#NativeVote16 – The screwy presidential primary season is almost over

Hillary Clinton won the Virgin Island primary on Saturday. How screwy are US elections? Islanders have a vote in the primary, but not one in the general election. (Campaign photo)

Votes that count & those that don’t

Mark Trahant /TrahantReports.com

Hillary Clinton won the Virgin Island primary on Saturday. According to The Washington Post, Clinton may pick up as many as six of the seven delegates from the Virgin Island (plus the five super delegates). Sunday a similar election occurs in Puerto Rico.

But here’s the thing. Neither the Virgin Islands nor Puerto Rico get a vote for president in November. The parties open voting for the primary, but the Constitution gives neither of the two territories any electoral college votes. So this weekend is it, the people’s only chance to have a say.

Does the United States have a screwy presidential election process or what?

Puerto Rico has a slightly smaller population than Indian Country. The Virgin Islands has about 105,000 people and is significantly smaller than the Navajo or Cherokee nations. As I have pointed out: Indian Country ought to have a voice in the primary election. And the parties could make that happen now.

Then, the modern primary system makes no sense.  Especially when you add in the nonsense of a caucus (a neighborhood meeting that limits participation to those who can spend the time) or even worse a “beauty contest” where voters go to the polls and cast ballots that don’t mean anything such as in Washington state. (Previous: Another election day: Who does Indian Country back?)

Part of the problem is that today most voters are independent. Forty percent of us don’t register as a Republican or Democrat. And at the state level there are alternatives that recognize that trend and actually give independent voters more sway.

That will happen Tuesday in California. Sort of.

California’s presidential primary is old school. Voters had to pick a party and register last month in order for their votes to count. It will be too late to make that party preference choice on election day.

So many people will go to the polls expecting to vote for Bernie Sanders. Only some will find out that they are registered as “unaffiliated” or independent and cannot vote in the Democratic Party Primary unless they specifically ask for a Democratic ballot. (Then this might not be a problem because the state reports registration is breaking records. Perhaps voters understand that yes, there is paperwork required in order to vote.) For his part Sanders has raised many of the problems within the Democratic primary, such as the use of elected officials, or super delegates, in the primary process. But the problem, the breakdown, is much larger than just with the Democrats.

But in California’s Senate primary voters are allowed to pick any candidate from any party. It’s called the top-two or a jungle primary. So there are 35 candidates, including 12 Republicans, and yet it’s likely that the top two finishers in that will both be Democrats, Attorney General Kamala Harris and U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Orange.

The problem with the jungle primary is that Republicans will essentially be shut out from now until November, losing a voice. And any democratic system ought to be about making sure that citizens, all citizens, have a say.

One proposed reform gets rid of primaries all together and replaces them with ranked voting or Instant Runoff Voting. This system lets every candidate run during the general election, but allows voters a mechanism for second, third, and additional choices. Critics say the problem with ranked voting is that it’s confusing. Voters must make multiple decisions. But that’s not been the result after actual elections. The city of San Francisco’s instant runoff system increased both voter participation and representation from ethnic groups. (Imagine an IRV system for this presidential year: All of the Republicans who started the campaign would probably still be on the ballot. Same for the Democrats. And, for that matter, the smaller Libertarian and Green parties.)

Perhaps instant runoff is not the solution. But something must change. The United States needs experiments with election methods. There needs to be a transition away from the screwy to something else. No system will be perfect. But any reform ought to at least be fair.

Soon we will also be able to observe what happens in Canada as it begins it reform. Canada’s Liberal Party promised improving election mechanics and Parliament is supposed to consider changes as soon as this December.

The election, more than any other in recent memory, exposed the weakness about how we vote. Some ballots count. Others don’t. It’s not democratic.

And speaking of that: This Tuesday’s election is not the last primary. The District of Columbia will vote next week. And unlike the Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico residents of the District do get to vote for president now and again in November. But vote for a member of Congress? Nope. It’s just one more example about how the machinery of democracy is broken.





