I was at an event in Seattle recently and listened to Slade Gorton talk about the future of the Republican party in Washington at the Crosscut Festival. Washington state is changing and the GOP runs the risk of being irrelevant (as is now the case in California elections). And, Washington, like California, has a top two primary. So it’s a challenge for Republicans to win a spot in the general election. In the last Senate election, for example, the “top two” finalists were both Democrats.
Gorton, who just had his 90th birthday, was once considered a moderate in Republican circles. That’s no longer the case. It’s true he is not a “loyal” Trump supporter. Then that’s not an easy species to find in Washington state. But he does support the GOP congressional agenda. So moderate he is not.
Of course Gorton did not talk about American Indian or Alaska Native issues. Even though that’s what we in Indian Country remember. Actually it’s too bad for Republicans. The party is shrinking, in part, because it does not recognize the changing nature of the country’s demographics. Then that’s been true for a long time. I remember talking to a former GOP party leader, Gummy Johnson, more than twenty years ago who wanted to position his party as a supporter of Treaty Rights and tribal governments. The Gorton wing of the party would never have let that happen.
Gorton (and his ally on the Supreme Court, the late William Rehnquist) had a nuanced view of tribal governments. These two men used their legislative and judicial powers to try and undercut federal Indian law and treat tribes as social clubs. Tribal membership was not citizenship but a special privilege. So tribal authority, the power of government, could only be applied to tribal members (and even that was subject to any limitations set by Congress). The legal theory for this nonsense was the implied divestiture doctrine, the secret but steady erosion of tribal governments.
Sen. Gorton has moved on to other issues. He’s an expert on national security, and, as I learned the other night, on rebuilding the Republican brand. (Or not. Because he argues there is an ebb and flow and Republican ideas will come back again in Washington with major change.)
I was thinking of Slade Gorton’s ideology in the context of the Stop Disenrollment campaign that will be posted across social media on Feb. 8. It’s being led this year by Alaska Native actor Irene Bedard. “The movement is poised to raise indigenous social consciousness again this year — in what might be its final year given the growing sense that disenrollment is declining nationally,” said a news release. “Prominent Native Americans like author Sherman Alexie, former U.S. Vice Presidential candidate Winona LaDuke, rapper-actor-entrepreneur Litefoot, film director Chris Eyre, fashion designer Bethany Yellowtail, and Olympic Gold Medalist Billy Mills headlined the 2016- and 2017-campaigns.”
What does Slade Gorton have to do with disenrollment? It’s an extension of the idea that tribes are social clubs and that membership is exclusive. That’s a different narrative than a government with citizens. Great nations grow. Great nations want all the talent that can build a better society. (Hint: This idea has applications to the immigration debate, too.) Great nations don’t kick out their relations.
To me, tribal citizenship is the key. Thumb through history and some of Indian Country’s greatest leaders: Washakie, D’arcy McNickle, and many, many more could have been on the wrong side of history had there been a narrow debate about disenrollment and membership.
Are tribes exclusive clubs? No. The answer is always the framework of government.
First, Congress tried to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act by rolling back that law plus the decades long public health insurance known as Medicaid. That effort failed in the Senate. Twice. And Congress hasn’t given up. There are all sorts of proposals floating that would try yet again through the budget or another mechanism.
Meanwhile the Trump administration is trying to unravel the Affordable Care Act using administrative authority. And, in the process, guaranteeing a network of insurance chaos. The President signed an executive order that eliminates payments to insurance companies to subsidize the cost of health insurance for families that cannot afford the full cost. Insurance companies will likely increase health insurance premiums — and by a lot — or get out of the individual health insurance market all together.
This policy change impacts American Indians and Alaska Natives who get their health insurance through the exchanges. Under the Affordable Care Act, many tribal members and Alaska Native shareholders quality for a “bronze plan” from exchanges at no cost. A silver plan could also have been purchased, depending on income, using subsidized rates.
The Kaiser Family Foundation figures that insurers will need to raise silver premiums between 15 and 21 percent on average to compensate for the loss of the subsidy payments.
