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.)
First: Gerrymandering can be defeated. The election districts in Virginia were designed to support incumbents, and especially Republicans. The Atlantic described the “well-documented” Republican operation to gain “control of the mapmaking process in 2010 (and) saw their share of legislative seats steadily grow, even as their actual vote shares decreased. In other words, these maps helped Republicans retain majorities even when they earned substantially fewer votes.”
That changed Tuesday. Voters swamped the supposedly safe districts and Democrats gained significantly. Perhaps even control of the legislature (votes are still be counted and will be recounted in a key race). So turnout beats districts drawn by one side to win. (The definition of gerrymandering.)
Second: Minority parties can win in this election cycle. It’s always tough to run as a third or fourth party candidate in the United States. The deck is stacked. The system is rigged to favor the two established parties. However some twenty-plus self-described Democratic Socialists (ala Bernie Sanders) won on Tuesday, including Denise Joy in Billings, Montana. Joy was elected to the city council.
This could be an interesting trend.
Some states, California and Washington, have top-two primaries. That means a candidate can win even without party affiliation. But in most states — unless the rules change — the biggest opportunity for socialists, independents and Green Party candidates is for offices such as school boards and city councils. Another mechanism that makes it easier for third party candidates is ranked choice voting (where you pick your favorite, second favorite, etc.) Several cities, such as St. Paul, Minnesota, now use that approach. Maine also voted to adopt ranked choice, but has not yet implemented it because of opposition from the legislature (and entrenched parties).
In Arizona, Eve Reyes-Aguirre (Calpolli) is running for the U.S. Senate on the Green Party ticket. She is a co-chair of the Global Indigenous Women’s Caucus and a co–founding Mother of the newly formed World Indigenous Women’s Alliance. She was also a representative at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women for the American Indian Law Alliance- 2015, 2017. Reyes-Aguirre is also running against the two-party system. Her web site says: “The two-party system has allowed wealth inequality to skyrocket to it’s highest point since the 1920’s. Eve is committed to developing an economy that promotes a equal sustainable quality of life for more families through the enactment of a living wage, limitations on corporate tax incentives, and a truly progressive tax structure. We must all be treated equal to live equal.”
That brings to eight the number of Indigenous candidates running for the U.S. House or Senate so far in 2018 election. Three Republicans — Rep. Tom Cole (Choctaw), Oklahoma; Rep. Markwayne Mullin (Cherokee), Oklahoma, former state Sen. Dino Rossi (Tlingit), Washington — and four Democrats — former state NM state Democratic Party chair Deb Haaland (Laguna), Carol Surveyor (Navajo) in Utah, Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols (Cherokee), and J.D. Colbert (Choctaw) in Texas.
Lesson three. This is the “when” to jump and run in 2018 races. So much about politics is timing. Good candidates sometimes, no often, lose because their timing is off. It’s not the right cycle. There are too many headwinds. Barack Obama generated turnout that encouraged Native voters and candidates. The chaos of 2016 with Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump did just the opposite. Turnout was down, especially in Indian Country. But we know most Native American candidates are already outsiders. So we need a little luck. And good timing.
The 2018 election ought to be that. President Trump and his Republican Party have to defend infighting plus legislative failures from healthcare to possibly taxes. And the president’s popularity is only about a 38 percent approval rate. Awful numbers. On top of that, even popular presidents lose midterm elections. Democrats lead in the average of generic polls, 47 percent to 38 percent.
But Indian Country needs more candidates, especially in districts that can be won in this climate.
My top pick: Alaska’s at large district. Several Alaska Natives have challenged Rep. Don Young for this seat over the years, including Willie Hensley (Iñupiaq), Georgianna Lincoln (Athabascan), and Diane Benson (Tlingit). And Young seems invincible. He was first elected in 1973 and is the longest serving member of the House. But, if this is a wave election, then no member of the House is invincible. And, even better, there are some really strong potential Alaska Native candidates.
At one point during the 2016 election cycle (which we now know was not good timing) there were more than a hundred Native American candidates. We need those kind of numbers again. Especially this time around. There are more than 62 Native Americans serving in state legislatures around the country and many of those will be running for re-election.
So that brings me back to rule 3, part A. It’s my favorite rule in politics because it’s so simple: You gotta run to win.
