Latest attack on Medicaid also sabotages Treaty Rights, Indian health programs

Agency Says Indian Health Should Not Be Exempt From Medicaid Work Rules Because They Are ‘Race-Based’

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The Trump administration is supporting a major policy shift on Indian health programs which could result in a loss of millions of dollars and sabotage treaty rights.

A story in Politico Sunday raised the issue. It said “the Trump administration contends the tribes are a race rather than separate governments, and exempting them from Medicaid work rules — which have been approved in three states and are being sought by at least 10 others — would be illegal preferential treatment. ‘HHS believes that such an exemption would raise constitutional and federal civil rights law concerns,’ according to a review by administration lawyers,” Politico said.

The new policy on Medicaid work requirements “does not honor the duty of the federal government to uphold the government-to-government relationship and recognize the political status enshrined in the Constitution, treaties, federal statutes, and other federal laws, said Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. “Our political relationship is not based upon race.”

“The United States has a legal responsibility to provide health care to Native Americans,” Mary Smith, who was acting head of the Indian Health Service during the Obama administration and is a member of the Cherokee Nation, told Politico. “It’s the largest prepaid health system in the world — they’ve paid through land and massacres — and now you’re going to take away health care and add a work requirement?”

Medicaid has become a key funding stream for the Indian health system — especially in programs managed by tribes and non-profits. Medicaid is a state-federal partnership and public insurance. The Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid eligibility, but the Supreme Court ruled that each state could decide whether or not to expand. Since the expansion of Medicaid some 237,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives in 19 states have become insured.

Officially Medicaid represents 13 percent of the Indian Health Service’s $6.1 billion budget (just under $800 million).

But even that number is misleading because it does not include money collected from third-party billing from tribal and non-profit organizations. In Alaska, for example, the entire Alaska Native health system is operated by tribes or tribal organizations and the state says 40 percent of its $1.8 billion Medicaid budget is spent on Alaska Native patients. That one state approaches the entire “budgeted” amount for Medicaid.

Other states report similar increases. Kaiser Family Foundation found that in Arizona, one tribally-operated health system reported that about half of visits were by patients covered by Medicaid in 2016. And, an Urban Indian Health Program, reported that its uninsured rate at one clinic fell from 85 percent before the Affordable Care Act to under 10 percent.

Those Medicaid (and all insurance) dollars are even more significant because by law they remain with local service units where the patient is treated (and the insurance is billed). In Alaska more than two-thirds of those dollars are spent on private sector doctors and hospitals through purchased care for Alaska Native patients. And, unlike IHS funds, Medicaid is an entitlement. So if a person is eligible, the money follows.

A recent report by Kaiser Health News looked at Census data and found that 52 percent of residents in New Mexico’s McKinley County have coverage through the Medicaid.  That’s the highest rate among U.S. counties with at least 65,000 people. “The heavy concentration of Medicaid in this high-altitude desert is a result of two factors: the high poverty rate and the Indian Health Service’s relentless work to enroll patients in the program,” Kaiser reported. Most of McKinley County is located on the Navajo and Zuni reservations.


Kaiser Health News said Medicaid has opened up new opportunities for Native patients to “get more timely care, especially surgery and mental health services. It has been vital in combating high rates of obesity, teen birth, suicide and diabetes, according to local health officials.”

However the growth of Medicaid is resulting in unequal care for patients in the Indian health system. The benefits in some states, including those that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, are more generous. Other states not only refused to expand Medicaid and have been adding new restrictions such as requiring “able-bodied” adults to have their Medicaid eligibility contingent on work.

But the Indian health system — the federal Indian Health Service and tribally and nonprofit operated programs — are in a special case because there is a 100 percent federal match for most services. So states set the rules, but do not have to pay the bill. (Medicaid is often the second largest single item in a state budget behind public schools.)

Medicaid is the largest health insurance program in America, insuring one in five adults, and many with complex and long-term chronic care needs. The Trump administration and many state legislatures controlled by Republicans see Medicaid as a welfare program. While most Democrats view it simply as a public health insurance program.

Work rules are particularly challenging for Indian Country. Unlike other Medicaid programs, patients in the Indian health system will still be eligible to receive basic care. So stricter rules will mean fewer people will sign up for Medicaid and the Indian Health Service — already significantly underfunded — will have to pick up the extra costs from existing appropriations. That will result in less money, and fewer healthcare services, across the board.