It’s interesting: Ending the subsidy will cost consumers more in states that have not expanded Medicaid (such as Oklahoma) since there are a large number of marketplace enrollees in those states with incomes at 100-138 percent of poverty who qualify for the largest cost-sharing reductions.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the total payments were $7 billion in fiscal year 2017 and would rise to $10 billion in 2018 and $16 billion by 2027. The House of Representatives sued the Obama Administration to try and stop these insurance subsidies arguing that Congress never appropriated the money.
The CBO also said that ending the insurance subsidies will increase federal deficits by $6 billion in 2018, $21 billion in 2020, and $26 billion in 2026.
A second administrative order will change the way insurance companies write policies. The Affordable Care Act set out standards so that basic health care issues, including women’s reproductive health, would be covered. But the new rules will make it easier for people to buy limited policies that cost less, but cover fewer medical issues.
“Congressional Democrats broke the American healthcare system by forcing the Obamacare nightmare onto the American people. And it has been a nightmare,” the president said. “You look at what’s happening with the premiums and the increases of 100 percent and 120 percent, and even in one case, Alaska, over 200 percent. And now, every congressional Democrat has blocked the effort to save Americans from Obamacare, along with a very small, frankly, handful of Republicans — three. And we’re going to take care of that also because I believe we have the votes to do block grants at a little bit later time, and we’ll be able to do that.”
But the actions by the administration will only lower the cost of health insurance for one group of Americans, young, healthy ones. Insurance costs for nearly every other plan will sharply increase because of these actions. And especially at risk: Patients who are facing expensive medical treatments such as cancer.
Earlier in the week, the administration also rolled back Affordable Care Act coverage requirements for access to birth control. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation: “These new policies, effective immediately, also apply to private institutions of higher education that issue student health plans. The immediate impact of these regulations on the number of women who are eligible for contraceptive coverage is unknown, but the new regulations open the door for many more employers to withhold contraceptive coverage from their plans.”
The actions of the Trump administration mean two things: There will be chaos in the insurance markets as companies and individuals rebalance the value of those policies; and there will be litigation ahead because every one of these policy shifts will be challenged in court.
Big news: The rest of the year will have less drama than the ups and downs we’ve been experiencing since January. The federal government will more or less operate on schedule, the federal debt limit fight has been pushed back to the end of the year, and President Donald J. Trump has successfully reached out to Democrats.
What a week. When it began, I wrote: “Congress is back today and one of two things will happen: It will either do its work or all hell will break loose.” But I was off. It wasn’t exactly Congress doing its job, it was the president. He bypassed his own Republican party leaders (catching them off-guard by all accounts) and struck a deal with Democrats in the House and Senate to fund government for the rest of the year and push the debt limit fight back until December.
This is exactly what the president should have been doing all along. This is governing. It means, for now, at least, that he’s reaching out to the majority in Congress (moderate Republicans plus the Democrats) instead of catering to the far right wing of the party. It’s smart politics. But it’s also dangerous because his action undermined both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. If it’s a one-time event, Ryan and McConnell will get over the snub. But if this is the new way of doing business, well, then, there will be a different kind of drama ahead.
There is also movement this week on the Republican plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. According to The Hill newspaper, John McCain now favors legislation proposed by Senators Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana. This plan would push more of the decision making about health care to the states through block grants. It would even let states keep many aspects of the Affordable Care Act such as Medicaid expansion, as long as they’re willing to pay for the extra costs. That’s a deal breaker.
The problem for the Indian health system in such a scheme is that states neither understand nor want to invest the resources required. The ideal scenario would be for Indian Country to be a 51st state and get funding directly. But that’s not a part of the legislative proposal.
This bill would have to be considered fast under Senate rules. The current set-up is to vote on a replacement plan using the budget reconciliation process. That only requires 50 votes instead of the more common 60 vote standard (to interrupt a filibuster). The Senate parliamentarian has ruled that reconciliation goes away on Sept. 30 unless there is a new budget in place. That’s unlikely.
Another health care issue that impacts Indian Country is the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Plan or CHIP. The current law expires Sept. 30. It pays for the insurance of 8.9 million children through Medicaid. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that “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 (54%) versus 23% of nonelderly adults.” CHIP would be included in that number.