New Mexico congressional candidate Debra Haaland is criss-crossing Indian Country determined to get her name out there — and to raise enough money to be competitive. She began in Milwaukee at the National Congress of American Indians annual convention and she ends the week in Anchorage at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention.
Politics is a tough business. Most Native American candidates cannot dip into their personal wealth to run for office (at least the Democrats). It’s raising money five bucks at a time. A good haul is when someone writes a check with more than one zero. Yet it’s hard to understate how important that money hunt is to a campaign. Haaland, unlike most Native American Democrats, is running in a district with a lot of other Democrats. That means she has an excellent shot at capturing a seat in Congress — the first Native American woman to do that — but first she must win a crowded primary. Haaland is Laguna Pueblo.
A Thursday night fundraiser in Anchorage was typical. It was much more of an introduction than a call for hard cash. That’s important. It was great to hear stories. We need that in politics. But it will take money, too. If we really want to see more Native Americans in Congress, thousands of five-plus dollar donations will make all the difference.
At that event one of the most touching moments was when Diane Benson, who ran for Congress in Alaska against Rep. Don Young, talked about why she ran. Her son had been injured in the military and yet politicians were making war and peace decisions without an understanding of the consequences. Benson is Tlingit.
I have been collecting information about Congress and Native American representation. And, it turns out, I was wrong about the actual numbers. I checked this morning and according to the House of Representatives historian since March 4, 1789, there have been 10,273 people elected to that body. (I was using a smaller number.) There has never been a Native American woman. Ever.
This is my “I am wrong post” because I also was missing an important name, Georgianna Lincoln, from my list of Native women who have run for Congress. Lincoln, a former state Senator, is Athabaskan, and she also ran against Rep. Young in Alaska.
So here is my list, starting in 1988, Jeanne Givens, a Couer d’Alene tribal member in Idaho was the first. Then Lincoln in Alaska, Ada Deer, Menominee, in Wisconsin, Kalyn Free, Choctaw, in Oklahoma, Diane Benson, Tlingit, in Alaska, and Denise Juneau, Mandan Hidatsa Arikara, in Montana. Three Native women have run in the Democratic primary in Arizona: Mary Kim Titla, White Mountain Apache, Arizona Rep. Wenona Benally, Navajo, and Victoria Steele, Seneca. And in this election cycle, Carol Surveyor, Navajo, in Utah and Haaland.
I better stick with “at least” because I am sure more names will surface. But the point remains: It’s long past time to elect the first Native American woman to Congress. After 10,273 (add another 435 for next November) elections we need a first. And a second. And more, real representation.
Let’s do the numbers. We have the first round of campaign finance reports out and there are seven Native American candidates for Congress, three Republicans and four Democrats.
And in the money chase, it’s the Republican candidates raising the dough. Former Washington state Sen. Dino Rossi, running in Washington’s 8th, in this quarter reports $578,822. To put that amount in perspective: That’s more than the incumbent, Rep. Markwayne Mullin, and nearly as much as Rep. Tom Cole. Mullin raised $511,017 this quarter. And Cole is at $640,649 (with $1.7 million cash on hand).
Rossi is Tlingit, Mullin is a member of the Cherokee Nation, and Cole is Chickasaw.
On the Democrats’ side the numbers are smaller.
Haaland has raised $262,098 so far in this election cycle. She’s second in the money race in her Albuquerque district. Remember this election is as much about the June primary as it is the general election because it’s a Democratic-leaning district.
Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols, Cherokee, is running against Rep. Mullin. He has yet to file any campaign reports. No reports are listed for Carol Surveyor in Utah and J.D. Colbert in Texas.
I have been avoiding politics. Last year I was consumed by dozens of races across the country, building data bases, checking names, and generally being enthusiastic. Now? Well, this year, I have been absorbed by the Republican plans to rewrite the Affordable Care Act, destroy Medicaid as we know it, and, as a by-catch, sabotage the Indian Health system.
Of course policy and politics are connected. The people we elect are the ones who make the decisions about our health care, our education, how much money the government spends and collects, or whether we’re at war or at peace. Imagine being a Native American politician in the Trump era. It would be an uphill climb to represent constituents as well as being a public advocate for Native people and community.
Labor Day is always the big weekend in politics. In an election year, it’s the date when campaigns really gear up, there is a crunch of about nine weeks until votes are counted. For the 2018 cycle, that marker is still more than a year away. Yet late summer is when candidates are recruited, a few take the plunge, and those who say yes, build campaign organizations and raise money.
