Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

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Deborah Parker will be a witness to the president’s speech to Congress Tuesday night as the guest of Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore.

A reminder about what’s at stake from Congressional gallery

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

President Donald J. Trump is set to deliver a financial blow to Indian Country. His first budget will propose cuts of at least $54 billion and an amount that he will add to Defense Spending.

The president will check off his promises from the campaign (even those that make no sense), according to Politico.  “He’s doing what he said he was going to do.”

The budget cuts will come on top of already lean federal spending based on the budget deal that Congress made in 2011 resulting in the sequester. The budget specifics have not been released yet, but to give you an idea about how steep these cuts are, the entire Interior Department budget is $14 billion. So to reach the $54 billion total there would have to be federal programs eliminated.

And that math is a problem. “Accounting for the increase in Veterans Administration (VA) funding that Congress has already approved for 2018 and assuming that Congress doesn’t cut funding for the Department of Homeland Security below current levels, the cut to all other non-defense discretionary programs would be 15 percent,” writes Sharon Parrott, a senior fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. ” And if Congress raises homeland security funding above this year’s level, as is likely (news reports indicate the Administration will boost funding for border security), or if Congress raises VA funding further (which is also likely), cuts in other Non-Defense, Domestic areas would have to be even deeper.”

Several reports say the White House is planning a cut of 25 to 30 percent for the Environmental Protection Administration, the State Department, and the Department of Energy. Of course Congress, not the president, has the final word. And there is already problems on that front. Many conservatives are not happy that this budget leaves in tact entitlement programs, such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. What’s more: There are Republicans in the House and Senate who will push back against the steep cuts at the agencies. Basically this represents the White House’s opening bid.

One program the White House wants to wipe out is the Justice Department’s Violence Against Women Act office. That agency funds tribal governments “respond to violent crimes against Indian women, enhance victim safety, and develop education and prevention strategies.”  The program funded 53 domestic violence programs last year at a cost of some $33 million.

Deborah Parker, former vice chair of the Tulalip Tribes, will be in the House gallery for the joint session. She was invited by Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wisconsin, to act as a reminder that the president’s agenda will hurt real people across the country. Parker is an important voice for Native American women on domestic violence issues. She worked tirelessly to get the Violence Against Women Act reauthorized in 2013 and to make sure that Indian Country was included in its provisions. The most controversial part of the law was the recognition of tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians for domestic violence crimes. The number of prosecutions since the law has been enacted remains small as tribes have been slow to incorporate VAWA into tribal codes.

And wiping out the Justice Department program that funds such efforts will only make that transition more difficult. But there are many allies in Congress for the program and there will be a fight to continue funding this effort.

Parker said she was told she was invited by Rep. Moore because she was “tired of how the Trump administration was treating Native Americans, including Native women. The way he’s treated Standing Rock, the way he’s treated women in general.” Rep. Moore wanted a symbolic gesture, inviting a Native American woman to the Joint Session.

And the bad news ahead? “I am going to pray about it. Prayer is what gets us through everything,” Parker said. “I am going to pray for everyone in that room that they open their ears, their minds, their hearts, to the heartbeat of these lives of the nation.”

Parker said “you never know what to expect when you go to DC.” But she plans on talking to every member of Congress who will listen about the issues facing tribal communities. “Show your face. Being present is a big thing, a Native person present and being able to speak with a member. Not everyone knows the issues. But as long as you are there to shake their hand, let them know who you are, and, to remember the indigenous peoples of these lands. That’s a place to start.”

President Trump’s talking points include an “an optimistic vision for the country that crosses the traditional lines of party, race and socioeconomic status.” The president’s speech will “reach out to Americans living in the poorest and most vulnerable communities, and let them know that help is on the way.”

Empty words when the budget cuts the White House is proposing will only make life more difficult for millions of Americans.

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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Minnesota Rep. Peggy Flanagan (DFL-St. Louis Park) at the women’s march. (Campaign photo).

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

A short post for a big week: We should start to see some budget numbers coming out of the White House (as soon as today). Early reports suggest sharp cuts for domestic spending as well as increases for Defense. I’ll update once I see if that framework includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Indian Education, Indian Health Service, and other federal programs that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives.

President Donald J. Trump could also refer to his spending plan in his speech to Congress on Tuesday.

The other big news is the ongoing problems the Republicans are having repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.

An analysis of the Congressional framework for repeal and replace would be a disaster for state governments and millions of Americans would lose coverage.  According to Sarah Kliff writing for Vox:  “The report estimates that coverage declines would be even higher in states that did not expand Medicaid — largely those run by Republican governors. There, the report presents an example of a state with 235,000 in the individual market. It estimates that coverage would decline by 120,000 people, about 50 percent.”

The presentation did not address the Indian health system. But the slides do make the case against converting Medicaid into a block grant program because states would have less federal funding when the need is greatest (such as during a recession). Remember states are partners with the federal government in Medicaid, but patients in the Indian health system are funded by a federal reimbursement. So this is a critical debate.