CHIP also pays for school programs and other health care outreach efforts. The federal Centers for Medicaid and Medicare said: “In 2014, CMS awarded $3.9 million in CHIPRA grants to engage schools and tribal agencies in Medicaid and CHIP outreach and enrollment activities. Grantees included Indian Health Service organizations, tribal health providers, and urban Indian health providers across 7 states.”
Important stuff. We need another presidential deal with Democrats. Quickly.
Remember the sequester? Ah, the good old days. The new Trump Administration budget is short on details, but clear on direction. And we do know two things. First: If enacted, this budget would shrink the federal government to a much smaller size. Except for the military and the Veterans Administration. And, second, this budget guarantees chaos ahead.
Thursday morning the White House officially released the “skinny budget.” That’s an overall statement about the president’s financial goals for the year. It lists priorities, but provides few details. And this document does even less of that than previous skinny budgets. But the agenda, the direction ahead, would create a very different federal government. There is money available to approve (and pretend to regulate) energy projects, but nothing, really nothing, for public broadcasting, the arts, and the humanities. All told some 19 federal agencies would be eliminated.
This is where I should add: Hold on! Every one of these agencies has a constituency in Congress. You’ll see 535 budget revisions coming soon with members working to restore funding, and in some cases, even increasing the total amount of appropriation. But the overall direction is less. This is the eighth year of a slowing (and perhaps shrinking) federal government.
This is also where chaos kicks in. The political tension that surfaced in Congress over the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act will only magnify in this budget debate. And to pass this budget, Republican leaders will need votes from Democrats. And if there is no agreement, then there could a shutdown of the government that could last much longer than previous episodes. The best case scenario is a continuing resolution that results in cuts, but not as dramatic as those proposed by the White House.
First throughout the document there is only one reference that include the phrase, “and Tribes.” The Obama administration often added that language to routine grants and programs for states and local governments to make it clear that tribes were eligible partners. No more.
The budget does not directly put a number on the Indian Health Service. It only lists IHS as part of the overall budget for the Department of Health and Human Services. That agency “requests $69.0 billion for HHS, a $15.1 billion or 17.9 percent decrease” from the Continuing Resolution level. The first mention in that request includes IHS (that must be good, right?) “The President’s 2018 Budget: Supports direct health care services, such as those delivered by community health centers, Ryan White HIV/AIDS providers, and the Indian Health Service. These safety net providers deliver critical health care services to low-income and vulnerable populations.”
The way this budget will work is that each department will figure out how to make the 18 percent cut (as I said, if it comes to that).
Many have compared this Trump budget to the Reagan-era budgets. I remember how that worked for IHS. The president would drop a number — and Congress would ignore it. Every time. That could happen again.
One interesting increase in the HHS budget is a request for $70 million to prosecute health care fraud. It claims a $5 return for every dollar spent tracking down “fraudulent or improper payments.”
The Department of Interior budget does not provide much information about the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It only says the budget: “Supports tribal sovereignty and self-determination across Indian Country by focusing on core funding and services to support ongoing tribal government operations. The Budget reduces funding for more recent demonstration projects and initiatives that only serve a few Tribes.” The budget says it will “sustain” funding for programs that bring in revenue from natural resources, including those programs that serve Indian mineral owners.
Many of these agencies will show a number in the budget because that reflects the cost to close the agency. Or as OMB put it “the amount of money that’s necessary for us to unwind our involvement …”
In addition Agriculture would eliminate the Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program, Commerce would eliminate the Minority Business Development Agency and NOAA grants supporting coastal and marine management. At Energy the budget would eliminate the weatherization program. At HHS, the budget proposes to end Community Services Block Grants as well as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Homeland Security would sharply curtail or eliminate grants to states and local governments (tribes, I assume). Even Meals on Wheels programs for seniors would be eliminated.
Another program that is slated for elimination is the Transportation Department’s Essential Air Service for rural airports — including those that serve remote reservation and 60 Alaska Native communities.