There is a lot to report about American Indian and Alaska Native candidates.
Starting in Alaska where Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott are running for re-election. In 2014 Walker and Mallott ran a campaign that transcended party politics. Mallott, a Tlingit and former chief executive of Sealaska Corporation, had been the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor until he dropped out to join Walker. This was politics at its best. I remember being at several campaign events, including a couple panels I moderated, and was struck by the similarity of their messages (and more important, their tone) so coming together was good for the polis, a Greek word that means the ideal in a community.
Mallott told Juneau radio station KINY that the pair would again run as an independent team. “What ever we do, we’ll do together,” Mallott said. He said party labels do not come up in their governing plans because they’re more interested in solving problems. Walker and Mallott took office with the state facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis brought on by low oil prices and structural deficits. Mallott called it a slow rolling recession. “We need to put this behind us,” he said, “so Alaska can grow again.”
Walker and Mallott officially filed for re-election on August 21 as independent candidates.
This will be a tough race. Walker and Mallott have raised issues that are not exactly popular, such as reducing the state’s permanent dividend (per capita to you and me) as well as implementing new taxes to pay for government.
There are not that many independents in state governments (or the federal government, for that matter). So it will be interesting to see if Democrats again choose to align with Walker and Mallott. (Alaska’s House is also run by a partnership of Republicans and Democrats working together, while the Senate remains under Republican leadership.)
For their part, Republicans are operating as if the Democrats will field a candidate (one name tossed about is former Sen. Mark Begich). The state’s party chair, Tuckerman Babcock told KTOO television that “from our perspective, having two Democrats running is a good thing.”
Walker and Mallott have a track record. If nothing else (and there is a lot more) they can be proud of expanding health care access in Alaska through Medicaid expansion. This program opened up health insurance to at least 35,000 additional Alaskans and improved the funding stream for the Alaska Native health system. The uninsured rate in the state dropped from 18.9 percent to 11.7 percent. A success story all around.
Kelly Zunie is running for the Republican nomination for New Mexico’s lieutenant governor. She is a member of the Zuni Pueblo and served as Cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department for nearly three years.
Her campaign Facebook page said: “Zunie is committed to meeting the needs of New Mexico’s private sector business owners to improve capacity to expand and the workforce. Zunie will also focus on the safety of New Mexico’s children and families.”
On the Democratic side, Debra Haaland is running for New Mexico’s first congressional district. (Previous: Pueblo woman. Mom. Gourmet cook … candidate for Congress.) Haaland previously has been a Democratic nominee for Lt. Gov. and served as the state’s party chair. Now she’s running in a contested primary for the state’s most urban district (and only a little more than 3.5 percent Native American). She’s a member of the Laguna Pueblo.
The key to winning this race is building up enough financial resources and early ballot strength to win the primary. Haaland has already raised more than $150,000, including significant sums from Indian Country contributors. Joe Monahan’s New Mexico political blog put it this way: “Something a bit historic is happening in the early going in the Dem race for Congress. Large sums of money from Native America tribes and pueblos here and outside the state is starting to flow to Haaland, who would be the first Native American woman ever elected to the US House.”
And in Utah, Carol Surveyor is running for the House in that state’s second congressional district. Surveyor is Navajo and a political organizer, co-founder of Utah League of Native American Voters. Surveyor told Enviro News Utah that it’s about time a Native American woman served in Congress. “Women of color are often overlooked in their opinions, their views, their leadership, and so forth,” she said. “Native Americans have traditionally been overlooked and forgotten in this country, women in native communities are traditionally matriarchal. Yet, there have been many native women who have run for public office. In the past, there are native women who have run for federal office, but unsuccessfully. Again, I think this is because politics is still viewed as a men’s game. My remark about “it is time,” refers to changing the game, and what better way to change the entire game than by electing a Native woman? Doing so would be a shift in the way many people the world over see the U.S., how many people see U.S. politics in this country, and it would show how progressives in the U.S. recognize and understand the forgotten voices. I am a forgotten voice.”