A letter from the Tribal Technical Advisory Group for Medicare and Medicaid said American Indians and Alaska Natives “are among the nation’s most vulnerable populations, and rely heavily on the IHS for health care. However, the IHS is currently funded at around 60 percent of need, and average per capita spending for IHS patients is only $3,688.” The latest per person cost for health care nationally is $10,348 (totalling $3.3 trillion, nearly 20 percent of the entire economy).

The tribal advisory group said it is “critically important” that there be a blanket exemption for IHS beneficiaries from the mandatory work requirements.

A report in September by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that the majority of American Indians and Alaska Natives on Medicaid already work, yet continue to face high rates of poverty. It said over three-quarters of American Indians and Alaska Natives are in working families, but that’s a gap of about 8 percent compared to other Americans (83 percent).

The Trump administration’s characterization of tribal health programs as “race-based” is particularly troubling to tribal leaders because it would reverse historical precedence.

A memo last month from the law firm of Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker said the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services “has ample legal authority to single out IHS beneficiaries for special treatment in administering the statutes under its jurisdiction if doing so is rationally related to its unique trust responsibility to Indians. Under familiar principles of Indian law, such actions are political in nature, and as a result do not constitute prohibited race based classifications. This principle has been recognized and repeatedly reaffirmed by the Supreme Court and every Circuit Court of Appeals that has considered it, and has been extended to the actions of Administrative Agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services even in the absence of a specific statute.”

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a Shoshone-Bannock tribal citzen. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Cross posted on Indian Country Today.

(The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.)

 

Tribes social clubs or governments? ‘Stop Disenrollment’ returns via social media

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This year’s “Stop Disenrollment” campaign launches again on Feb. 8 and is led by Alaska Native actor Irene Bedard. (News release photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

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.

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please do so. Just credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com #IndigenousNewsWire #NativeVote18

#NativeVote18 — Three fights ahead: A climate tax, a Senate seat, and the revival of a Canadian political party

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Quinault President Fawn Sharp, Manitoba NDP Party Leader Wab Kinew, and former Rep. Victoria Steele (Photos via Facebook, campaign)

Voting on a climate plan and a tax

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

There are two ways to impact public policy through the ballot box. First, people can choose to run for elective office. And, second, ballot initiatives can shape public policy.

The Quinault Nation in Washington is “gearing up for another strategic move to influence state policy,” Tribal President Fawn Sharp said. And that influence might come in the form of a 2018 ballot initiative on climate change that would include a steep carbon tax.

“We hope a citizen driven initiative will be a catalyst for other states to follow as we believe that’s the only path forward given the extent to which corporate interests influence our political institutions,” Sharp said. “What a narrative it will be when the First Stewards occupy the current leadership void in climate policy and influence the U.S. in a pivotal move from the grass roots level.”

The twist in this story is that another group in Washington has been promoting a similar initiative. But that measure left tribes out of the discourse. And the differences are not about style, but substance. Quinault wants to be certain that the tax raises enough money to invest in salmon recovery, forest restoration, and improving water quality.

The News Tribune in Tacoma said The Alliance for Energy and Jobs proposal would dedicate some 70 percent of a billion dollar fund to clean energy projects and only 30 percent to clean water and forest health. The Alliance said it did not do a good job of engaging tribes but there is “no final proposal.”

However Sharp said time is of the essence — so Quinault is moving quickly on its own plan. It will reach out to other tribes at the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians’ meeting in Spokane this week. Sharp is president of ATNI.

The Quinault Nation has a unique view of climate change. It’s an immediate threat. The tribe is planning the relocation of Taholah village to higher ground because of flooding and storm surges. Some 660 people live in that village.

Imagine what a climate fight that’s based on tribal values would look like. One where salmon, forests, and children take center stage.

Ready to fight back in Arizona

 

Former Arizona State House Representative Victoria Steele was a candidate for Congress in 2016. Now she’s set her sight on a state Senate seat representing Tucson (legislative district 9). The current senator in this district, Steve Farley, is a candidate for governor.

“Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that the Republican leaders in our country would turn on the people. It is hard to fathom how nasty and ugly things have become with the Trump Administration’s sexist, racist and dangerous agenda. No group of vulnerable people is exempt from their destruction,” Steele said. “I’ve noticed that when the Trump Administration and the Republicans in Congress can’t do their dastardly deeds in D.C., they push them to the states where Republican controlled legislatures do it for them one state at a time. I have to do something, so I’m rolling up my sleeves and I’m ready to fight back.”

As a state representative, Steele successfully built a coalition to add money into the state budget for Mental Health First Aid. And, during her second term, her campaign said that “out of the 1,000 bills introduced into the Legislature during this last term, only eight of those that passed were Democratic bills ─ and two of those eight were Representative Steele’s bills.”

Steele is Seneca. She is a former award-winning reporter and TV news anchor. After a 25-year career as a television and radio news anchor, including positions at KOLD-TV, KNST and KFYI Radio, she began a second career as a mental health counselor. She is the State Legislative Coordinator and co-founder of the Tucson Chapter of the National Organization of Women. Steele is a public speaker, teacher and trainer experienced in presenting on Native American Culture, empowering women, and a variety of public policy issues.

Renewing the New Democrats

 

Wab Kinew has been elected to lead the Manitoba New Democratic Party. Kinew, is a best-selling author, broadcaster, Hip Hop artist, and a Member of the Legislative Assembly from Fort Rouge in Winnipeg. He is a member of the Onigaming First Nation in Northwestern Ontario.

As the new party leader he will lead the New Democrats into the next election in 2020, and, if successful, would be the person responsible for forming a government. (Think governor.) In 2016 the New Democratic Party lost after nearly 17 years in government when the Progressive Conservatives won 40 out of the 57 seats in the legislature. Kinew’s task will be to revive the New Democrats.

“I chose to stand for leader of the Manitoba NDP because I am motivated by the core values we share as New Democrats. Values like love, equality, and social justice,” Kinew said on his web site. “I am so proud to be a member of a party that looks like Manitoba in all its inclusivity, and that represents Manitoba values. With your support, I know I can lead the renewal of our party, build a team that will offer Manitobans a progressive alternative to Brian Pallister and help bring about a brighter day for people in our province.”

Kinew has been open about his personal growth and a past that includes criminal convictions as well as a pardon. On his web site he says: “When I hear about a young person who got in trouble with the law, who is told every day he has nothing to contribute, I think: I was you.”

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Pallister’s Progressive Conservative Party is the current provincial government. A tweet from the PC’s links to a roundup of stories about Kinew’s past, including domestic violence. (It even made the allegation look new by tagging a 2017 date to a 2003 story.) Kinew has talked extensively about his own history.

An opinion piece by CBC News said: “While such websites are now common fare in politics, it does suggest that the Conservatives are at least somewhat concerned  about Kinew.” The post concluded: “The NDP has its new leader, warts and all. Can Kinew rise to the challenges ahead? It would be foolish to think he can’t.”

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

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Trump tells tribal leaders that Medicaid cuts will be ‘great for everybody’

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President Donald J. Trump meets with tribal leaders for Energy Week. He calls the Medicaid cuts will be great for everybody. (White House photo via YouTube.)

Senate bill ‘mostly dead,’ but will it revive after break?

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The Senate’s health care bill is “mostly dead.” But that’s not the same as all dead. And this holiday weekend will decide either the legislation has a second life or if there is a better way to proceed.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is planning another shot at health care reform (excuse me, a plan to cut taxes and roll back Medicaid) this week producing yet another draft of the health care bill. Meanwhile Senators (as well as members of the House) will break and return to their home districts. This is where the people have a chance to weigh in with a “hell, no!” The Senate bill may be the most unpopular piece of legislation ever, currently earning support of between 12 and 17 percent depending on which poll you read. To borrow the TSA phrase, if you see someone (as in a member of Congress) say something.

Consider this: Medicaid is popular across the board. A poll by Kaiser Health News illustrates this point. It shows that some three-fourths of Americans view Medicaid favorably. (But the poll also points out that most Americans don’t know that both GOP bills would cut deeply into the popular program.) Even Republicans think Medicaid works.

For the past few weeks I have been writing post after post about how bad this approach to health care — I mean, tax cuts — is as a policy. The problem is basic. Many Republicans do not believe health care is a right. So it’s their mission to roll back government. But not every Republican believes that. Some see the effectiveness of programs such as Medicaid and see it’s rollback as unconscionable. (Previous: Health care deserves policy debate.)