The only mention of “and Tribes” in the budget proposal is at the Environmental Protection Agency where the budget will avoid duplication by “concentrating EPA’s enforcement of environmental protection violations on programs that are not delegated to States, while providing oversight to maintain consistency and assistance across State, local, and tribal programs.”
The actual numbers of this budget mean little. They will go up and down. Some of the headlines, such as the elimination of public broadcasting, will survive because of support found in Congress. But it’s important to remember that this is the president’s agenda. This administration is hostile to every program that’s identified. So even if those programs are funded, the agencies will have a difficult task going forward.
Some of this agenda is nonsense. There are two ways to spend money on global warming: Learning about the science and trying to change behavior to lower carbon dioxide emissions. Or money for higher sea walls and community mitigation. This budget cuts the latter. That won’t work for long. When a community is severely impacted by fires or other climate catastrophe, the money will have to follow. Period.
But for now the debate is all about the president’s plan.
As OMB Director Mick Mulvaney said at the White House briefing room on Wednesday: “This is the “America First” budget. In fact, we wrote it using the President’s own words. We went through his speeches, we went through articles that have been written about his policies, we talked to him, and we wanted to know what his policies were, and we turned those policies into numbers. So you have an “America First” candidate, you have an “America First” budget.”
Only that’s a budget that means significantly less for the First Americans.
The Trump administration has been in office for less than a month — and already the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline is again proceeding. Company officials say oil will be flowing by June.
Yes, there is a flurry of activity around the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project that has cost more than $3.8 billion to transfer oil from North Dakota to markets in Illinois and beyond.
But every action to build the pipeline is met with many more reactions to stop it. The fight about this pipeline — and the broader issues it represents — is far from over.
Of course some days it does not seem that way. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the final easement for the pipeline to cross under the Missouri River and complete the project. The Corps also withdrew its ongoing environmental review, citing President Donald J. Trump’s executive memorandum. But that begs a huge question for the courts: Can a president do that? Is an order from the president (along with previous environmental findings from the Corps) enough to satisfy the law? That question will be sorted out by the courts.
But there are many other challenges to the pipeline.
A press release from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said if the construction is successful “the tribe will seek to shut the pipeline operations down.” The tribe has also called for a march next month in the nation’s capital.
“Our fight is no longer at the North Dakota site itself,” said tribal chairman Dave Archambault II. “Our fight is with Congress and the Trump administration. Meet us in Washington on March 10.”
What’s clear about the “what’s next?” is that the battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline is taking a very different form. And it’s also a new start because there will be many more actions as the administration and oil-related companies move to restart the Keystone XL pipeline, or in Canada, the Kinder Morgan pipeline.
Then President Trump lives in a world where none of this is a big deal. “I don’t even think it was controversial,” he said. “I haven’t had one call.”
Then the White House wasn’t taking calls. So the Center for Investigative Reporting and its Reveal News has created a new phone number to solicit voice mails from the public about what they would tell the president. It’s 510-545-2640. This is your opportunity to sound off.
Another challenge is financial. Many individuals, tribes, cities, and companies are pulling their money from the banks who finance the Dakota Access Pipeline. But that’s really just the beginning of the actions ahead. Rebecca Adamson, founder of First Peoples Worldwide, points out to investors how much capital is lost by companies that operate without consent from the community involved. A cost she has pegged at somewhere between $20 million to $30 million a week when there are operational disruptions. “The time it takes to bring oil and gas projects on-line has doubled over the course of the past decade due to community opposition, creating significant financial loss,” Adamson writes. More investors are learning about that financial risk and even more need to understand what’s at stake.
“The movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is wreaking financial havoc on the companies and banks involved,” Adamson writes. “In August 2016, Energy Transfer Partners reported ‘it could lose $1.4 billion in a year if delays continue … Even a temporary delay would mean loses of over $430 million.’ ETP is attempting to raise new debt. This could mean that the banks are ramping up pressure on the company to repay their loans out of concern DAPL will never be finished. In November 2016, Energy Transfer Partners announced a merger with sister company Sunoco Logistics in order to raise much needed cash to finish construction. Energy Transfer Partners’ own shareholders are filing a lawsuit to block the merger, alleging conflicts of interest.”
