties had to be read as the tribal negotiators would have understood the words.
Imagine that. So the Rule of Law means that the tribal interpretation of treaty language is critical to understanding, and implementing, that sacred agreement.
There is another parallel between the salmon fishing treaty battle in the Northwest a generation ago and the fight for clean water by the Standing Rock Tribe. There is no way that salmon would have survived as more than a curiosity had the tribes lost their treaty claims in the 1970s. States and tribes were forced to work together so that salmon could prosper. Before the courts weighed-in, there was an imbalance, caused by overfishing, over-building, and a lack of respect for the natural world. But the treaty forced the states to get serious about working with tribes and managing a scarce natural resource. The Rule of Law won.
And that is exactly what upholding a treaty could do for water in the Great Plains. Especially if the state subscribes to The Rule of Law.
A few years ago I had a chance to ask President George Bush what he thought about tribal sovereignty in the 21st century. His answer went viral: “Tribal sovereignty means that. It’s sovereign. You’re a … you’re a … you’ve been given sovereignty and you’re viewed as a sovereign entity.”
Think about that question today; we would be lucky to get a similar answer. Bush (except for the “given” part) was correct: tribal sovereign means that, you’re sovereign.
This idea is relevant now because during the campaign Donald Trump was dismissive of any sovereignty except his perception of what America’s sovereignty is all about.
So a treaty with Mexico and Canada? Junk it, day one. A United States pledge to reduce global warming? Out. Perhaps even historic military alliances will disappear into lost budgets.
And when it comes to the federal relationship with American Indian and Alaska Native governments as sovereigns we will likely see ideas pop up that were long ago discarded as impractical, expensive, or out-and-out wrong.
At the top of that list: Shifting power from the federal government to state capitals. That was Ronald Reagan’s plan when he came to Washington. In 1981 he proposed rolling dozens of federal programs into block grants for states. Then the budget was cut by 25 percent, the argument being states could deliver the services more efficiently. But a Republican Senate didn’t buy the whole plan. In the end most of the programs were managed by states, but under federal oversight. According to Congressional Quarterly, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, then chairman of the Senate Labor Committee said at the time, it was the best deal possible. “We’ve come 70 to 80 percent of the way to block grants,” Hatch said. “The administration is committed to pure block grants, and so am I. But there was no way we could do that.”
Expect Hatch, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, to take another shot at substantial block grants to states, representing a fundamental shift for programs that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Ryan’s agenda, “A Better Way,” proposes to do this with Medicaid. It says: “Instead of shackling states with more mandates, our plan empowers states to design Medicaid programs that best meet their needs, which will help reduce costs and improve care for our most vulnerable citizens.”
This is a significant issue for the Indian health system. Under current law, Medicaid is a partnership between the federal and state governments. But states get a 100 percent federal match for patients within the Indian health system. Four-in-ten Native Americans are eligible for Medicaid funding, and, according to Kaiser Family Foundation, at least 65,000 Native Americans don’t get coverage because they live in states that did not expand Medicaid.
The Affordable Care Act, which is priority one for repeal and replacement, used third-party billing as a funding source for Indian health programs because it could grow without congressional appropriations. The idea is that when a person is eligible, the money is there. The Indian Health Service budget in fy 2017 includes $1.19 billion in third-party billing, $807 million from Medicaid programs. This funding source is especially important because by law third-party billing remains at the local clinic or other unit. And, most important, when the Indian Health Service runs short of appropriated dollars it rations health care. That’s not the case with Medicaid funding.
One problem with the Affordable Care Act (after a Supreme Court decision) is that not every state participates in Medicaid expansion. So an IHS clinic in South Dakota would have less local resources than in North Dakota or Montana. This especially important for health care that is purchased outside of the Indian health system.
The most important gain from the Affordable Care Act has been insuring Native children. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation: “Medicaid plays a more expansive role for American Indian and Alaska Native children than adults, covering more than half of American Indian and Alaska Native children (51%), but their uninsured rate is still nearly twice as high as the national rate for children (11% vs. 6%).”
Ryan’s House plan would convert Medicaid spending to a per capita entitlement or a block grant depending on the state’s choice. There is no indication yet how the Indian health system would get funded through such a mechanism.
During the campaign Trump promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act, including Medicaid expansion, but said there would be a replacement insurance program of some kind.
Earlier this year Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, introduced legislation to “improve accountability and transparency at the IHS.”