I want to come back to this theme later: But Indian Country has a solution. At least for now. Every proposal to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act will take time. So for now. Right now. There should be a renewed push to enroll Indian Health patients (who don’t already have insurance) in Medicaid or the Bronze Plan from a state or federal insurance exchange. The exchange plan is free. This health insurance coverage should be good for a least a year. This is money that a Trump budget cannot strip from the Indian Health system.

And the week starts off with the Democratic National Committee having new leadership. Over the weekend Tom Perez was elected chair and he immediately appointed Keith Ellison as his deputy. 

I have read from so many friends on social media who see this contest as a policy debate. It is not. It’s about who will make sure there are candidates running. That those candidates have support and money. And there is a machinery that’s built. The policy debates are down the road.

But this DNC election does mean that Minnesota Rep. Peggy Flanagan (White Earth Ojibwe) won’t be launching a bid for Congress. (Yet.)

(Previous post: Turning fear into fight.)

Flanagan posted on Facebook:  “Earlier today, the DNC elected Tom Perez Chair, to lead the party and I congratulate him on his victory. I also want to applaud our Congressman Keith Ellison for running a strong campaign based on positive ideas for the future of our party.

Obviously, this means that I am not running for Congress now and I’m excited to keep working with Keith to build the movement we need to win and protect victories for real progressive change.

“I will continue to work with you to turn our fear into fight, our emotion into empathy, our sorrow into strategy, and our despair into hope. I am incredibly grateful for all your support. Miigwech (Thank You).”

And she’s right of course. There remains much to do to turn fear into fight. In Congress or not.

 

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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Sen. John McCoy was the sponsor of Washington State legislation to authorize dental health therapy in tribal communities. (Senate photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

We live in odd times. Congress is moving forward with promised legislation that will roll back much of the health care reform enacted during the past eight years. The Trump administration is issuing regulations to do the same. The key here is that President Donald J. Trump and Republicans in Congress have the votes (mostly). But in state capitals there are real debates about public policy. What happens next will be determined by lots of people working together.

The future of the Affordable Care Act is a case in point. Republicans in Congress are eager to ditch the law, but coming up with a replacement or even a fix is a much more difficult task. This is one issue where there are not enough votes in Congress to do anything. Yet.

But in state capitals there is an understanding that a wholesale repeal of the law could be a financial disaster for states that have already expanded Medicaid. So many Republicans at the state level, such as Ohio Gov. John Kaisch, are pushing back. He recently told CNN that that any repeal without addressing Medicaid expansion is a “very, very bad idea.”

But several of the states prefer a real solution, one that doesn’t grab as many headlines, yet would be practical. And that is to continue with current law and then Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price would grant states many more waivers to design the programs the way they want.

This makes more sense than a block grant because it keeps in place the idea that if people are eligible for Medicaid, then it will be funded. Under a block grant scenario, it’s likely the total amount would be capped and people who currently get insurance could lose that.  (Perhaps the most difficult problem is this: How do you protect the states that expanded Medicaid and still add funding to those states that said no?)

This is a huge issue for Indian Country because Medicaid could cover even more of the people who currently use the Indian health system.  (Best of all: Money from insurance is supposed to stay at the local healthcare facility.) States also come out ahead with American Indian and Alaska Native clients because the federal government is obligated to pick up the tab. It’s a 100 percent federal “match.”

This is one of those issues that divide Republicans, especially in Congress. The members who are listening to states understand the problem: What happens when you take away people’s health insurance? The answer is not good. And it’s even life or death for some people because without insurance there will be no medical care for ongoing issues.

This week in Washington state there was a victory for health care reform in Indian Country. The Legislature passed, and Gov. Jay Inslee, signed into law, a measure that opens up the practice of dental health therapy.

Dental health therapists are mid-level providers. They work under the supervision of a dentist and offer routine and preventive services, like dental exams; provide fillings; clean teeth; placing sealants; and perform simple tooth extractions. This law is important because it opens up Medicaid funding to pay for dental care. And it expands access making it much easier for patients to get appointments.

“We have one dentist to see more than 6,000 patients on the Colville Indian Reservation,” said Mel Tonasket, vice-chairman of the Colville Confederated Tribes. “This law will help us hire a dental therapist to make sure our people are getting the oral health care they need.”

Most experts in health care reform argue for increasing value in health care by lowering costs and at the same time improving quality. This is that.

This oral health reform was started a decade ago by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. According to The Kellogg Foundation: Since then “45,000 Alaska Natives now have access to dental care and the dental health aide program has generated 76 full time jobs with a net economic effect of $9.7 million, one-third of which is spent in rural Alaska. Now, as a way to replicate the same dramatic oral healthcare improvements in Alaskan villages, i.e., reduced caries disease, healthier teeth and patient satisfaction with culturally competent care given by home-grown providers, tribes are blazing a trail to bring dental therapy to the lower 48 states as a high-quality, cost-effective strategy to reduce dental care shortages. Washington State is on the leading edge of this movement.”