Like I said: The financial challenges are just beginning.
I also have a big idea I want to toss out. One that could have significant financial implications. So we know the project will take some 30 days to complete. And about three weeks to actually transfer oil from North Dakota to the end of the pipeline. (Updated: Company officials told the U.S. District Court that oil could begin flowing in less than four weeks.)
What if on that day, the day the oil reaches markets, there is a Day Without Oil. One day. It take a massive organizational effort. But why not? What if every ally of Standing Rock, every community that has its own Standing Rock, every one who is concerned about water, takes a day off from oil? Either walk every where that day — or just stay home. Do what it takes to remind the companies, and the government itself, who’s really in charge of the economy.
If, then, this. A series of three words explaining what happens in any new White House. If Donald Trump wins the presidency, then many (not all) of the promises made during the campaign become policy. And it happens starting next month when the Congress races to try and make this so.
But “if, then, this,” is also about people. Who staffs the new campaign, especially those who represent Indian Country? And who represents the opposition?
As The Atlantic said about Price. He will be running a massive federal healthcare agency, one that “administers the largest health-research centers in the world, most of the country’s public-health apparatus, the Indian Health Service, the Food and Drug Administration, and a collection of welfare and child-care services. While Price has a less-established policy record on many of these issues, his general philosophy of rolling back government spending and intervention suggests he may scale back HHS’s current efforts.” A less established policy record opens up a lot of questions.
Another appointment, yet to be announced, would be in the next president’s executive office. Arizona State Sen. Carlyle Begay posted on Instagram: “It’s official … I’ll be working in the White House.” (Begay’s account is private, but it was reposted by Navajo Republicans on Facebook.) He doesn’t elaborate on the job title, but the most likely that post would be as a special assistant to the president on the Domestic Policy staff, a post now held by Karen Diver. Begay is Navajo.
One of the issues that the White House and Congress will have to flesh out is a proposal by Rep. Markwayne Mullin to reform the regulatory structure for tribal lands. A story in Reuters last week compared that plan to the termination, something that Mullin (who is a member of the Cherokee Nation) and former Interior Assistant Secretary Ross Swimmer say is not the case. Swimmer, who is also former principal chief for the Cherokee Nation, told Reuters: “It has to be done with an eye toward protecting sovereignty.”
Mullin said the press misunderstood him. He posted on Facebook: “This is a very personal and important issue for me and I want to clarify my actual comments that were distorted by the media. It is still and will always be my belief that the land entrusted to tribes belongs to the Native American people, and it ought to be up to them alone to decide how to best use and distribute the resources on their own land.”
Economist Terry Anderson has been making this case for years first from a think tank in Montana, The Property and Environment Research Center, and rom the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He wrote just last month: “President-elect Trump is well positioned to grant more freedom to Native Americans.” (Note to Republicans: If you are serious about making this a policy, I would avoid the ‘free the Indians’ narrative. This was Arthur Watkins’ pitch during termination. The phrase has a definite and failed context.)
As will often be the case in a Trump White House, Anderson’s argument focuses on energy. “Considering the fact that tribes have an estimated $1.5 trillion in energy resources, President Trump should start by promoting more tribal authority over those resources,” Anderson wrote. “Such legislation is helping tribes like the coal-rich Crow. In 2013 it signed an option with Cloud Peak Energy, LLC to lease 1.4 billion tons of reservation coal. For the option, Cloud Peak paid the tribe $3.75 million and payments could increase to $10 million by 2018 if they start mining. These kinds of deals give Indians some reason for hope.”
If, then, this. Except. I would question at least one variable in this argument. If tribes have more say about resource extraction, then will tribes also have more say about environmental concerns? Does this logic give tribes a veto over resource extraction? Would that include approval or rejection of the Missouri River crossing of the Dakota Access Pipeline?
And specifically on coal, if there is a smaller global market for coal, then what’s the point? The International Energy Agency last year reduced its prediction for coal demand (after a decade of growing sales) in part because China’s consumption is dropping sharply. “The coal industry is facing huge pressures, and the main reason is China, but it is not the only reason,” said the agency’s executive director Fatih Birol. “The economic transformation in China and environmental policies worldwide – including the recent climate agreement in Paris – will likely continue to constrain global coal demand.”