Barrasso is a physician.“A patient-centered culture change at the Indian Health Service is long-overdue,” he said. “This bill is an important first step toward ensuring that tribal members receive proper healthcare and that there is transparency and accountability from Washington. We have heard appalling testimonies of the failures at IHS that are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. We must reform IHS to guarantee that all of Indian Country is receiving high quality medical care.”
What will reform look like after the Affordable Care Act goes away?
Last week Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, said on CSPAN that the Indian Health Care Improvement Act was one of the good features of the Affordable Care Act and ought to be kept. But nothing has been said by Republican leaders about how to replace the Indian health funding stream from Medicaid, potentially stripping $800 million from the Indian health system that is by all measures underfunded.
Perhaps the most important idea in government, one that had been expanding, is the idea of including the phrase “… and tribes” in legislation and funding. That means tribes get money directly from Washington rather than the round about from DC to state capital to tribal nations. And clearly in this era that’s a hard sell. Just last week the state of North Dakota opted to punish (or so it thinks) tribes by canceling a joint appearance before the legislature because the state is not happy with the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. At a moment where there should be more talk, not less, the state walks away.
That, of course, begs the question, is this how government will work over the next four years?
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.”
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
This election Indian Country was like America. Perhaps only more so.
Most American Indian and Alaska Natives voted for Hillary Clinton. But that support was mild. There were not enough votes to make a difference in red states like Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota. Just enough votes to stay the course in blue states like New Mexico, Washington or Oregon. And, most important, not nearly enough votes in the swing states.
Hillary Clinton earned the most votes, 60, 839,922, to Donald J. Trump’s 60,265,858. But that, of course, is not the way we elect the national leader and Trump’s 290 electoral votes were more than enough to win. What’s more: The margins within those states were such that Native American voters could not have made the difference. There would have had to be a wider coalition of voters, something Barack Obama did so well, and Secretary Clinton did not.
A few examples.
If you look at a color-coded 2012 election map Indian Country pops out. There are bright blue pools of voters in deeply red states. Shannon County (now Oglala Lakota County) voted 93.4 percent for Obama. That’s Pine Ridge. Obama won 3/4s of the vote in Rolette County, North Dakota, which includes the Turtle Mountian Band of Chippewas.
Or next door in Montana, voters from the Fort Peck Reservation came out and led the county with 56.5 percent voting for Obama. But blue faded in the red states this election. Trump picked up 200 more votes than Mitt Romney in 2012, but the real number is that nearly 600 fewer voters went for Hillary Clinton compared to Barack Obama.
Same story in Oglala Lakota Country. Clinton won, and by a large margin, but with 500 fewer votes than Obama.
In Rolette County nearly 1,300 fewer votes for Clinton.
The red states did not change because of that, but it’s a good indication about how tepid the support for Clinton was, even in Indian Country.
This story played out in blue states, too. More than 2,000 voters disappeared in McKinley County on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico.
And, in swing states, such as Arizona, that slight difference, a few hundred people who did not vote here and there, added up into real numbers. In Apache County, where the majority of the voters are Navajo, 17,147 picked Obama four years ago. This election only 12,196 voted for Clinton.
Indian Country will make a difference in future elections. The demographic makeup of the country is changing fast and we are a part of that. What’s most stunning about this election is how little demographics mattered. I wrote in December: “Sure, it’s even possible, that one of the Republican candidates will whip up magic and united a coalition of voters. But that would take words designed to reach consensus with the new majority of voters.” And that would have been true: If enough of us had been motivated to vote.
I think it’s clear that Clinton took Indian Country for granted. There was no attempt to learn and execute what worked from the Bernie Sanders campaign. In June, I suggested the Clinton campaign appoint and promote public Native surrogates because “there ought to be a face from Indian Country.” This could have helped build enthusiasm.
And ignoring Standing Rock was a sure way to turn off Native voters. There was probably a “let’s get past the election” conversation, although eventually Tim Kane did weigh in, but nothing changed the narrative that Clinton represented more corporate power, not less. Supporting Standing Rock would have been the right call morally. But I can see how the politics was more complicated because union voices (and donors) wanted the pipeline to proceed.
Yet that might be the essence of Hillary Clinton and why she lost. Her campaign was a package of powerful interests trying to market itself as the voice of ordinary people. Indian Country’s answer was, yeah, whatever. Meh.
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
Native American representation in Congress was 0.37 percent before the election and today it’s the same, Rep. Tom Cole and Rep. Markwayne Mullin were easily re-elected to the House.
But Denise Juneau, Joe Pakotas and Chase Iron Eyes were all defeated by wide margins in Montana, Washington and North Dakota.