This is a great example of the principle of lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way. A year ago Swinomish President Brian Cladoosby announced that the tribe was using its sovereign powers to hire a dental health therapist in contradiction to federal and state law. The case was clear that the tribe had the authority even while raising questions about Medicaid funding or licensing. (The American Dental Association was successful getting language into the Affordable Care Act that required state action.) But the state of Washington was reasonable and the result is the new law.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. John McCoy, a member of the Tulalip Tribes. “This is a tribal-based solution that will make a tremendous difference for Native people—especially children,” he said.

According to Kellogg: Dental therapists are now practicing in Minnesota, in addition to Native American communities in Alaska and Washington. They’ll soon be able to practice in Maine and Vermont and on tribal communities in Oregon. Several other states, including Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, North Dakota and Ohio are exploring the potential for dental therapists to significantly improve oral health care for many more children and communities.

So look for more action and more success stories coming from state capitals.

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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GAO calls three federal Indian programs “high risk,” the Indian Health Service, the Bureau of Indian Education and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (GAO video.)

It’s impossible to defy gravity #NativePolicy

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Federal Indian programs have been added to the “high-risk” category by the Government Accountability Office. That designation could not come at a worse time.

The details. This is how the GAO defines its high risk identification: “The federal government is one of the world’s largest and most complex entities: about $3.9 trillion in outlays in fiscal year 2016 funded a broad array of programs and operations. GAO’s high-risk program identifies government operations with greater vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement or the need for transformation to address economy, efficiency, or effectiveness challenges.”

The GAO said it added federal Indian programs to its high risk category because “we have found numerous challenges facing Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education and Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Indian Health Service in administering education and health care services, which put the health and safety of American Indians served by these programs at risk. These challenges included poor conditions at BIE school facilities that endangered students, and inadequate oversight of health care that  hindered IHS’s ability to ensure quality care to Indian communities. In addition, we have reported that BIA mismanages Indian energy resources held in trust and thereby limits opportunities for tribes and their members to use those resources to create economic benefits and improve the well-being of their communities.”

More from the GAO: “Congress recently noted, ‘through treaties, statutes, and historical relations with Indian tribes, the United States has undertaken a unique trust responsibility to protect and support Indian tribes and Indians.’ In light of this unique trust responsibility and concerns about the federal government ineffectively administering Indian education and health care programs and mismanaging Indian energy resources, we are adding these programs as a high-risk issue because they uniquely affect tribal nations and their members.”

The three agencies are lumped together as one in this report, yet the causes of what makes the agencies high risk are considerably different, requiring solutions that go well beyond what the agencies themselves can accomplish.

So let’s break it down.

First: GAO complains that the BIA has a problem quickly approving energy projects. This is Congress’ favorite problem. Congress can’t wait to solve this one by making the approval process faster than filling your car with a tank of gas. But the solutions ahead will also have unintended consequences for the very notion of trust lands, tribal control of energy projects, and the challenge of global warming. What happens when a tribe says, “hell no!” to say, the Keystone XL pipeline? That is a policy question that this Congress has all but answered.

Next the GAO says the Bureau of Indian Education “improves how it manages Indian education … including that Indian Affairs develop a strategic plan for BIE that includes goals and performance measures for how its offices are fulfilling their responsibilities to provide BIE with support; revise Indian Affairs’ strategic workforce plan to ensure that BIA regional offices have an appropriate number of staff with the right skills to support BIE schools in their regions; and develop and implement decision-making procedures for BIE to improve accountability for BIE schools.” My translation: Measure what works. Make better hires (with the right skills). And improve the decision-making process. Easy, right? Only hiring for BIE schools is easier said than done and the decision-making process is complicated by community priorities.

There is another problem at play: Conservative think-tanks have targeted BIE as operating “failing schools” and would replace them with a whacky scheme to create Education Savings Accounts.  (Previous: Day One. Dramatic restructuring of government.) This whole notion is written by people who have no understanding of the geography of Indian Country or the makeup of the Native students. The BIE has unique challenges and there are many, many improvements that could be made. So adding to this discourse a GAO high-risk warning is, well, not helpful.

The third high-risk agency identified by the GAO is the Indian Health Service. The report says: “To help ensure that Indian people receive quality health care, the Secretary of HHS should direct the Director of IHS to take the following two actions: as part of implementing IHS’s quality framework, ensure that agency-wide standards for the quality of care provided in its federally operated facilities are developed and systematically monitor facility performance in meeting these standards over time; and develop contingency and succession plans for replacing key personnel, including area directors.” My translation: Measure what works. Make better hires (with the right skills). And improve the decision-making process. Easy, right? Again, it’s not as if the IHS is not trying to hire people. The problem is funding and a hiring process that is both cumbersome and required by law.