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Recent polling from Kaiser Family Foundation shows support for Medicaid across the political spectrum.

 

At a meeting with tribal leaders at The White House, President Donald J. Trump was asked about cutting Medicaid. His answer: “It’s going to great.  This will be great for everybody.”

Read “great” as “clueless.” But the president did say it was going to be difficult to get the votes, “it’s very tough …  I think we’re going to get at least very close, and I think we’re going to get it over the line. ”

We shall see. Mostly dead or all dead? And an all dead GOP health care bill could deliver a miracle.

This is the moment where McConnell will pull out his checkbook. He will be trying to win *cough* buy * cough* support from senators with sweet deals for the folks back home. If that doesn’t work, McConnell said he might be forced to work with Democrats on legislation. Imagine that! A Congress that works with both parties.

This is what really ought to happen. The Affordable Care Act has problems that need to be fixed. But it’s in specific areas, such as the individual insurance market, and a bipartisan approach would actually yield the best results.

But more important the only way that Congress governs again is for leadership to recognize that they cannot govern with Republican votes alone because they don’t have enough votes. There is a split within the Republican Party on the very question of health care as a right, let alone specifics about how much to cut and where.  And that same division plays out on just about every major public policy issue.

But a few Republicans working with Democrats do constitute a majority in both Houses. A lot could get done. The Congress could pass a budget. Raise the debt limit (averting another crisis) and do the jobs that we the people hired them to do. That would take a miracle right? But we can always hope and the first step is an all dead Republican health care bill.

How long will it take for this process to unfold? This will only happen when congressional leaders run out of options and see working with Democrats as the only path forward. This will take time because as Miracle Max said in The Princess Bride: “You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles.”

We don’t need another rotten miracle.

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

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If, then, this. The shift from campaign promises to Indian Country policies

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President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office, Nov. 10, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

If, then, this. A series of three words explaining what happens in any new White House. If Donald Trump wins the presidency, then many (not all) of the promises made during the campaign become policy. And it happens starting next month when the Congress races to try and make this so.

But “if, then, this,” is also about people. Who staffs the new campaign, especially those who represent Indian Country? And who represents the opposition?

So let’s start with what we know.

It’s likely that President-elect Donald J. Trump will nominate Cathy McMorris Rodgers as the next Interior Secretary and Tom Price as the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Who joins them? Who has their ear? How will their broad views on public policy impact Indian Country?  (Previous: Trump’s choice for Interior could risk salmon recovery, treaty rights.)

As The Atlantic said about Price. He will be running a massive federal healthcare agency, one that “administers the largest health-research centers in the world, most of the country’s public-health apparatus, the Indian Health Service, the Food and Drug Administration, and a collection of welfare and child-care services. While Price has a less-established policy record on many of these issues, his general philosophy of rolling back government spending and intervention suggests he may scale back HHS’s current efforts.” A less established policy record opens up a lot of questions.

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Another appointment, yet to be announced, would be in the next president’s executive office. Arizona State Sen. Carlyle Begay posted on Instagram: “It’s official … I’ll be working in the White House.” (Begay’s account is private, but it was reposted by Navajo Republicans on Facebook.) He doesn’t elaborate on the job title, but the most likely that post would be as a special assistant to the president on the Domestic Policy staff, a post now held by Karen Diver. Begay is Navajo.

One of the issues that the White House and Congress will have to flesh out is a proposal by Rep. Markwayne Mullin to reform the regulatory structure for tribal lands. A story in Reuters last week compared that plan to the termination, something that Mullin (who is a member of the Cherokee Nation) and former Interior Assistant Secretary Ross Swimmer say is not the case. Swimmer, who is also former principal chief for the Cherokee Nation, told Reuters: “It has to be done with an eye toward protecting sovereignty.”

Mullin said the press misunderstood him. He posted on Facebook: “This is a very personal and important issue for me and I want to clarify my actual comments that were distorted by the media. It is still and will always be my belief that the land entrusted to tribes belongs to the Native American people, and it ought to be up to them alone to decide how to best use and distribute the resources on their own land.”

Economist Terry Anderson has been making this case for years first from a think tank in Montana, The Property and Environment Research Center, and rom the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He wrote just last month: “President-elect Trump is well positioned to grant more freedom to Native Americans.” (Note to Republicans: If you are serious about making this a policy, I would avoid the ‘free the Indians’ narrative. This was Arthur Watkins’ pitch during termination. The phrase has a definite and failed context.)