The tally of statewide office holders will drop, though. Denise Juneau will end her term as Montana’s Supt. of Public Instruction in January. Byron Mallot was not on the ballot and he has another two years as Lt. Gov. of Alaska. But Henry Red Cloud, Ruth Buffalo, and Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun lost their bid for offices in South Dakota and North Dakota.
Native Americans running for state legislatures did not fare better, except, I should point out there are some bright spots.
Rep. Paulette Jordan, a Democrat, won re-election in deep red Idaho. She posted on Facebook: “While it is bittersweet to win in such a large loss both local and national, we must remain hopeful and optimistic that our vision of equality and balance will soon be achieved. Until that day comes: onward!”
And Montana Native legislative candidates won 8 seats from both reservation and urban districts. Elected were Shane Morigeau to represent Missoula, Garrett Lankford in Great Falls, and Frank Smith, Carolyn Pease-Lopez, Susan Webber, Rae Peppers, Jonathan Windy Boy and the lone Republican, Jason Smith.
Four Native women won in Minnesota. State Representatives Susan Allen, Peggy Flanagan, Mary Kunesh-Podein were re-elected, and a new voice, Jamie Becker-Finn.
Rep.-elect Tawna Sanchez in Oregon and Kansas re-elected Rep. Ponke-We Victors.
Still, Indian Country lost some races with really talented people. But elections are not forever. So expect to hear more in the future from: Laurel Deegan-Fricke in North Carolina, Cesar Alvarez, Cheryl Ann Kary in North Dakota, Red Dawn Foster in South Dakota, Bryan Van Stippen in Wisconsin, and, Ronda Metcalf and Sharlaine LaClair from Washington.
Do you ever wonder who will be the first Native American president? That answer might already be found on the ballots across the country. Where more Native Americans than ever are running for office.
Welcome to the Trahant Reports election special. I’m Mark Trahant.
You can find my blog at trahantreports.com or my work on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and, if you have an iPhone, on Apple News. Just look for Trahant Reports.
So often the stories reported about Indigenous people are defined by our challenges. These are the stories we know too well.
Instead we’re going to talk about our successes. We’ll explore how Native Americans are challenging the status quo by running for office and voting.
It’s sovereignty at the ballot box.
I’d like to report this is a record year for Native Americans running for elective office. But there’s a problem. No one has ever measured this before. We don’t have good data.
So is this a record year? Probably. Likely and why not?
Here’s the plan. I have broken this story into chapters. I’ve posted slides (they can be found on the Native Voice One website, many radio station web sites, or on my blog at trahantreports.com) Feel free to take a look at while you are listening, the visual story is one reason why I wanted to create chapters in this podcast.
Chapter one: Context
Let’s start with this number: 1.7 percent is the Census Bureau’s estimate of how many American Indians and Alaska Natives there are in this country. (There are a lot of ways you can measure the population of Native Americans. But I wanted one that would be useful because it’s found across many documents and that makes it easy to compare. It’s also the number used by the National Congress of American Indians.) So this is our baseline for discussion.
I should mention that one important election factor is that the population of American Indians and Alaska Natives is growing faster than the general population. By a wide margin. In fact, a third of all Native Americans are under the age of 18, compared to about a quarter of the total population. We are a young people. And our numbers are rising and in politics that’s everything.
And it’s not just American Indians and Alaska Natives who are changing the face of America. It’s a much larger diversity story.
When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 the population of the United States was 80 percent white. Today it’s about 63 percent white.
One demographic profile of voters by The National Journal shows how dramatically the country has changed since President Reagan’s landslide. He won with the support of 56 percent of white voters in 1980. But in 2012, when non-white voters accounted for 28 percent of the electorate, Mitt Romney took 59 percent of white voters—and lost the presidential race by 4 percentage points.
What’s striking about this election so far is that the Republican candidates did not even try to build a coalition with minority voters, young voters, or to fix the gender gap that’s been a problem for decades.
Millennials are now the largest age group – some 90 million people – and are more independent than previous generations.
The country’s diversity trend is just beginning. The U.S. Census reports that American Indians and Alaska Natives grew 1.4 percent since 2013, compared to about 0.5 percent for whites.
So if we are growing, what does that mean in a political context? Well, a couple of years ago, Malia Villegas, director of the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center, said population parity would mean at least two U.S. senators and seven members of the House of Representatives.