That study predicts coal from India and Australia are growing and that the pipeline is already exceeding the capacity. “Probable” new export mining capacities amount to approximately 95 million tonnes per annum. But the current market environment strongly discourages investments as a substantial rebound of coal prices before 2020 is unlikely. Consequently, further postponements or cancellations of projects are expected.” So it’s not a great time to unleash coal as a market force (unless even lower prices are the goal).
If the world is moving past fossil fuel expansion, then the markets will not be there. This will not change in a pro-coal administration.
If there is to be a Secretary McMorris Rodgers, then who would develop and implement policy for Indian Country as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs? There are a lot of talented Republicans who will be making their case in the next few days and weeks. You would hope that people who have served in previous administrations, such as Swimmer, will have a say in what qualities should be sought to match the requirements of the office. Same goes for elected leaders such as Mullin, Rep. Tom Cole, and even those in state governments, such as New Mexico Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, a member of the Navajo Nation.
The idea of “if, then, this,” is also important to the opposition party, the Democrats.
McMorris Rodgers must give up her congressional seat. And already there are three candidates. But former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas said he will not run in a special election. He’s now chief executive of Spokane Tribal Enterprises.
But there are other ballot possibilities. Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison is a candidate to chair the Democratic National Committee. If he were to win that job, then he has said he would give up his seat in Congress. Already on Twitter there is speculation that the best candidate for the House seat would be Minnesota Rep. Peggy Flanagan, White Earth Band of Ojibwe.
Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers is President-elect Donald J. Trump’s choice to head the Department of the Interior. If confirmed by the Senate, she would managed federal lands, including those that produce energy, as well as national parks. She would be oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
McMorris Rodgers has all the necessary qualifications: Pro oil and gas development? Check. Climate change skeptic? Check. Skeptical about federal land ownership in the West? Check.
And, if you need one more check mark, her record in the House does not reflect her being a particularly close ally of tribes from the Republican side.
The Violence Against Women Act is one example. In 2013, McMorris Rogers met with Deborah Parker, then vice chairman of the Tulalip Tribes, where they explored language that would get Republican support and open tribal jurisdiction on domestic violence. But when Rep. Tom Cole’s alternative bill surfaced that did just that, McMorris Rodgers voted no. Slate magazine said he dismissed tribal concerns as “a side issue” and voted the party line against the Violence Against Women Act.
The most problematic issue for Northwest tribes might be salmon.
She describes herself as “a champion of our dams and the power they produce.” She recently told Washington Ag Network: “There are some who believe the Snake River dams are not allowing for adequate salmon recovery. However, thanks to collaboration between states, tribes, federal agencies, and private property owners, our salmon are returning at record levels. Since 2014, more than 2.5 million adult salmon and steelhead passed Bonneville Dam, the highest returns since they began counting in 1938. The Sockeye, Fall Chinook, and Coho were also among record and near-record runs as well.”
But will salmon recovery continue without removing dams on the Snake River? A federal judge in May rejected the government’s recovery plan and said the government had to calculate at least the potential of removing dams.
An irrigation group responded by calling for the government to give up on salmon and declare the species extinct (using an odd provision in the Endangered Species Act that assembles a committee, “the God squad,” to make a determination that nothing more can be done to save salmon). Darryll Olsen, representing The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, said in the Tri-City Herald, that “the association is hoping for a fair and equitable ruling that would end a cycle of repeated litigation, and escalating and more expensive plans for what is already the most extensive fish protection and enhancement program in the world.” The debate pits salmon recovery against the four Snake River dams that make it possible to barge agricultural products from Lewiston, Idaho, to Oregon ports. And the dams generate inexpensive electricity for some 800,000 Northwest homes.
As a Tri-City Herald headline put it: “People passionate about saving Snake River dams.” But then the newspaper didn’t talk to tribes who are just as passionate about saving salmon.