The web site, Indianz.com, posted a story that said J.D. Colbert, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, is running for the 3rd Congressional District in Texas. “Voters there haven’t elected a Democrat there in 50 years but the banker and business leader is counting on a shift in demographics to send him to Washington, D.C. ‘America is in the crucible of seismic demographic transition. The impending death of the White majority and the rise of a more diverse New America is the fundamental cause of divided America and is the basis of the divisive cultural wars,’ said Colbert, who is also a descendant of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.”
Now another Cherokee Nation tribal member, Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols is challenging Mullin. (This would be a first if both win primary contests: Tribal members on both sides of a congressional ballot.) Nichols is running as a Democrat.
Nichols told the Tahlequah Daily Press that he’s running because of the dysfunction in Washington. “I’m accustomed to operating in a nonpartisan environment where ideas and practical considerations are the focus of discussions,” he said. “As the mayor of a small town, you have to look your constituents in the eye every day. That’s kept me grounded and reminded me there are real people affected by every decision I make, to never lose sight of that, and to make certain I stay connected with them and never forget whom I work for. That isn’t a political party.”
Nichols is a political science instructor at Northeastern State University and has worked as an information technology officer for a tribe and a school district.
That’s it. We’re off and running. More politics ahead. Watch for the hashtag, #NativeVote18.
“… Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee,” Donald J. Trump said. “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned, totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, OK? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”
The press is unfair to people who march at a neo-Nazi, white supremacists event?
Republicans, Democrats, corporate leaders, religious leaders, world leaders, Democrats, you name it, a broad coalition of humanity said the same thing. Hell. No.
“No, not the same,” tweeted Mitt Romney. “One side is racist, bigoted, Nazi. The other opposes racism and bigotry. Morally different universes.”
Trump lost what was left of his ability to govern. An example of that was the topic that the New York City press conference was supposed to be about, infrastructure spending. This is an idea that ought to have broad support. Not any more. Few words about the plan were reported and anything that has a Trump label is now politically toxic.
The question now is how fast will the Trump administration crumble? When will people resign in good conscience? How quickly will Congress act to limit or remove some executive powers?
There are clues. And the record is mixed. Many state governments over the years have reached that point of chaos.
One of the most controversial examples is Maine’s Gov. Paul LePage, R for Racist as well as Republican. He has continued his term in office despite calling people of color and of Hispanic origin as “the enemy.” And the tribes in Maine have often been targets of the governor. The Bangor Daily News asked: “What has gone so wrong?”
“Given colonial-era history between Maine’s Native Americans and European settlers, it would be reckless to say that relations between the tribes and the state are at an all-time low but there’s no question that problems of historic proportions exist,” wrote Christopher Cousins. “In May 2015, two of Maine’s four tribes withdrew their representatives from the Legislature after a years of clashes, culminating with Gov. Paul LePage’s cancellation of his own four-year-old executive order in April 2015 that said the tribes would be consulted on state decisions that affect them … ‘We have gotten on our knees for the last time,’ Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Nation, said on that historic day. ‘From here on out, we are a self-governing organization focused on a self-determining path.'”
In Arizona, Evan Mecham who ran for governor four times before hitting the winning combination, lasted a little more than a year before being impeached. He said working women are responsible for divorce, there was nothing wrong with calling black children, “pickaninnies,” and said Martin Luther King Jr. “didn’t deserve” a holiday. And his critics were a few dissident Democrats and a band of homosexuals. Mecham sort of ran up the score: Six felony indictments by a grand jury and impeachment proceedings, a recall, impeachment by the state House followed by a conviction in the Senate in April 1988.
Another governor who was tossed out over racial divisions was Oklahoma’s John Calloway Walton. A 1956 book called Walton’s election “a revolution.” He was a socialist and his primary target was the Ku Klux Klan.
“Within a few months, the State House in such an imbroglio that the word “revolution” is indeed an excellent choice,”according to The Chronicles of Oklahoma. “The capitol building became an armed fortress; and in fact, it had the outward semblance of a military strong point. The test of power between the Chief Executive and the Legislative Branch that ensued would seem incredible if it were not within the memory of many of us.”
Walton kept the legislature from meeting, declaring martial law, but that did not work. “Knowing he was in dire straits, the governor called a special session to create an anti-Klan bill, but the legislature claimed they would consider that after investigating the governor,” the Oklahoma Historical Society said. “Walton offered to resign in exchange for strong laws against the invisible empire, but again the legislators rebuffed him.”