As will often be the case in a Trump White House, Anderson’s argument focuses on energy. “Considering the fact that tribes have an estimated $1.5 trillion in energy resources, President Trump should start by promoting more tribal authority over those resources,” Anderson wrote. “Such legislation is helping tribes like the coal-rich Crow. In 2013 it signed an option with Cloud Peak Energy, LLC to lease 1.4 billion tons of reservation coal. For the option, Cloud Peak paid the tribe $3.75 million and payments could increase to $10 million by 2018 if they start mining. These kinds of deals give Indians some reason for hope.”

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If, then, this. Except. I would question at least one variable in this argument. If tribes have more say about resource extraction, then will tribes also have more say about environmental concerns? Does this logic give tribes a veto over resource extraction? Would that include approval or rejection of the Missouri River crossing of the Dakota Access Pipeline?

And specifically on coal, if there is a smaller global market for coal, then what’s the point? The International Energy Agency last year reduced its prediction for coal demand (after a decade of growing sales) in part because China’s consumption is dropping sharply. “The coal industry is facing huge pressures, and the main reason is China, but it is not the only reason,” said the agency’s executive director Fatih Birol. “The economic transformation in China and environmental policies worldwide – including the recent climate agreement in Paris – will likely continue to constrain global coal demand.”

That study predicts coal from India and Australia are growing and that the pipeline is already exceeding the capacity. “Probable” new export mining capacities amount to approximately 95 million tonnes per annum. But the current market environment strongly discourages investments as a substantial rebound of coal prices before 2020 is unlikely. Consequently, further postponements or cancellations of projects are expected.” So it’s not a great time to unleash coal as a market force (unless even lower prices are the goal).

If the world is moving past fossil fuel expansion, then the markets will not be there. This will not change in a pro-coal administration.

If there is to be a Secretary McMorris Rodgers, then who would develop and implement policy for Indian Country as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs? There are a lot of talented Republicans who will be making their case in the next few days and weeks. You would hope that people who have served in previous administrations, such as Swimmer, will have a say in what qualities should be sought to match the requirements of the office. Same goes for elected leaders such as Mullin, Rep. Tom Cole, and even those in state governments, such as New Mexico Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, a member of the Navajo Nation.

The idea of “if, then, this,” is also important to the opposition party, the Democrats.

McMorris Rodgers must give up her congressional seat. And already there are three candidates. But former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas said he will not run in a special election. He’s now chief executive of Spokane Tribal Enterprises.

But there are other ballot possibilities. Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison is a candidate to chair the Democratic National Committee. If he were to win that job, then he has said he would give up his seat in Congress. Already on Twitter there is speculation that the best candidate for the House seat would be Minnesota Rep. Peggy Flanagan, White Earth Band of Ojibwe.

If, then, this.

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

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

#NativeVote16 – Tom Cole forges the GOP case for tribal sovereignty

 

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From Tom Cole’s Twitter feed: “Great to see @ChickasawNation citizen @TomColeOK04 & former @Osagenation Chief Jim Gray at White House Tribal Nations Conference. #WHTNC”

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Early on I decided to focus this #NativeVote16 project on American Indians and Alaska Natives running for office. (Instead of a broader look at the election and its impact on Indian Country.) That’s made it easier for me to ignore so much of the nonsense that’s surfaced in this presidential election year. From time to time I still write about the White House race, but it’s through the lens of a democracy that must include more Native voices.

Oklahoma’s Tom Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Tribe, is one such voice. It’s not that I, or even we, always agree with him. I sure don’t. I see the world from a different perspective. He is a conservative Republican and represents his constituents world view (and as such often tries to dampen the concerns about harsh Republican budgets, Paul Ryan, or even Donald Trump.)

He told CHNI Oklahoma News this week that he was “absolutely appalled” by Trump’s comments on tape. “It’s disgusting. It’s crude. It’s vile. There’s no defense for it whatsoever. People shouldn’t be shy about saying that.” However, Cole said he would not back away from supporting the GOP nominee. And that position he’s been steady ever since Trump won the party mantle. He also said there are people “of good character and good opinion” on both sides of the presidential race and questioning Trump’s fitness is a fair concern.