What I don’t get is why the GAO doesn’t see that the IHS mission has changed dramatically. One part of the agency is a funding mechanism, directing resources to tribal, non-profit, and urban health care facilities. The report alludes to that fact with this recommendation: “To help ensure that timely primary care is available and accessible to Indians, IHS should: develop and communicate specific agency-wide standards for wait times in federally-operated facilities, and monitor patient wait times in federally-operated facilities and ensure that corrective actions are taken when standards are not met.” The key phrase here is “federally-operated” because many of the tribal and nonprofit centers have solved this problem. GAO should have said this and focused on what works and why.

Another GAO recommendation about IHS might be the most tone deaf. It says, “we recommend that IHS realign current resources and personnel to increase capacity to deal with enrollment in Medicaid and the exchanges and prepare for increased billing to these payers.”

Clearing my throat here. Umm. Congress is going in exactly the opposite direction. The serious questions — the ones that Congress ought to be answering — are how much will it cost IHS when Medicaid is turned into a block grant? What replaces Medicaid expansion funding at the local unit level? And, will states even fund a federal health care delivery system?

The GAO report makes a big deal about IHS developing a fair method for how it spends money on purchased and referral care. What the report should have said is that Congress is to blame. The problem is not the architecture; it’s the funding. No federal agency. No state agency. Hell, no private medical system spends less than the Indian health system. The real problem here is that it’s impossible to defy gravity.

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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Minnesota Rep. Peggy Flanagan (DFL-St. Louis Park) at the Minnesota women’s march. (Campaign photo).

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Timing is everything in politics — so Minnesota Rep. Peggy Flanagan is wasting no time in her bid for Congress. This week she launched a new web page and her social media links. Flanagan is a member of the White Earth band of Ojibwe and she would be the first Native American woman elected to Congress. (And that’s still a first, as in ever.)

“After Election Day, like many of you, I was in deep mourning and felt afraid. As I’ve had conversations with folks in the community, that sadness and fear have turned into righteous anger and the deep desire to ensure that we do everything we can to stand up to the politics of hate and division,” Flanagan wrote. “It’s time to turn our fear into fight, our emotion into empathy, our sorrow into strategy, our despair into hope.”

To make that happen she will run for Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District seat if Representative Keith Ellison is elected the chair of the Democratic National Committee.

“Now more than ever, we need to stand up for our children, our families, and our communities and draw a circle of protection around the most vulnerable. So, after talking with my family, friends, and members of my community, I’ve decided that if Keith resigns from Congress to serve as chair of the DNC, I will seek the open seat. I have become clear about that.”

And that’s where the timing comes in.

First, Ellison must get elected to the DNC post. That election requires 224 votes to win from the 447 members of the Democratic National Committee. The election could be as soon as the weekend of Feb. 23 during the party’s winter meeting.

Ellison, who represents Minnesota’s 5th district, faces a mix of competing interests within the Democratic Party, including former Labor Secretary Thomas Perez (who has been endorsed by former Vice President Joe Biden). Ellison’s pitch is that he understands the Donald Trump era and he can capture the energy from those who supported Bernie Sanders for president.  “That’s why The Nation enthusiastically endorses Ellison in the contest to lead a DNC that must repurpose itself in order to derail Trump, while at the same time speaking to young voters who won’t settle for anything less than an aggressively progressive opposition party,” the magazine said in an editorial this week.

Another progressive magazine, Mother Jones, put it this way: “Many Democrats underestimated the extent to which Trump’s religious intolerance and ravings about ‘inner cities’ would appeal to broad, largely white swaths of the electorate. Ellison, who built his career battling racist institutions, knew better than to make that mistake.”

Perez has said his focus is on building a party that includes rural areas and red states. He also caused a controversy — at least among some Democrats — when he first admitted that the the primary process was rigged for Hillary Clinton but only to say a few days later that she was the nominee “fair and square.”

Of course Flanagan is a supporter Ellison (long before a potential bid for Congress). And others in Indian Country have also weighed in. Deborah Parker who was a member of the DNC’s Platform Committee on Facebook called Ellison and Flanagan: “A winning team for Indian Country.” And Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II endorsed Ellison last month.

Flanagan is about as prepared as any candidate could be. She’s taught many candidates how to run campaigns and knows how to be effective from messaging to fundraising. “I’ve spent my whole life working for social change as a community organizer and an advocate for children and families,” she writes on her web site.” And I am incredibly grateful that my neighbors trust me to be a voice for them in St. Paul. I go to work to fight for them every day to show them that I will always stand up against the politics of divisiveness, exclusiveness, hatred, and fear. And given the chance, I will do the same in Washington.”

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If there is a special election, Flanagan will likely have competition from other elected leaders in the Minneapolis. However, once again, there’s that timing thing. Flanagan won her legislative seat in a special election and she understand what’s required to win. That’s why she already has her campaign logo, a Flanagan web site, early fundraising link, Twitter feed, and Facebook page. The idea is to be super-competitive — before there is even a race.