There is an interesting connection between Walton and yesterday’s election in Alabama. Oklahoma legislators wanted to prevent a candidate from winning a crowded primary (as Walton had done) and so required a majority. That’s why there will be another primary between former state Supreme Court justice Roy Moore and Sen. Luther Strange. Ten states have such a system.
Another fall out from Trump’s press conference is that the removal of civil war memorials will move to the top of the debate.
Members of the American Indian Caucus in the Montana Legislature called for the removal of a Confederate memorial in Helena. “Today, we must recognize the fact that the Confederacy and its symbolism has stood for segregation, secession, and slavery,” said a letter from state lawmakers Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula; Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Rocky Boy; Rep. Bridget Smith, D-Wolf Point; Rep. George Kipp III, D-Heart Butte; Rep. Susan Webber, D-Browning; Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency; Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer, and Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby. “The Confederate flag was even used by the Dixiecrats, a segregationist political party of the 1940s. The flag continues to serve as an emblem for racism and racial inequality for domestic terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other white nationalist organizations.”
The Southern Law Poverty Center reports there are at least 1,503 symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces, and at least 109 public schools named for prominent Confederates. “There is nothing remotely comparable in the North to honor the winning side of the Civil War,” the Southern Law Poverty Center said. One proof of that: How many schools (or monuments) are standing for Ely Parker?
Parker, a Seneca, drafted the documents that spelled out the surrender to be signed by General Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865. “I am glad to see one real American here,” Lee said while shaking his hand. Lt. Col. Parker responded: “We are all Americans.”
Parker had another concern at the time, compassion. He wrote: “Generals Grant and Lee talked over the surrender then Lee rose and said, “General Grant I want to ask you something. If our positions were reversed I would grant it to you. My men are starving and I would ask if you would give them rations.” Grant asked, “How many men have you got?” “About twenty thousand,” said General Lee. General Grant came over to me then and told me to make out an order for rations for thirty thousand. He knew – he did not propose to have anyone suffer.”
Then Parker represents the complexity of the Native American experience in America. He became an officer because he could not practice law because only white men were admitted to the bar. So he became an engineer, later a military officer and a general, and still later, the first American Indian to represent the United States as head the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In that post he took on corruption. And, basically lost. Congress held hearings, blamed him for every problem at the BIA, and took away much of his authority making him a figurehead. As historian James Ring Adams wrote in American Indian Magazine: “He was an architect of Grant’s ‘Peace Policy,’ which ended Red Cloud’s War by accepting all of the Oglala Lakota’s terms. But Parker ran afoul of philanthropists who wanted to control Indian policy through their domination of the Board of Indian Commissioners. His enemies provoked a wearing Congressional hearing into his work. Even though he was exonerated of any criminality, Parker resigned in 1871. In later years, he expressed hurt that Grant had not supported him.”
Of course the BIA is an agency that Donald Trump still hasn’t picked anyone to lead. Then, why should anyone take that job now? This presidency is over.
James Singer will run for the United States Senate in Utah. He’s the first Native American to run in 2018 elections. Singer is a member of the Navajo Nation. He’s also the first candidate to cite Standing Rock as the answer to the question, “why run?”
“This past year has marked an awakening for Indigenous Peoples,” Singer said on his web site, Singer for Senate. “At the center has been the struggle at Standing Rock, North Dakota against the Dakota Access Pipeline. I was moved to action as I saw my Native sisters and brothers stand against an encroachment which threatened not only their inherent sovereignty, but also their humanity. These water protectors were pummeled with rubber bullets, sprayed with powerful water cannons in freezing temperatures, attacked with dogs, and shot with pepper spray, while bulldozers cleared away sacred land and burial sites so that a pipeline could be pushed through. The love of money by a small, but powerful few, is sickening to the rest of Americans, regardless of political affiliation.”
Singer has already filed his paperwork, but the official announcement will be made at the Glendale Public Library in Salt Lake City on May 2. Singer is from Kearns, Utah, and currently resides in Salt Lake City. He teaches sociology at Westminster College and Salt Lake Community College and is currently in the sociology doctoral program at Utah State University. More about his background here.
According to his web site: “The Singer for Senate campaign stands alone as not only a representation of Native voices in Utah, where James is the first Diné (Navajo) candidate in the state, but also a departure from the grip of establishment politics as a social democrat.”