That’s the goal. How far away are we from that? Well it’s really the number two because there are only two, Representatives in the U.S. Congress, Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin, both are Republicans from Oklahoma.
Tom Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Tribe, maybe the most important members in the history of Congress.
When the issues involve tribes, and especially tribal sovereignty, Cole is a champion. But more than that advocacy, Cole argues the case for tribes from within the Republican caucus, and, even better, within the House Republican leadership. He is a measured, reasoned voice, not just for Indian Country, but for his ideas about what a conservative party should be. And that recognizes being inclusive.
Cole has history of being the consistent inside-the-party voice calling for more money for the Indian Health system. “We have a lot of people on both sides of the aisle who recognize the Indian country has been historically underfunded,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network in 2012. And, more important, he was the architect of building a coalition in the House to enact the Violence Against Women Act. He told WNYC radio that bill was “a very difficult issue because there were divisions within his own conference that prevented (then Speaker John Boehner) from getting to 218 votes.”
Yet Cole found enough Republicans and Democrats working together to pass the measure into law.
Rep. MarkWayne Mullin is in his second term. He is a member of the Cherokee Nation and he describes himself as a “rancher” and as a “businessman.” He took over his father’s plumbing business and expanded it several fold. His website lists a variety of conservative causes, ranging from too much foreign aid to repealing ObamaCare. Mullin does talk about tribal issues from time to time, but more often is a reliable vote for the conservative factions in the House of Representatives. He’s not the kind of representative to buck his party on, say, the Violence Against Women Act.
Chapter Two: The Presidency
My focus is on Native Americans who are running for office. But you cannot talk about an election project without at least talking about the presidency.
So here are a few thoughts.
Hillary Clinton is a story that’s told in hundreds of tweets from mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, and those who make up the larger American family. One of my favorite images of this campaign shows a young Native daughter watching Clinton walk on stage to accept the Democratic nomination.
That image says so much about what’s possible.
“When there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit,” Clinton said. It’s line we all know to be true.
The limitless sky reminded me about Wilma Mankiller. She was fond about telling a story about the first treaty negotiations between the Cherokee Tribe and the United States. One of the first questions: “Where are your women?”
Mankiller said it was common for Cherokee women to be included in ceremonies and negotiations and it was inconceivable that the United States would come to a negotiation alone. How can you negotiate anything with only half your people or half a way of thinking?
“Where are your women?” That question has a new meaning and it parallels that of Native Americans running for and winning offices across the country. First one person wins, then another, then another, and so on. “Where are your women?” is a question with different answers every election. In state legislatures, Congress, and soon, possibly, the White House. Where are your women? The answer would be, running governments.
WHEN IT COMES TO INDIAN COUNTRY, Donald Trump is running on one issue, energy. There is probably no greater divide between Republicans and Democrats than on energy and climate issues.
Donald Trump calls his energy policy, “America First,” a new energy revolution. “President Obama has done everything he can to get in the way of American energy,” Trump said. Too many regulations make it harder to profit.
But it’s not just costly regulations making profits harder to come by. It’s also market forces. And that’s the part of the story that doesn’t fit neatly into a political debate. Drive across North Dakota, as I have recently done , and you will be struck by the huge “man camps” that were built to temporarily house oil and gas workers. Many of those camps now sit empty or near empty because the jobs have dropped as fast as the price of oil. (It’s now about $50 a barrel, up from its lows, but significantly less than what oil producers predicted.
Trump supports the Dakota Access Pipeline — a project that news reports also say he has invested in.
A political history
Remember the entire premise of the U.S. political system is that tribes are governments. Tribes are political entities enshrined in the Constitution. Yet, and this is huge, tribes are the only such political entity that does not include even minimal, structural representation in Congress.
Even before the Constitution, the Continental Congress made it possible for residents of the territory of Ohio to have a voice.
On November 11, 1794, one James White was seated in the Third Congress as a Delegate. Congress hadn’t even set the rules yet for what that meant. White did end up in the House where his role was described, as quote “no more than an Envoy to Congress” because he could not vote.
Today there are six Delegates in Congress, representing Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., Guam, U.S.Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
This is where Indian Country gets short-changed.
The Navajo Nation, a geographic, political, constitutional entity, is far larger and has more people than the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa or the Northern Mariana Islands.
The thing is Congress makes up its own rules for Delegates. It’s not a Constitutional act.
But full authority or not, at least Delegates are there. Seated. At the table. Their very presence would be a reminder about the unique political status of tribal governments.
There’s another interesting thread of history: And that’s about the office of Vice President. It may be worth at least a footnote in the long history of tribal, federal relations.