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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Please credit: Mark Trahant / Trahantreports.com


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

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

Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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## A few days after I wrote this piece, on May 16, ABC News did a story. I stand corrected. 




#NativeVote16 – How does a country with a rigged, two-party system, reinvent itself as a multiparty democracy?


Independent voters are the majority, yet party rules limit participation in primary elections

Mark Trahant


There are a lot of failed political campaigns taking hard looks at what went wrong. Why, they ask, did Donald Trump walk away with the Republican nomination for President? What happened to the contested convention? Or the mainstream alternative that surfaced at just the right moment, where was this year’s Mitt Romney?

And those same questions are being asked about journalism. What did we get wrong? Are we too concerned about the horserace and not enough on the content of the campaigns?

The New York Times put it this way today:

But in the end, you have to point the finger at national political journalism, which has too often lost sight of its primary directives in this election season: to help readers and viewers make sense of the presidential chaos; to reduce the confusion, not add to it; to resist the urge to put ratings, clicks and ad sales above the imperative of getting it right.

I have not written a lot about the presidential primary process, choosing instead to focus most of my material on the many races where Native Americans are running for Congress or for seats in state legislatures. But I am not silent either. I did write a bit about the presidential primaries and for most part avoided the horse race aspect of who’s winning. I did write one piece, though, explaining that I thought the math favored Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. That was back in February and nothing has changed my mind.

I also speculated that this election could see a third-party bid with Paul Ryan on a ticket. That’s still possible although it would probably not involve Ryan. I still worry about a major electoral college fail and worse the implementation of the dysfunctional 12th Amendment with the election determined by the House of Representatives. (Previous: America and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Election.)

But there is a bigger story that needs to be told over and over: The mechanism of democracy is broken.

The nomination of Donald Trump and a likely nomination of Hillary Clinton is evidence that there are at least five major political movements in the United States that ought to be represented by political parties with a fair shot of winning. But we have a system that forces voters to narrow their thinking to two parties.

“The number of independents has continued to grow, as both parties have lost ground among the public,” according to Pew Research.  “Based on surveys conducted this year, 38% describe themselves as independents, up from 32% in 2008 and 30% in 2004. Independents today are more numerous that at any point in the last 70 years.”

So how does a country with a rigged, two-party system, reinvent itself with multiparty democracy?

Screenshot 2016-05-05 10.47.21

There are short-term fixes and long term, Constitutional reforms.

A few reforms that are possible now:

  • Indian Country should have its own primary. We are members of tribal nations that have geographical and political status. We have many more citizens than some of the territories that do have participate in Republican and Democratic primaries. In the Northern Mariana Islands primary, for example, 471 people voted in the Republican Primary and 189 on the Democratic side picking more than a dozen convention delegates.
  • Congress should appoint tribal representatives as Delegates. This could happen with a simple majority vote of the House.
  • Caucus elections are undemocratic and should fade into history. A caucus is hardly better than the smoke-filled rooms it was supposed to replace. Too many people can’t attend because they are working or traveling or ill. Or just what ever. A primary with early voting is far more fair.
  • And as for “Super Delegates?” Just no.
  • Independent voters should be treated as the majority, not just an after thought. This is where the majority is now and as a movement it continues to grow.
  • We need to make voting easier. Ninety-two percent of Americans own cell phones. It would be much easier to design a system around that fact, even adding in alternatives for those without phone service, than sticking with a voting apparatus that was built for another time.
  • This is a simple reform. If a political party wants a closed primary, then it should pay for it. If taxpayers are funding any election, it must be open to all voters. I think this principle has worked well In Washington and California with their top-two primary.
  • We need a better path for third parties, that starts with ballot access. Today the Green Party is only on the ballot in 20 states. And the Libertarian Party is in a little stronger shape, but still short of fifty state access. There is also the Constitution Party and it’s on the ballot in nearly 30 states.