This is an interesting idea because it raises questions about the next generation and the rise of a new kind of politics. Imagine: Running for office in Utah on the issues of Standing Rock, and therefore climate change, the excesses of capitalism, gender inequality, and “a vision to live more sustainably.”
And 2018 will not be an ordinary election. Even in Utah. Sen. Orrin Hatch has already raised $1.3 million for his re-election effort but he may not run. Hatch is 83 years old. There have been several other Republicans who are considering campaigns, including former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. It’s also possible that Evan McMullin, a former CIA agent who ran for president as an independent, could run again as a conservative independent.
It’s way too early to say this, but what the heck, a three-way race would be the ideal outcome for Singer because it could split the conservative votes (Utah is one of the reddest states in the country) and open up a path for a different kind of politician.
It’s also true that Utah’s demographics are changing. Recent census data show that nearly four out of every 10 new Utah residents are from a racial or ethnic group. And Salt Lake County, the base of Singer’s candidacy, is 27.4 percent minority (accounting for nearly half of the state’s diversity). Another urban county, Weber, is 22.9 percent minority. (One rural county, San Juan, is 53.4 percent Navajo.)
But to win a Senate seat a candidate must create a much broader coalition. “I have lived in Utah nearly my entire life,” Singer says. “I know our values: We work hard. We want safe communities and to have enough to provide for our families, whatever they look like. We want people to be treated fairly and justly. We want to be able to better our lives. Our hearts ache to see suffering. We have a spirit of service and giving that is unmatched. We want to help those in need and share when we are prospering. There are so many things that we share in common.”
The Singer campaign is asking for small donations of $27 to fund their campaign. (Six years ago Hatch spent nearly $12 million for his re-election. Hatch has been in office since 1977.)
Former Montana State Sen. Carol Juneau once said that she considered state office because that’s where she could make a difference. (She is a member of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Tribe but was living in the Blackfeet Nation). The year was 1998. She was first appointed to the legislature to replace a man who left office to take up a seat on the Blackfeet Tribal Council and then she became one of two Native American members of the Montana House of Representatives. In February of 1999 she made the case to the House Democratic Caucus that Montana’s American Indians ought to have better representation, because tribal people “are citizens of the state of Montana, the same as any other citizens. I’d like to see that Indian people and Indian tribes in Montana aren’t left outside of everything.”
Today Native Montanans are not left out.
The state has the most Native Americans elected as legislators in the country, three members of the Senate and six members of the House. More than that: Montana has elected more women than any other state: Four of the nine legislators.
And though she is not currently in office, Denise Juneau (Carol’s daughter) was the only Native American woman to ever win a state constitutional office, she served two terms as the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, as well as a congressional candidate.
The Montana story has a national application, too. A higher percentage of Native American women serve in state legislatures than do women nationally.
Women make up about 25 percent of state legislatures. But a little more than 40 percent of all American Indian and Alaska Native legislators are female. The numbers break down this way: There are at least 67 Native American legislators out of 7,383 seats in 50 states or nearly one percent. (If you think that’s bad: Congress only has Native representation pegged at one-third of one percent.) Of those 67 seats, at least 25 of them are held by Native American women. So another way to look at the data: There are 1,800 legislative seats held by women; that works out to a Native representation of 1.4 percent.
There is still a long way to go to reach parity with the population, but it’s much better than just about any other category in the body politic. For example: A recent report by the Bureau of Indian Affairs shows more than 570 elected tribal leaders and, in that group, just under 25 percent are women.
The Native delegation in Minnesota is eighty percent female; its own caucus. (You could even argue that women are 100 percent of the delegation because the other tribal member in the legislature, Republican Rep. Steve Green, is White Earth Ojibwe, but he rarely champions or mentions tribal issues.)
A recent article in the Minnesota Post was headlined, “Something new for the Minnesota Legislature: A caucus of first Minnesotans.” Rep. Susan Allen, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, was first elected in a special election. “Before Allen was elected in 2012, only nine legislators in state history who self-identified as American Indian served in the Legislature — all men — and most of them were elected back when Minnesota was still considered a territory,” the Post said.
Allen told the Post: “You can be a part of an institution that is predominantly white and not have to lose your identity. I can be here without having to lose my identity to do it, and previous generations, I don’t think they had that.”
The Post explained several reasons why it’s so important for a legislature to hear from Native American legislators and for those elected representatives to keep an eye out for bills that impact the Native community.