Charles Curtis was Herbert Hoover’s vice president and running mate. He had been the Senate Majority leader, representing Kansas. He was a member of the Kaw Tribe,and spoke Kanza, but instead of being an American hero, he’s most known for being the author of the General Allotment Act of 1887 – the Curtis Act – the very vehicle used to rob Native people of some 90 million acres of land.
Curtis is not alone in one respect. More American Indians have been candidates for the vice presidency than any other national office.
In the 2000 and 2004, Winona LaDuke, a member of Minnesota’s White Earth Chippewa Tribe, was on the presidential ballot as Ralph Nader’s running mate for the Green Party ticket. The Greens, she said, would “stand with others around this country as a catalyst for the creation of a new model of electoral politics.”
And before LaDuke, LaDonna Harris, a Commanche, and a founder of Americans for Indian Opportunity, was the vice presidential nominee of the Citizen’s Party in 1980. She ran with ecologist Barry Commoner in the year of Ronald Reagan’s landslide win.
Another historical thread, the motivation of some Native American candidates.
After World War II there was a disastrous policy called termination – the idea of ending the federal-treaty relationship with tribal governments – there were two distinct reasons. Some believed it was the next logical step for Indian progress, an economic integration. While others hated government and used termination as a method to shrink and attack government.
Utah Republican Senator Arthur Watkins was from the shrink-and-attack government camp. He was zealous about termination, badgering tribal witnesses when they came to Capitol Hill, refusing to even consider alternatives. He dismissed treaty obligations outright. Indians, he said, “want all the benefits of the things we have – highways, schools, hospitals, everything that civilization furnished – but they don’t want to pay their share of it.”
This was a real threat and Native American leaders responded by encouraging people to vote.
Joseph Garry was president of the National Congress of American Indians during this era. In a period of about 30 years, more than a hundred tribes were disbanded and tribal governments dissolved. The result was huge losses of land and natural resources in Oregon, Utah, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Texas.
Garry saw voting as the strongest weapon in this battle. So the chairman of the Coeur d’Alene tribe ran for the Idaho House of Representatives and was elected in 1957. Later, he won a seat in the the Idaho Senate, and in 1960 he sought the Democratic Party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate.
Idaho is a surprising birthplace for Garry’s legacy. Not many Native Americans live in Idaho, where they comprise roughly 1 percent of the population. But Garry’s successes there (even then) showed that someone from a tribal community could be a leader for all citizens of the state.
And it’s an active legacy. In 1975, Garry’s niece, Jeanne Givens, became the first Native woman elected to the Idaho House of Representatives. Like her uncle, she challenged the status quo with a bid for Congress in 1988. Givens lost, but four years ago another Coeur d’Alene tribal member, Paulette Jordan, ran for the Idaho House seat. She lost that attempt but two years later she won and that illustrates what may be the most important lesson in politics: You’ve got to run to win—sometimes more than once. Jordan describes Givens as a mentor who has taught her much about politics and both have earned the legacy of Joe Garry.
When a state like Idaho has a history of electing Native Americans to public office, you have to wonder, “Where else?” It’s almost been a story of success-by-stealth.
There is a win in Arizona, another in Kansas. And when you add them up, there are at least 73 American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians serving in 19 state legislatures.
Chapter 3: The People’s House
It’s easy to be optimistic about the prospects for American Indian and Alaska Native candidates in this election and beyond. Our numbers are growing, organizations are getting stronger, and, best of all, the most remarkable, talented people are giving elective office a shot.
So then I hear a voice inside: “Ahh, yes, but good people lose.” That’s true. But at the same time politics has a long arc that brings about change. It’s not one election. Or one candidate. It’s the constant push.
This year several talented people did just that. My former colleague at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Edgar Blatchford, ran for the Senate in Alaska. He ran with little money, promoting his candidacy largely via social media. He was the only Native American running for the U.S. Senate.
There are two areas of the country where it’s a question of “when” not “if” there will be Native representation in Congress. Alaska is one and Arizona is the second.
Victoria Steele ran for the House from southern Arizona and in northern Arizona, two Navajos, both Republicans, did campaign for that seat. State Senator Carlyle Begay and Shawn Redd.
Perhaps it’s an election or two away but one day … there will be Native American members of Congress who represent Arizona and Alaska.
Across the nation this year there are five Native American candidates for Congress. The two Republican incumbents, plus three challengers, Denise Juneau in Montana, Joe Pakootas in Washington, and Chase Iron Eyes in North Dakota.