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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President Donald J. Trump says the Dakota Access Pipeline is not even controversial. Yet the challenges to that project are taking new form. (Photo via YouTube)

 

Could there be a day, one day, without oil?

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The Trump administration has been in office for less than a month — and already the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline is again proceeding. Company officials say oil will be flowing by June.

Yes, there is a flurry of activity around the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project that has cost more than $3.8 billion to transfer oil from North Dakota to markets in Illinois and beyond.

But every action to build the pipeline is met with many more reactions to stop it. The fight about this pipeline — and the broader issues it represents — is far from over.

Of course some days it does not seem that way. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the final easement for the pipeline to cross under the Missouri River and complete the project. The Corps also withdrew its ongoing environmental review, citing President Donald J. Trump’s executive memorandum. But that begs a huge question for the courts: Can a president do that? Is an order from the president (along with previous environmental findings from the Corps) enough to satisfy the law? That question will be sorted out by the courts.

But there are many other challenges to the pipeline.

A press release from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said if the construction is successful “the tribe will seek to shut the pipeline operations down.” The tribe has also called for a march next month in the nation’s capital.

“Our fight is no longer at the North Dakota site itself,” said tribal chairman Dave Archambault II. “Our fight is with Congress and the Trump administration. Meet us in Washington on March 10.”

In addition there remain water protectors near the construction site itself (as well as a massive cleanup of where people were camping in flood-prone areas).

What’s clear about the “what’s next?” is that the battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline is taking a very different form. And it’s also a new start because there will be many more actions as the administration and oil-related companies move to restart the Keystone XL pipeline, or in Canada, the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

Then President Trump lives in a world where none of this is a big deal. “I don’t even think it was controversial,” he said. “I haven’t had one call.”

Then the White House wasn’t taking calls. So the Center for Investigative Reporting and its Reveal News has created a new phone number to solicit voice mails from the public about what they would tell the president. It’s 510-545-2640. This is your opportunity to sound off.

Another challenge is financial. Many individuals, tribes, cities, and companies are pulling their money from the banks who finance the Dakota Access Pipeline. But that’s really just the beginning of the actions ahead. Rebecca Adamson, founder of First Peoples Worldwide, points out to investors how much capital is lost by companies that operate without consent from the community involved. A cost she has pegged at somewhere between $20 million to $30 million a week when there are operational disruptions. “The time it takes to bring oil and gas projects on-line has doubled over the course of the past decade due to community opposition, creating significant financial loss,” Adamson writes. More investors are learning about that financial risk and even more need to understand  what’s at stake.

“The movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is wreaking financial havoc on the companies and banks involved,” Adamson writes. “In August 2016, Energy Transfer Partners reported ‘it could lose $1.4 billion in a year if delays continue … Even a temporary delay would mean loses of over $430 million.’ ETP is attempting to raise new debt. This could mean that the banks are ramping up pressure on the company to repay their loans out of concern DAPL will never be finished. In November 2016, Energy Transfer Partners announced a merger with sister company Sunoco Logistics in order to raise much needed cash to finish construction. Energy Transfer Partners’ own shareholders are filing a lawsuit to block the merger, alleging conflicts of interest.”

Like I said: The financial challenges are just beginning.

I also have a big idea I want to toss out. One that could have significant financial implications. So we know the project will take some 30 days to complete. And about three weeks to actually transfer oil from North Dakota to the end of the pipeline. (Updated: Company officials told the U.S. District Court that oil could begin flowing in less than four weeks.)

What if on that day, the day the oil reaches markets, there is a Day Without Oil. One day. It take a massive organizational effort. But why not? What if every ally of Standing Rock, every community that has its own Standing Rock, every one who is concerned about water, takes a day off from oil? Either walk every where that day — or just stay home. Do what it takes to remind the companies, and the government itself, who’s really in charge of the economy.

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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Native American media have been quick to jump to the defense of journalist Jenni Monet. She was arrested near Standing Rock last week. But most of the press has been silent about the charges she faces (and the implications for the First Amendment). Photo: Aboriginal People’s Television Network.

Jenni Monet faces criminal trespass and rioting charges

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Jenni Monet, a Native American journalist, was arrested last week while covering Standing Rock. You’d think that would trigger a lot of support from the national and regional news media. 

There is an idea in law enforcement called the “thin blue line.” It basically means that police work together. A call goes out from Morton County and, right or wrong, law enforcement from around the country provides back up.

You would think journalism would be like that too.

When one journalist is threatened, we all are. We cannot do our jobs when we worry about being injured or worse. And when a journalist is arrested? Well, everyone who claims the First Amendment as a framework should object loudly.

Last Wednesday Monet was arrested near Cannonball, North Dakota. She was interviewing water protectors who were setting up a new camp near the Dakota Access Pipeline route on treaty lands of the Great Sioux Nation. Law enforcement from Morton County surrounded the camp and captured everyone within the circle. A press release from the sheriff’s Department puts it this way: “Approximately 76 members of a rogue group of protestors were arrested.”  Most were charged with criminal trespassing and inciting a riot.