One anecdote in particular was powerful. The Post said Rep. Mary Kunesh-Poden, a Standing Rock descendent, was giving American Indian students a tour of the Capitol. She could see they were overwhelmed. “I said, come back again and again and bring other Natives to the Capitol so that you’re not nervous, so that you’re not intimidated, so that some day you’ll be sitting in this office doing the work that we’re doing,” she said in the Post. “You could almost see the light bulb go off in their head: I could do this?”
Arizona is another state where most of the Native delegation — three out of four — are women. This fits Arizona. Its legislature is third in the nation for the highest percentage of women at nearly 40 percent.
New Mexico is the only state where the male-female balance is 50/50. And five states, Idaho, Kansas, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming, have only a woman representing Native Americans in the legislature. Conversely, Colorado, North Carolina, and North Dakota have only one Native American man serving in the legislature. Alaska (88 percent) and Oklahoma (86 percent) are primarily represented by men. South Dakota has three American Indian men in the legislature and no women.
Idaho’s Rep. Paulette Jordan, Couer d’Alene, is not only the only Native American in the legislature, she’s the only Democrat elected north of Boise. She told the Spokane Spokesman Review: “How can we continue to fight for balance in the state, with the overwhelming odds?That’s part of the beauty of our connection to our ancestors. We know that they’re always walking with us, guiding us and helping us in this lifetime … the fact that we’re still here – we still have the beauty, the inner identity, our connection to everything, to the land, to the earth itself, to our relatives both tribal and non-tribal alike.”
I don’t have the total numbers for Native Americans elected at the city and county level. Yet. (Early drafts of spreadsheets are here and here. Please do let me know who should be on these lists.)
But this much is clear: Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, currently represents more citizens than any Native woman in America (more than 90,000 people live in her North Seattle district). She was elected to Seattle’s City Council in November of 2015. In an interview with the Tacoma Art Museum she talked about her idea about the role of women: “While men were in charge of external power, women had interior, spiritual, and domestic power. They were the centers of the community.” That’s exactly how she’s approached her job on the council. She’s argued for community services from sidewalks to child car. On Juarez’ blog she reports: “In this budget I advocated for and secured $4.4 million in targeted investments in our community including improvements in human services, construction of sidewalks, and neighborhood planning initiatives. Ultimately, I achieved a 94% success rate for my specific District 5 budget priorities.”
Denise Juneau, of course, is the only Native American woman to hold statewide office (twice). She actually earned thousands of more votes from Montanans than did Barack Obama in 2012. (Previously: Denise Juneau’s eight years of promise.) She had a remarkable run even though last year fell short of being the first Native woman to ever win a seat in Congress.
In addition to Juneau, at least seven Native American women have run for Congress starting in 1988. Jeanne Givens, a Couer d’Alene tribal member in Idaho was the first. Then Ada Deer, Menominee, in Wisconsin, Kalyn Free, Choctaw, in Oklahoma, and Diane Benson, Tlingit, in Alaska, Three Native women have run in Arizona: Mary Kim Titla, White Mountain Apache, Arizona Rep. Wenona Benally, Navajo, and Victoria Steele, Seneca.
It’s so long past the time to erase that phrase, “ever” or for that matter, “the first” when it comes to Native women in office. And I suspect the 2018 elections will be a remarkable opportunity for more Native Americans to win office. It will be a referendum on President Donald J. Trump and his policies.
It’s also worth noting that Native American women have run for the vice presidency three times.
LaDonna Harris, Comanche, was on the ticket with Barry Commoner for the Citizen Party in 1980 (the year of Ronald Reagan’s landslide). This was Bernie Sanders before Bernie Sanders. The party highlighted the structural limits of the Democratic Party and blamed corporate America for the excess. The antidote was people power.
What’s interesting about the campaign now is that Commoner and Harris focused on environmental issues (long before the words global warming or climate change were in public discourse). Get this: The Citizens Party platform cited the role of science in managing complex environmental challenges.
“As a Comanche woman fighter, I’m proud to be a part of this party,” Harris said. “The traditions of my people have always held to the unity of the oppressed. That is why I want to show that we care about the problems of Chicanos, the Blacks, women, the elderly and the poor.”