Denise Juneau is Montana’s superintendent of public instruction. She’s a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikakara Tribes and grew up in Browning, Montana, in the Blackfeet Reservation. Juneau has a track record. She’s already won two statewide contests and knows what it takes to win a House seat. This is how U.S. politics often works: A candidate wins at the state level, does a good a job, and then she moves on to Congress. Juneau is running against Rep. Ryan Zinke. And, lately, there has been back and forth about who has been in Montana longer. Seriously.
Joe Pakootas would be the first former tribal leader ever elected to Congress.
Then in North Dakota, there is Chase Iron Eyes. He’s from Standing Rock — the center of attention for Indian Country (and for the planet). He’s an attorney. And he’s running for Congress from North Dakota out of necessity. “I take a look around and I see that our government is broken, and I feel responsible to do my part to try and fix this on behalf of North Dakota.”
In addition to Congress, more Native Americans than ever are running for state offices.
Let’s start in North Dakota. Where there is a lot of news right now.
The rush to build a new oil pipeline from the Bakken oil fields to Patoka, Illinois, was supposed to be routine. It was designed to avoid regulation, especially federal oversight, and get built without fanfare.
The Dakota Access Pipeline issue united Indian Country in a way that’s unprecedented.
But there’s another important chapter. No state in the history of the country has ever had three Native Americans running as major party nominees for statewide offices. To put that in perspective in recent years: Larry EchoHawk, Pawnee, ran for attorney general and won and governor of Idaho (he lost). And there have been a few others candidates, but my point is they’re scattered, one candidate is a big deal. So three Native American candidates, well that’s beyond extraordinary.
Iron Eyes as I mentioned is running for Congress. Buffalo for the state’s insurance commissioner. And, Hunte-Beaubrun is running for the Public Service Commission, the agency that would regulate pipelines. They are running on the North Dakota Democratic-NonPartisan League Party ticket.
Iron Eyes travels the state’s roadways pulling a cargo trailer with his campaign signs inside and on display outside. It’s probably his most visible campaign advertising. On a Saturday he made certain to park his vehicle where the University of North Dakota was playing football. More eyeballs. His fundraising is authentic grass roots. He posted on Facebook recently: “16,227 people have contributed an average of $3.80 to our campaign. Send $3.80 today!”
Three. Dollars. Eighty. That’s it. Think of what that means in a world where the wealthy write checks and buy access to politicians from both parties.
Ruth Buffalo may be the hardest working candidate in the history of North Dakota. Every time you open Facebook you see here knocking on doors, making telephone calls, or supporting the other candidates who are running. When people look at her resume, her background, she is clearly prepared for this job. As Greg Stites, a former counsel for the North Dakota Insurance Commission, wrote in The Grand Forks Herald: “Ruth Buffalo is the best candidate for the job, with an academic background essentially built for the role of insurance commissioner. She holds a master’s degree in public health from North Dakota State University. Her depth of knowledge of the health and insurance needs for our state are unmatched by her opponents. And her accomplishments do not end there.”
There is not only history, but irony, in Hunte-Beaubrun’s candidacy for the very agency that would regulate pipelines in North Dakota. She’s from Cannonball. The Dakota Access Pipeline dispute is her community; her water. Imagine how history would be different if on a regulatory agency there was one person who could object to a routine pipeline drawing.
The rules would be different “because we would have a seat at that table,” she said. And we would be able to help everyone understand culturally where we’re coming from.”
There could have been a solution without controversy.
This is the essence of why representation is so critical. We have so many states, counties, cities, where decisions have been made without even hearing a Native voice, let alone considering what’s said. That’s not democracy. And it will no longer work in a country where the demographics are changing this rapidly.
Yes, it’s historic that three Native Americans are running for statewide office. But you know what’s even cooler than that? This trend is just beginning. Even better, think about what history that could still be created. What if everyone in Indian Country, every ally, everyone who wants change, saw the merit of voting for a candidate who’s proud of contributions measured in pocket coins instead of the million-dollar access that we’ve come to accept as normal?
Next door, in South Dakota, a Lakota man is running for the state agency that regulates energy.
South Dakota Democrats nominated Henry Red Cloud as the party nominee for a spot on the state’s Public Utilities Commission. Red Cloud is the founder and owner of a renewable energy company based in Pine Ridge, Lakota Solar Enterprises. The company says. “We believe that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is important. And on tribal lands, it is imperative. We hope you will join us in helping tribes achieve energy sovereignty.” He calls renewable energy “a new way to honor old ways.”