As was Monet. She now faces serious charges and the judicial process will go forward. The truth must come out.

But this story is about the failure of journalism institutions.

The Native press and the institutions that carry her work had Monet’s back. That includes Indian Country Media Network, Yes! Magazine, and the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal. In Canada the Aboriginal People’s Television Network reported on the story during its evening news. And, The Los Angeles Times has now weighed as well in with its own story written by Sandy Tolan who’s done some great reporting from Standing Rock. The Native American Journalists Association released a statement immediately: “Yesterday’s unlawful arrest of Native journalist Jenni Monet by Morton County officers is patently illegal and a blatant betrayal of our closely held American values of free speech and a free press,” NAJA President Bryan Pollard said, “Jenni is an accomplished journalist and consummate professional who was covering a story on behalf of Indian Country Today. Unfortunately, this arrest is not unprecedented, and Morton County officials must review their officer training and department policies to ensure that officers are able and empowered to distinguish between protesters and journalists who are in pursuit of truthful reporting.”

Yet in North Dakota you would not know this arrest happened. The press is silent. (UPDATE on Feb. 7: Bismarck Tribune reports on the arrest.)

I have heard from many, many individual journalists. That’s fantastic. But what about the institutions of journalism? There should news stories in print, digital and broadcast. There should be editorials calling out North Dakota for this egregious act. If the institutions let this moment pass, every journalist covering a protest across the country will be at risk of arrest.

After her release from jail, Monet wrote for Indian Country Media Network, “When Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman was charged with the same allegations I now face—criminal trespassing and rioting—her message to the world embraced the First Amendment. ‘There’s a reason why journalism is explicitly protected by the U.S. Constitution,’ she said before a crowd gathered in front of the Morton County courthouse. “Because we’re supposed to be the check and balance on power.”

The funny thing is that journalism institutions were not quick to embrace Goodman either. I have talked to many journalists who see her as an “other” because she practices a different kind of journalism than they do.

Monet’s brand of journalism is rooted in facts and good reporting. She talks to everyone on all sides of the story, including the Morton County Sheriff and North Dakota’s new governor. She also has street cred … and knows how to tell a story. Just listen to her podcast — Still Here — and you will know that to be true.

So if we ever need journalism institutions to rally, it’s now. It’s not Jenni Monet who will be on trial. It’s the First Amendment. Journalism is not a crime. 

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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Announcement of order by Acting Army Secretary was posted on the web site of North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven on Jan. 31. (Screenshot of Senator’s home page.)

Tribe says Corps does not have authority to stop environmental review

 

**Updated Feb. 8, 2017

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Cognitive scientist George Lakoff once described the process for Republican thinking. It’s a set of assumptions built on the idea of a strict father.

He wrote in his classic book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, “The strict father model begins with a set of assumptions: The world is a dangerous place, and always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. The world is also difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right. Therefore they have to be made good.”

Donald J. Trump is the strict father who runs his family — and in this case, the United States — on the model that all he needs to say to defend any action is “because I said so.” The president’s executive memorandum on Standing Rock is exhibit one.

“Today, the Acting Secretary of the Army Robert Speer informed us that he has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with the easement needed to complete the Dakota Access Pipeline,” North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven said in a news release. “This will enable the company to complete the project, which can and will be built with the necessary safety features to protect the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others downstream. Building new energy infrastructure with the latest safeguards and technology is the safest and most environmentally sound way to move energy from where it is produced to where people need it.”

Just like that. The Corps is supposed to walk away from a process already underway, the Environmental Impact Statement and the public comment period that is open until Feb. 20, 2017. (The Army has since announced that it is withdrawing its environmental review and approving the easement immediately.)

This is now a test of the federal courts. Will that institution follow the order of the acting secretary, and the president, or will it insist on the conclusion of the environmental review that’s underway.

First: It’s interesting that th announcement came from a U.S. Senator and not the agency itself.

The Federal Register, the rule book for government, published a plan for the review process on Jan. 18. Yes, there is a new administration, but that does not (or should not) change the rules. The notice, unlike the president’s memorandum, cites the statutory authority for moving forward. This is more than you want to read … but here goes: “This notice is published in accordance with sections 1503.1 and 1506.6 of the CEQ’s Regulations (40 CFR parts 1500-1508) implementing the procedural requirements of NEPA, as amended (42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.), and the Army and Corps’ NEPA implementation policies (32 CFR part 651 and 33 CFR part 230), and exercises the authority delegated to the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) by General Orders No. 2017-1, January 5, 2017.”

Of course this action will also open a new round of litigation. That will be the test of the independence of the federal judiciary. Will federal judges tell the president no? Will litigation even be allowed (strange as those words sound)? The Trump administration and North Dakota certainly hopes not. That process takes too long in a world run by oil gadzillionaires.