 

When the issues involve tribes, and especially, tribal sovereignty, Cole has been one of the most important members in the history of Congress.

What makes Cole so important? He can argue the case within the Republican caucus, and, even better, with the House Republican leadership. He is a measured, reasoned voice, not just for Indian Country, but for his idea of what a conservative party should be. And that means being inclusive.

So 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. He’s sided with tribes over Democrats on the issue of labor unions and government operations, pointing out that a lot of states run businesses from hotels at parks to insurance programs. Yet it’s only tribal governments that are pressed to allow union representation in tribal enterprises. And, most important, he was the architect of building a coalition in the House of Representatives to enact the Violence Against Women Act. He told WNYC radio that bill was “a very, very difficult issue because there were divisions within his own conference that prevented (then Speaker John Boehner) from getting to 218.” So Cole found enough Republicans and Democrats to pass the measure into law.

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Rep. Tom Cole writes in Oklahoma Humanities why tribal sovereignty should not be seen as a partisan issue, but as American issue.

Cole once again makes the case for tribal governments in the Winter edition of Oklahoma Humanities. “A tribe is a living, breathing entity that exists organically. Its purpose is to improve the lives and preserve the identities of its members. If a tribe fails at this, it eventually ceases to exist. Tribes are recognized as sovereign entities in the U.S. Constitution. That means that membership in a tribe gives one a political identity as well as a cultural heritage,” he writes. “It is an extraordinary time in which we live— for Indian Country and the broader culture of our nation—a time of tribal renaissance and self-determination. In Oklahoma, tribal governments are helping drive the economy, creating tens of thousands of jobs, and generating hundreds of millions of dollars for the state government. There is amazing vitality in Native American culture and a great deal of interest and respect for Native Americans that is uncharacteristic of our history. Without question, I believe tribal sovereignty must be defended; but more than that, it often needs to be explained. As I remind my fellow lawmakers in Congress, the same oath we take to uphold the Constitution is an oath to defend tribal sovereignty.”

Powerful words.

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

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#NativeVote16 – Is Facebook enough to win a Senate primary in Alaska?

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Social media messaging: Edgar Blatchford makes a pitch to voters via YouTube.

 

Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

Could social media be a tool used to propel a successful candidacy? Of course not. At least that’s what people say. After all: Politics has always been done this way.

But Alaska might be different and Edgar Blatchford is staking out an unconventional approach. He’s running for the United States Senate in a race that includes Sen. Lisa Murkowski. She has already raised nearly $2.5 million in her re-election bid.

“The idea in this campaign was that no one wanted to file as a Democrat,” Blatchford said. Since then two other candidates, Richard Grayson and Ray Metcalfe, have been added to the August 16th ballot as Democrats. And the winner of the Democratic primary will go on to face at least three other candidates in the general election, a Republican, a Libertarian, and an Independent. Blatchford is Yupik and the only Native American running for the U.S. Senate. He has a resume worth considering: Mayor of Seward, Alaska, professor, owner of a newspaper chain, chief executive officer of a what is now Chugach Native Corporation, and he served in a governor’s cabinet.

“We are close to our senators. Alaska is a small state and we have lots of contact with federal officials,” Blatchford said. “If we elect a Republican Senate, you have to presume it will be anti-Indian. Why would we elect a Republican senator who will have to fight her own caucus for basic Constitutional rights? If we elect Democrats, it would be a part of the progressive agenda, it would be a part of the deal. Why would we fight from the outside, when we can be on the inside and be a part of the agenda?”

Blatchford said Murkowski must come up with a rationale to convince her own Republican caucus to support Alaska Native issues. “Donald Trump is hard to explain away. We watch what’s happening, we see it all on social media, but somehow Alaskans don’t see the connection between Lisa Murkowski and the Republican party’s leader,” he said, adding that it’s time for her to disassociate herself with Trump.

“I am connecting with the people in rural Alaska” he says, and one of the reasons is that he is championing “Native American sovereignty; Alaska Natives addressing their own problems.”

But too often, he said, the first question folks ask: “How much money have you raised? Not whether I am a Democrat, Republican, or what I believe. I have nothing.”

In a video presentation on YouTube, Blatchford said he is “not interested” in raising millions of dollars from corporations and transnational interests that have a different agenda for Alaska. “I am interested in representing you in the United States Senate, only Alaskans.”