This is a great story to tell during an election campaign. Voters will be introduced to a creative and innovative energy path that’s creating real jobs now, employing people to build and install solar energy systems. Contrast this with the usual discourse about energy or even the nonsense about how climate change isn’t real.
Chapter Four: Shhh! Secret success
Who will be Indian Country’s Barack Obama? She’s probably already elected to a state office.
At least 73 American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians serve in 19 state legislatures. This is important. First, if you look at the body of work of these state senators and representatives, you’ll find them advocating for better service, more funding and improving relationships between tribal nations and state governments. Second, state offices are a source of talent for higher elective office, ranging from Congress to the White House. Remember it was only 1996 when Barack Obama was elected to the Illinois state Senate.
Montana best demonstrates the growing influence of Native Americans in politics.
Twenty years ago, Montana was pretty much like any state with a significant Native population. There were only one or two Native Americans serving in the legislature. Then a Native American candidate won in 1997. And again in 2003. And by 2007 Native Americans in Montana reached ten seats in the legislature; representing 6.6 percent of that body. Montana’s population is 7.4 percent Native American. Today there are 3 Native Americans in the Senate and 5 in the House, some 5.3 percent of the legislature.
To put the Montana percentages in national terms: If Congress were 5.3 percent Native American, there would be 5 U.S. Senators and 21 members of the House. Even if you adjust for population, the number of Native American members of Congress would have to more than double to equal the representation found in Montana.
Why is Montana the model? Hard work. Good candidates. And, when neccessary litigation to enforce the Voting Rights Act.
And there’s another reason why the Native American electoral experience in Montana is different.
The 2004 election of Brian Schweitzer as governor was a game changer. “Never before in Montana’s history has an entire Administration reached out to Indians to ensure they were acknowledged, respected, and most importantly, included,” During those eight years more than 250 “First Montanans” were appointed to boards, councils, commissions and state offices, including many firsts, such as appointments to the Fish and Wildlife commission, athletic commission, building code council and health-related boards. These offices made it clear to the citizens of Montana that Native Americans were a part of the body politic.
The track record of Native American legislators is also pretty good. According to Montana Budget and Policy Center, last year’s session produced a number of innovative laws, including Medicaid expansion (which is a financial boost to the Indian health system) as well as laws that will improve funding for tribal colleges, supporting tribal languages, and streamlining Indian business ventures. The record of Native American legislators was not 100 percent, but it’s likely that during the next session many of the ideas that failed to pass will be back on the agenda.
Oklahoma is the the largest state number of Native American legislators at 14. It’s also the only state with a balance between Democrats and Republicans (8 Democrats and 6 Republicans). To put that number in perspective: Nationally of the 70 elected Native Americans in state legislatures, 58 are Democrats and 12 are Republicans.
It’s also worth noting that tribes in Maine have three automatic delegates to the legislature. The offices are similar to delegates to Congress from the District of Columbia and U.S. Territories. The practice began in 1823 and Maine tribal delegates can serve on committees but cannot vote.
Across the country it’s clear that Native American representation before state governments significantly trails the population of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. For example there are 40 members serving in Alaska House and 20 in the state Senate. Yet only five Alaska Natives represented in the House — or 12.5 percent — and two in the Senate. Yet Alaska has the highest voting age population of Native Americans in the country, some 17 percent.
The growth of Native American voters — and elected officials — is only the beginning of a trend. We know our population is growing faster than the general population. And in many states there is already the number of voters required to build a winning coalition that includes Native communities.
Most of the action in the decade ahead will be at the state level. If you look at the list of some seventy elected state officials it’s clear that there is a wealth of talent such as Alaska’s Sam Kito III or South Dakota’s soon to be Senator Kevin Killer.
Look across the country and you will see why the Native Americans who now serve in state legislatures are the next generation of leaders in Congress — and even the White House.
So if you want to know who will be Indian Country’s Barack Obama, look to the states.
Her name will be Peggy, Paulette or Winona.
A final note: There are many people I want to thank for making Trahant Reports possible. Shyanne Beatty and Nola Moses at Native Voice One. It was Shyanne’s idea for my weekly commentary. Nola has been listening to one mic after another, helping me improve the sound for this program. Thank you to both.
I have also had financial support from the First People’s Fund. A special thank you to Jackie Tiller and Rebecca Adamson. Also thanks to Paul DeMain and the Native American Educational Technologies.