A statement by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Tuesday said: “The Army Corps lacks statutory authority to simply stop the EIS and issue the easement. The Corps must review the Presidential Memorandum, notify Congress, and actually grant the easement.We have not received formal notice that the EIS has been suspended or withdrawn. To abandon the EIS would amount to a wholly unexplained and arbitrary change based on the President’s personal views and, potentially, personal investments. We stand ready to fight this battle against corporate interest superseding government procedure and the health and well being of millions of Americans.”

Sen. Hoeven said “we need to bring (this dispute) to a peaceful resolution.” Yet the president’s action, the order by the acting secretary of the Army Corps of Engineers, and the very idea of a strict father shouting, because I said so,” is not how to make a peaceful resolution.

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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Official government portrait of President Donald J. Trump even telling us what to think about the president’s success story. Would that be the riches to riches narrative?  (WhiteHouse.gov photo)

 

America First? How about First American First?

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

How does Indian Country survive the Donald Trump era?

The new administration is only a few days old and already the chaos of the times have upset business as usual. And possibly the very structure of federal-Indian law.

And it’s not just Washington. The North Dakota Legislature in Bismarck acts as if it has permission to ignore the Constitution and precedent in its relationship with tribes. House Concurrent Resolution 3017 calls on Congress to “modify” the reservation system and put the state in charge.

This resolution will last about fifteen minutes if and when legislators put a pencil to what it would actually cost taxpayers. Right now, for example, the federal government picks up the entire tab for Medicaid for American Indian tribal members. Plus add to that the operation of the Indian Health Service. We’re already talking millions of dollars and that’s only one program, health. What’s really driving this is that North Dakota legislators are angry about Standing Rock and greedy for more oil and gas money from the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation. So North Dakota is ready to assume government expenses for Indian Country across the state? Silly, rabbits.

But Indian Country is now a target and so many Trump supporters are emboldened by an administration that does not know how to say no to those who would trample on constitutional rights. This will be true for many who run federal agencies, state governments, oil, gas, and coal producers, and the Congress. In their mind: Indian Country has had it too good for too long. Imagine that.

So what’s Indian Country’s response to the nonsense? Consider these five ideas.

First. Don’t count out the bureaucracy. I first started covering federal Indian policy during the late 1970s. I was in DC and was interviewing someone about a reform project at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a plan that I thought made a lot of sense. But my source smiled and responded, “I have seen them come. I have seen them go.” There are many ways to tie up initiatives — even good ones — through the process of government. President Donald J. Trump’s memoranda might fit into this category. Usually an executive order or a memorandum has a legal framework as part of the document, including citing the statutory authority for the presidential action. On Dakota Access and Keystone that reference has been replaced by the logic of “because I said so.” We shall see.

Second. Ronald Reagan famously said government is not the solution, but the problem. This era might flip that idea around because the federal government’s inaction on such issues as global warming will make it less relevant. The rest of the world, even conservative allies of the Trump White House, are moving ahead on climate action. To pretend that oil, gas, and coal are the future is only a fantasy. There may be a temporary uptick in fossil fuels, but that cannot last. This is an opportunity for tribes to look for new allies outside of the federal government, even globally. The America First policy signals uncertainty in global governance so perhaps the counter should be, First Americans First.

Tribes should work closer with cities, states, private companies, and any global government that’s open to help. The federal government is going to be close to useless for the next four years (unless the Trump infrastructure program happens, and includes Indian Country, but there is no evidence of that yet.) The modern city state, think a Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis or a Phoenix, as the real engines of growth in this country. What’s the best way for tribes to become partners?

Third. Young people aren’t playing by the old rules, either. If the president wants change he should look at what young people are already doing — and that direction is very different than his.

Take driving. The data shows that both Millennials and Gen-Xers have less interest in driving (and fossil fuel consumption) than any generation in modern history. A recent report published by Time found a “huge drop of 47 percentage points in 16-year-olds with drivers’ licenses. For people ages 20 to 24, there’s been a 16 percentage point decrease over the same time span. And for those ages 30 to 34, the decrease has been about 10 percentage points.” Young people say they are too busy. Driving is too expensive. And It’s easy to catch a ride.

The Millennials are now the largest generation in America so that disinterest in driving — and fossil fuel consumption — is a powerful trend. Of course this is not always the same in rural areas, including reservations. But it’s key to fossil fuel consumption. Make that less fossil fuel consumption. And a shrinking demand for pipelines.

Indian Country’s greatest advantage right now is young people, more than 40 percent of our total population (compared to about a third for country as a whole.) We have numbers working in our favor and should look for more ways to leverage that.

Fourth. Don’t count out Republican versus Republican. Right now Republicans in Congress are giving President Trump the benefit of the doubt. They are willing to reverse long held positions (such as free trade) because he’s the leader of their party and he claims to lead a movement. But as the decisions get harder, the act of governing gets more complex, this will evaporate.