To get his message out Blatchford relies on social media where he spends “late hours” connecting with people around the state. He said he’s also driving to as many places he can and speaking in communities reachable by road.

A recent twist in Alaska politics is the idea of a candidate running as an independent instead of as a Democrat.  This strategy is worked for Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott. And attorney Margaret Stock is pursuing that route in this election. There will also be a Libertarian on the ballot. So voters will have a choice between four candidates come November.

Blatchford said Democrats should not abandon their party. “This is a presidential year,” he said. “Why would you abandon the Democratic nominee for President of the United States who is so sensitive to minorities, the poor, and to Native Americans. We ought to grab on to her, promote her programs, and her progressive policies. I am embracing Hillary Clinton.”

Will social media be enough? We will learn the answer, at least in part, on Tuesday.

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

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

 

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#NativeVote16 – Stick games with Republicans; hiding the Trump marker

 

Republican candidate for Gov. Greg Gianforte playing stick games at Arlee Celebration. “Great time at the pow-wow in Arlee … Thanks to CSKT Tribal Chairman Vernon Finley for the hospitality.” (Photo via the candidate’s Twitter feed.) 
Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

Make no mistake: The 2016 election is not routine. If you want proof, look no further than the weekend encampment at the Arlee Celebration. On Friday afternoon the Republican candidate for governor, Greg Gianforte, showed up at the celebration with a GOP colleague and then proceeded to serve grilled burgers to all comers. Free food? At a powwow? Sure. Fire. Hit. Gianforte proceeded to play a round of stick games (a tradition that’s been practiced by several former Montana governors). 

Gianforte’s visit was friendly; he wasn’t exactly talking policy. But this is where a Republican gamble for Indian Country gets tricky. 

In any election it is smart for a Republican to try and peel off a few Native American votes. Montana Democrats have been successful reaching out to tribal communities for a long time, especially after the 2005 election of Gov. Brian Schweitzer. So it makes perfect sense for the GOP to pitch Native voters at a powwow.

But just a few miles from the camp is a visible reminder about how complex a simple idea can be.

Just as you enter the reservation, a billboard advertises against the water compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes as an assault against non-Indian property rights. Many of the complaints are focused on state officials, who critics say, gave the tribes everything in the negotiations. (The deal must still be approved by the federal government. The Interior Department said last week that it likes the structure of the compact but not its $2.3 billion price tag. Montana Sen. Jon Tester has introduced legislation to make it law.) Critics understand it’s bipartisan and blame the Republican Attorney General Tim Fox as well as Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat.

Again in normal times it would be easy to dismiss antics of what are essentially fringe groups. But the Confederated Tribes’ territory, where the annual July 4th celebration occurs, is the heart of Montana’s opposition to tribal treaty rights, tribal management of resources, and, well just about anything with a reference to a tribe in any phrase.

This is where the Republican fault line is visible. The same people who shout at their government for working with tribes to solve problems are the ones who formed the Tea Party. A report by the Montana Human Rights Network said: “Over the years, anti-Indian activists and organizations have tried to couch their opposition to treaty rights and tribal sovereignty under the banner of ‘civil rights’ for non-Indians … All of these comments are a smokescreen to try and distract from the reality that compact opponents are trying to deny legally-established rights guaranteed to CSKT by treaty.”

The GOP divide is present in many forms. The state’s Republican platform says it supports tribes and treaties (and, of course, tribal development of natural resources). But at the same time a party resolution calls for the transfer of federal lands to the state government. Not a word about how original land owners would fit into such a transfer or how treaty-protected activities on public lands would be protected. The party document even discounts the idea of federal law enforcement: “The Sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer of the county. We support the requirement that a federal officer may not arrest, search or seize in Montana without the advanced, written permission of the elected county sheriff.”

What makes the GOP divide even more pronounced is Donald Trump. As the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party he is adding fuel to The Hateful Mix, a blend of racism and anti-government rhetoric.

And that’s a mixture that not every Republican can tolerate.

On Friday former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot wrote in The Washington Post: “It is inescapable that every decision made by every leader reflects the character of the man or woman making the decision. Character is the lens through which a leader perceives the path to be followed. It conceives and shapes every thought and is inextricably interwoven into every word spoken, every policy envisioned and every action taken.” And, as a result, Racicot said, he could not endorse nor vote for Trump.