Jo Ann Kauffman and Kauffman and Associates was the first sponsor of Trahant Reports — so important, and so helpful, thank you.
And a special shout out to Cara and Ken Hall who gave me an unexpected “family” contribution. Thank you and that’s humbling.
And thank you to the people who listen to this podcast, the weekly commentary on Native Voice One, and the many people who read my reports on my page and across social media. I’m grateful.
We’re about to close the books on the 2016 election. But be assured I will keep writing about the policy choices ahead and what it means for Indian Country.
Until next time. This is Trahant Reports and I am Mark Trahant.
It’s an understatement to say that North Dakota is making history.
The rush to build a new oil pipeline from the Bakken oil fields to Patoka, Illinois, was supposed to be routine. It was designed to avoid most regulation, especially federal oversight, and get built without fanfare. But when that route was moved so that it crossed under the Missouri River near the water source of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe everything changed. The issue united Indian Country in a way that’s unprecedented. While the state and the company are making history, too, by writing a soon-to-be case study about how not to handle a crisis.
But there is another chapter. No state in the history of the United States has ever had three Native Americans running as major party nominees for statewide offices. To put that in perspective in recent years: Larry EchoHawk, Pawnee, ran for attorney general (he won) and governor of Idaho (he lost). Byron Mallott, Tlingit, is the Lt. Gov. of Alaska, and Denise Juneau, Mandan Hidatsa Arikara, is Supt. of Public Instruction in Montana. There have been a few others candidates, but my point is they are scattered, one candidate is a big deal. So three Native American candidates is beyond extraordinary.
I have been criss-crossing North Dakota in recent days with Chase Iron Eyes, Ruth Buffalo, and Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun for public conversations on a range of issues. We started in Bismarck Thursday, Fargo on Friday, Grand Forks Saturday, and we will conclude in Minot today. Iron Eyes is running for Congress. Buffalo for the state’s insurance commissioner. And, Hunte-Beaubrun is running for the Public Service Commission, the agency that would regulate pipelines. They are running on the North Dakota Democratic-NonPartisan League Party ticket.
North Dakota is a huge state. Thursday night’s event alone meant I had to return home at about 1 am (and getting up again a couple of hours later to write). I want to point that out for one reason: These three candidates have kept this kind of schedule for months. The sacrifice of time, money, and just the stamina required, is remarkable.
Iron Eyes travels the state’s roadways pulling a cargo trailer with his campaign signs inside and on display outside. It’s probably his most visible campaign advertising. On Saturday he made certain to park his vehicle where the University of North Dakota was playing football. More eyeballs. His fundraising is authentic grass roots. He posted on Facebook: “16,227 people have contributed an average of $3.80 to our campaign. Send $3.80 today!”
Three. Dollars. Eighty. That’s it. Think of what that means in a world where the wealthy write checks and buy access to politicians from both parties.
Ruth Buffalo may be the hardest working candidate in the history of North Dakota. Every time you open Facebook you see her knocking on doors, making telephone calls, or supporting the other candidates running. When people look at her resume, her background, she is clearly prepared for this job. As Greg Stites, a former counsel for the North Dakota Insurance Commission, wrote in The Grand Forks Herald: “Ruth Buffalo is the best candidate for the job, with an academic background essentially built for the role of insurance commissioner. She holds a master’s degree in public health from North Dakota State University. Her depth of knowledge of the health and insurance needs of our state are unmatched by her opponents. And her accomplishments do not end there.”
And there is not only history, but irony, in Hunte-Beaubrun’s candidacy for the very agency that would regulate pipelines in North Dakota. She’s from Cannonball. This dispute is her community; her water. Imagine how history would be different if on a regulatory agency there was one person who could object to a routine pipeline drawing.
The rules would be different “because we would have a seat at that table,” Hunte-Beaubrun said. “We’d be able to aid in the process of creating those rules and regulations (and) we would be able to help everyone understand culturally where we’re coming from.”
There could have been a solution without a controversy. Win, win.
And that’s why representation is so critical. We have so many states, counties, cities, where decisions have been made without even hearing a Native voice, let alone considering what’s said. That’s not democracy. And will no longer work in a country where the demographics are changing rapidly.
Yes, it’s historic that three Native Americans are running for statewide offices. But what you know what’s cooler than that? The trend is only beginning. Even better think about what history that could still be created. What if everyone in Indian Country, every ally, everyone who wants change, saw the merit of voting for a candidate who’s proud of contributions measured in pocket coins instead of the million-dollar access that we’ve come to accept as normal?