And, even if the God Squad is assembled, and even if the Snake River salmon are declared extinct, there will be more litigation ahead, including the assertion of tribal treaty rights.
But the Snake River dams will have the best advocate, the Secretary of Interior.
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.
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.
A line of trucks and commercial vehicles on North Dakota’s Highway 6 Saturday was a speeding train. One vehicle after another. Traveling too fast and too close. Then, still on track, the entire train turned left and began racing down a rural dirt road.
It was clear why: This is where the Dakota Access Pipeline is being constructed. Fresh dirt marks where the pipeline has been and where it’s supposed to go. Construction is on a speedy timetable. As the company has testified in court it wants the 1,170 mile, $3.8 billion project up and running by January 1, 2017.
Yet the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and several hundred people camped near by are determined to slow down that train, protect the waters of the Missouri River, and ultimately, help the country begin the most important conversation of this era about energy, climate and survival. (Previous: From Paris to Standing Rock, it’s about the climate choices ahead.)
So the machinery of the state of North Dakota has been engaged to stay on schedule. To be clear: North Dakota is acting as the trustee for the company, using what it considers the powers of state, to make this project so.
How far will North Dakota go?
Look at where it has been. The state has been an ally instead of a referee. Helping to craft a regulatory approach that avoided regulation. There is this crazy notion that the company did everything it was supposed to do so leave them alone. Yah. Because the plan was to avoid pesky regulation. It’s so much more efficient to be governed by official winks instead of an Environmental Impact Statement.
Even now the Dakota Access Pipeline figures the state (with allies in DC) will give in and sign the final paperwork. As the Energy Transfer Partners attorney told the court: “The status quo is that we’re in the middle of building a pipeline.” So, according to Oil and Gas 360, “the next step will be for ETP to acquire easements to drill the pipeline under Lake Oahe. In the most probable scenario, the Corps will grant permits while District Court litigation will continue. ETP would ‘likely get notice on easement status by the end of October and would take 60 days to drill under the lake with a full crew and no major disruptions.'”
No worries. The state’s machinery is supposed to make it so.
How far will North Dakota go?
They’ve already tried intimidation, humiliation, and the number of arrests are increasing. Pick on protectors, elders, journalists, famous people, anyone who could make the state appear potent. The latest tactic is to toss around the word “riot” as if saying it often enough will change its definition. “Authorities arrest 83 protesters during a riot Saturday,” Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier posted on Facebook. “Today’s situation clearly illustrates what we have been saying for weeks, that this protest is not peaceful or lawful. It was obvious to our officers who responded that the protesters engaged in escalated unlawful tactics and behavior during this event. This protest was intentionally coordinated and planned by agitators.”
What’s extraordinary about that statement is the sheriff’s own pictures show a peaceful protest. As Mel Brooks once wrote in Young Frankenstein: “A riot is an ugly thing.” This was not.
But the key phrase in the sherrif’s words is fuel for the state’s machinery, the words “… or lawful.” That is the important phrase because the state would like a protest that lets the status quo continue building a pipeline. The idea of civil disobedience is that there are unjust laws (or in this case, rigged laws) and there are people willing go to jail to highlight that injustice. The state lost its moral claim when it moved the pipeline route away from its own capital city to near the Standing Rock Nation.
Again, the question is, how far will North Dakota go?
Is the state ready to arrest hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? And then what? The illogical conclusion to that question is too terrible to think about.
Yesterday a call went out from the camps for more people. People who, as Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network said, are willing to get arrested. People who will interrupt their lives so that this pipeline will go no further. It’s a call to a higher law than the one that’s codified by North Dakota. And for every water protector arrested, there will always be someone else ready to be next.
** Update **
Goldtooth reported Sunday on Facebook that a new camp is going up. “First tipi is up. Directly on the proposed path of the pipeline. We are directly between the pipeline and water now.” That will press the issue.
How far will North Dakota go? The military-style law enforcement base at Fort Rice sends its message: Whatever it takes. Status quo must have its a pipeline. That’s frightening.
Except. There is an antidote to those fears. It’s found among the people at the Standing Rock camps who continue to use prayer as their status quo. 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