On the other side of the divide: Rep. Ryan Zinke not only endorsed Trump but suggested he might make a good pick for vice president. (Denise Juneau is running against Zinke for Montana’s only House seat.)

This election is different because the internal debate within the Republican Party is so visible. There will always be policy differences, but this year there is more than that, because the logic of Trump requires buying into the premise of hating government so much that you must destroy it.

So every Republican candidate this election will play stick games. Look close: Which hand is hiding the bone marked Trump and which hand will be free?

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

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

#NativeVote16 – Deborah Parker named to Democrat’s platform committee


  Deborah Parker speaking at a Senate press conference about the Violence Against Women Act. (YouTube photo)

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First the news. Then the context. 

The news is that Deborah Parker has been named to the Democratic National Convention’s Platform Committee. That’s both remarkable and important. She was  appointed by Bernie Sanders. 

As Nicole Willis posted on Facebook: “I am beyond pleased that American Indian and Alaska Native issues are such a high priority for this campaign– so much that one of our platform spots has gone to Deborah Parker!” (Willis is the National Tribal Outreach Director for the Sanders’ campaign.)

Now the context. 

Every four years political parties craft carefully worded statements.  They outline exactly what the party hopes to achieve over the next four years should they win the White House and Congress. These are aspirational documents, not a governing document or political legislation. 

So the way it works is that usually the party’s nominee selects the platform committee. That’s exactly what will happen on the Republican side as Donald Trump will start to put his stamp on the Republicans campaign.

But the Democrats are not there yet. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has a sizable lead, but not quite enough delegates to win. And Bernie Sanders is in that tough spot of trying to catch up to Clinton with fewer and fewer delegates up for grabs. When there is no nominee, usually, the party appoints the convention committee posts. 

On Monday the party picked another route. Clinton was awarded 6 seats; Sanders 5; and the remaining 4 will be appointed by the party itself. 

Politico call this a “concession” to Sanders because his supporters will be able to influence the party to be more progressive on a range of issues, such as a higher minimum wage. 

Parker, a former vice chairman of the Tulalip Tribes in Washington, was an early supporter of Sanders. Parker has much to offer any platform committee. First, she understands and can communicate the relationship between tribes and the federal government and what might be possible in terms of improvement. Second, Parker was a critical voice in the enactment of the Violence Against Women Act. She adds expertise and credibility.

Four years ago, the Democratic Party Platform included this section on Tribal Sovereignty:

American Indian and Alaska Native tribes are sovereign self-governing communities, with a unique government-to-government relationship with the United States. President Obama and Democrats in Congress, working with tribes, have taken unprecedented steps to resolve long-standing conflicts, finally coming to a resolution on litigation—some dating back nearly 100 years—related to management of Indian trust resources, administration of loan programs, and water rights. 

The President worked with Democrats to pass the HEARTH Act to promote greater tribal self- determination and create jobs in Indian Country. The Affordable Care Act permanently reauthorized the Indian Health Care Improvement Act to improve care for Native Americans. Democrats enacted the Tribal Law and Order Act, support expansion of the Violence Against Women Act to include greater protection for women on tribal lands, and oppose versions of the Violence Against Women Act that do not include these critical provisions. We will continue to honor our treaty and trust obligations and respect cultural rights, including greater support for American Indian and Alaska Native languages. Democrats support maximizing tribal self-governance, including efforts for self-determination and sovereignty of Native Hawaiians.

In addition to Parker, other members of the Democratic Platform Commitee:

Bernie Sanders’ appointments:

* Dr. Cornell West;

* Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota);

*Bill McKibben (Author, expert on climate change);

* James Zogby (Arab American Institute)

Hillary Clinton’s appointments:

*Ambassador Wendy Sherman;

*Neera Tanden (Center for American Progress);

*Rep. Alicia Reece (D-Ohio State);

*Carol Browner (Former EPA head);

*Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois);

*Paul Booth (union leader);

Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, who has endorsed Clinton, will head the committee. The DNC also named Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California; Former Rep. Howard Berman, and a former CEO, Bonnie Schaefer.
— Mark Trahant

#NativeVote16 – Bernie Sanders in Indian Country is a story (someone should tell the media)

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

Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com
## A few days after I wrote this piece, on May 16, ABC News did a story. I stand corrected. 

http://abcnews.go.com/News/bernie-sanders-native-americans/story?id=39142159