There is already evidence of this in the debate about repealing the Affordable Care Act. The idea of getting rid of Obamacare was a unifying force. But there is no consensus about what’s next. Republican governors fear that their state budgets will collapse if Medicaid becomes a block grant with less funding. Insurance CEOs fear their future if the mandate to buy insurance goes away while they are still forced to cover pre-existing conditions. And many Republicans in Congress cling to the idea that health care should be left up to families and government should not be involved or fund it. And Republicans who want to win the election know that stripping heath insurance from millions of people is not a winning hand.

Fifth. Document everything and be transparent. The Trump era is already defined by the wacky claim of alternative facts. The antidote is to respond with hard evidence. We know that zealots are eager to reshape the federal government by shrinking it. So let’s document with that really means. What jobs are lost (and how will those be replaced?) I’ve started a spreadsheet and will update it regularly.  This president has promised a new era of jobs. So lost work in Indian Country is not acceptable.

There are many ways for tribes to survive the Trump era. My main point is that we need to think differently. Usually a new presidential term starts with a president trying to bridge gaps and bring the country together. That’s not been the case from President Trump and so we should expect more of the same in the years ahead. It’s more important than ever to have a strategy, a plan for winning. What will it take? Who are potential allies? And what are alternatives that might work?

And, of course, we must start getting ready for the next election.

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

 

Earthcam image of Women’s March in Washington, DC. Women marched across the globe to send a message to the new president about where the country really stands on issues.

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

President Donald J. Trump’s inauguration weekend: Pomp and circumstance. Pettiness and chaos. Huge crowds of supporters. And even larger crowds from the Women’s March in cities and small towns around the world.

If this is day one, remember there are fourteen hundred and fifty-nine to go.

The size of the marches must have been too much for the president’s ego. His press secretary took stage to denounce the media in an angry tirade.

Off-stage the Trump White House was preparing “dramatic budget cuts,” according to The Hill newspaper. The Hill learned of the cuts because senior White House officials have begun telling agency budget officers to prepare for a restructuring of government.

The plan calls for a reduction of $10.5 trillion in spending over the next decade. Except the Trump plan calls for an increase in military spending meaning that domestic programs would have to take even bigger cuts in order to reach the total. One projection: Agency budgets would be cut by at least 10 percent and overall the size of the federal workforce would shrink by 20 percent.

The framework for these spending cuts was developed by the Heritage Foundation and the House Republican Study Committee.

Heritage recommends deep immediate cuts to reach “primary balance” in the budget the first year of the new administration. (Primary balance does not include net interest.)

The Heritage plan calls for elimination of the Violence Against Women Act funding by the Department of Justice, community policing programs, and legal aid. The conservative think-tank says those programs are a “misuse of federal resources and a distraction from concerns that are truly the province of the federal government.”

Tribal governments receive Justice Department grants both in programs directed at tribes and those that are in the broader category of funding for states and tribes.

The Heritage framework proposes a radical restructuring of Indian education programs. It calls for the creation of Education Savings Accounts for students who attend Bureau of Indian Education Schools. That funding would equal 90 percent of the per pupil funding formula. The idea is that students could use this money at any school, including private ones. “Such an option would provide a lifeline to the 48,000 children currently trapped in BIE schools which have been deemed the ‘worst schools in America.'”

The idea stems from a Heritage Issue Brief on Education by Lindsey Burke. The paper says “it’s appropriate for Congress to seriously consider ways to improve the education offered to Native American children living on or near reservations. Instead of continuing to funnel $830 million per year to schools that are failing to adequately serve these children, funds should be made accessible to parents via an education savings account, enabling families to choose options that work for them and that open the doors of educational opportunity.”

The report doesn’t not address what private alternatives, or even what the public school options, are available in remote reservations communities.
Another radical restructuring plan involves Indian housing programs. The Heritage Blueprint calls for a phasing out of subsidized housing programs over the next decade. “States should determine how and to what extent they will replace these subsidized housing programs with alternatives designed and funded by state and local authorities,” Heritage said.

All Indian housing programs, or what’s left of those programs after budget cuts, would be transferred to the Department of the Interior.

The Heritage Blueprint calls for more tribal authority over fracking, limiting the regulatory oversight by the Department of the Interior or other federal agencies.

The Heritage plan would eliminate the Minority Business Development Agency, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcast. Energy programs that focus on renewable energy and climate change would also be gone.

The Heritage Blueprint does not address appropriations for either the Indian Health Service or the Bureau of Indian Affairs. However The Hill reports one of the architects for the budget is reportedly a former staffer for Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. Paul proposed a budget in 2012 that would eliminate the Bureau of Indian Affairs and slash the Indian Health Service budget by 20 percent.

The Heritage Blueprint does not address Medicaid spending but House conservatives have routinely called for that program to become a block grant for states.

One difference between the Heritage plan and early reports about the Trump transition team is that entitlement programs would not be subject to budget cuts. Yet all of the plans call for more money for military spending. That puts all the burden on domestic programs, an idea that is unlikely to work.

The official Trump budget proposals are expected within 45 days, according to The Hill. That budget would then go to Congress for debate and approval.

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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