Winona LaDuke, White Earth Ojibwe, joined Ralph Nader on the Green Party Ticket in 2000 and again in 2004. When LaDuke announced her candidacy she was asked whether a Native woman from rural Minnesota should even be considered? “I would argue yes,” she said. “In fact, I would question the inverse. Can men of privilege … who do not feel the impact of policies on forests, children or their ability to breast-feed children … actually have the compassion to make policy that is reflective of the interests of others? At this point, I think not.”
A quick update. So a reader points out that I really ought to include Debora Juarez in this list (and in the broader review of Native women in office). And it’s a spot on suggestion.
So I have added Juarez and a couple of county commissioners I know about … but there should be more. Please let me know about women serving on city councils, as mayors, county commissions, etc. Montana? South Dakota? Alaska?
Do you know of any Native women who are elected as city and county officials that should be included? Thank you.
I am working on a piece about Native American women who were elected to office at the state (or, I wish, at the federal) level.
I have identified 62 American Indian or Alaska Natives in state legislatures — 25 women (40 percent) and 37 men (60 percent). As a comparison, nationally, women make up just under a quarter of all elected legislative seats. (1,363 members or 24.4 percent). And that means Native American women are 1.834 percent of the women who serve in office.
Also eight Native American women have run for Congress and two have run for the vice presidency.
I am planning a story and an interactive graphic for the weekend. (It’s taking me longer than I planned. I keep getting distracted by the frenetic pace of the Trump administration.
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.
First the news: Montana Democrats hired Amy Croover as director of the Native Vote program. A Democratic Party press release said her task is to increase the number of Native American voters.
The message is significant. Montana Democrats are investing real resources to give American Indian voters a greater say. “As a country and as a state, we’ve moved the needle in the right direction when it comes to our cherished Native American communities and culture, but more work needs to be done,” said Nancy Keenan, executive director of the state’s Democrats.
Croover has a solid resume. She’s a Ho-Chunk tribal member and has worked with Montana tribes. She’s worked with young people at the Salish Kootenai College. And she was Sen. Jon Tester’s Native American liaison for seven years. “I jumped at the chance to be a part of the team that elects Denise Juneau as the first Native American woman to Congress,” Croover said. “I believe that when Democrats govern, Indian Country wins.”
This is a nice turn of the phrase. It’s a flip of what Denise Juneau often says in her stump speech, when Indians vote, Democrats win.
Now the context. At its core politics is about two things: Policy and mechanics. Policy is the ideas, often the stuff that happens after elections; mechanics is how policy gets made.
Another way to think about the difference: Policy is usually what politicians talk about. Mechanics is the work that’s actually done by people whose names we may never know.
Political parties (both Republicans and Democrats) talk a lot about American Indian and Alaska Native policy. President Nixon’s 1970 message that declared an end to termination and the promotion of self-determination was a policy prescription. But the mechanics of that pronouncement was left up to Congress, largely, Forrest Gerard working with Sen. Henry Jackson and Franklin Ducheneaux, who was Rep. Morris Udall’s counsel in the House. The idea was not enough. Someone had to do the work.
It’s the same with elections. It’s one thing to lay out an American Indian policy, most candidates who have an interest in Indian Country do just that, but it’s another step entirely to invest in the mechanics.
This is important because no matter how many of us want to vote for Denise Juneau (or any of the seven other Native federal candidates) that will not happen unless we have registered first. The process is mechanical. Register voters. Then count them. Find out where the numbers could be higher and then register more people. Repeat as often as necessary.
It’s the same step by step process for voting. (I especially like absentee voting because it’s a way to bank and count actual votes.)
And this election is the right one to test the mechanical approach to democracy in Indian Country because there are so many Native candidates on the ballot. The incentives are aligned for people to vote for Denise Juneau as well as Native Democratic candidates for the legislature.
Other states have seen initiatives to improve the mechanics of the Native vote. Two years ago, for example, Sen. Mark Begich made Alaska Native voters a key element of his unsuccessful bid for re-election. But. The thing is. Begich made the election a lot closer than it would have been had he not made the effort. And, his staff work in the many villages probably helped elect Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot. The mechanics paid off.
The most common complaint I hear from Native candidates (especially former candidates who have lost) is that they get no help from their state or national party. That needs to change because in the years to come Indian Country will need more investment in the mechanical side of politics. As the demographics of the nation shift, there will be more and more states and districts where the Native vote will make the difference. But for that to happen, someone has to do the work.
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