It’s impossible to funnel the ideas of a country with 320 million people into two options.

That’s just for starters. Long term we need to rethink the Constitution: The electoral college, the Senate, the role of tribal governments, these are all critical conversations. As I wrote last August: “It’s long past time for Indian Country to have a say in how the government of the United States runs. Why? Because this country cannot be the democracy it purports to be as long as indigenous people do not have a real voice in the political conversation.”

That’s  especially true for Independents, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and Greens. And journalists.

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

#NativeVote16 – Seven Native candidates for Congress




After looking at this week’s campaign finance reports, it’s clear that there are now just seven active Native American candidates for Congress. (Two people I have been following in Arizona have not filed campaign documents or financial reports.)

I will have a new post on Sunday about money, but wanted to post an update about the number of candidates.

Here is my spreadsheet, via Google’s Fusion Tables. The interactive spreadsheet has three functions, a spreadsheet, a tab for individual cards for each candidate, and a map showing the location of each race.



— Mark




#NativeVote16 – Republicans aren’t getting much attention or votes from Indian Country

Screenshot 2016-03-27 07.13.38
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, tells C-SPAN that a Paul Ryan candidacy remains a possibility even if unlikely.


Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Who’s winning Indian Country this presidential election season?

On social media it is an intense debate. Sen. Bernie Sanders supporters point to Iowa, Oklahoma, Michigan, Nevada, and, after this weekend, Washington, Hawaii, and Alaska, as evidence that Natives are “feeling the Bern.” But Hillary Clinton backers can look at results from Nevada and Arizona and make a case for the former Secretary of State. (Yes, you can argue Nevada either way. There is just not enough evidence for a definitive answer.)

But one thing is certain: Indian Country is voting for Democrats. In Arizona’s Apache County, for example, which is mostly Navajo, Clinton had more votes than the entire GOP field; and Sanders nearly doubled the vote tally of first-place Donald Trump.

And that makes sense for two reasons. First, it fits historical patterns where tribal communities favor Democrats by large margins.

And, second, there are distinct policy differences between the two parties at the presidential level.

Sanders has incorporated Native American issues into his stump speech, including full-funding of the Indian Health Service. Unprecedented. Clinton has a track record in Indian Country that goes back a long ways, even before she was a political figure, and her administration would build on the successes of the Obama years.

And the Republican alternative? Chaos. Imagine a government as crazy as the primaries.

We don’t know much about any of the Republican plans for Indian Country. Except these shared themes: Government is bad, Keystone XL pipeline is good, and there would be a new military emphasis on defeating Daeish in Syria and Iraq.

But what if the Republican nominee is not Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or even John Kasich?

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (House photo)

Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole raised the possibility of a Paul Ryan candidacy last week. He said it’s far more likely that one of the three remaining presidential candidates will be nominated, but if there is no consensus, then Ryan would be the logical choice.

“He’s already been vetted, he’s been on a national ticket, millions of people have already voted for him,” Cole said in an interview on C-SPAN. “Frankly, he does represent the kind of vision and values that as a Republican you would want to put forward.”

Ryan is Speaker of the House, and as such, chair of the Republican Convention. The only way he could win the nomination would be in Cleveland after the delegates failed to nominate one of the current candidates. (After the first ballot, delegates are free to wheel-and-deal.) Cole put it this way” “If you can’t win it outright before you get there, I don’t think anybody’s got it in the bag once you arrive. It’ll be very tumultuous. There will be multiple ballots unless somebody’s just literally inches away.”

Cole is a member of Oklahoma’s Chickasaw Tribe and a senior House Republican. (Previous: How a third-party candidate can win one state and the presidency.)

Ryan has proposed a radical rethinking of federal programs, including those that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives. He supports the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and has suggested it would be better to send money to states for Medicaid as a block grant. In 2014 as House Budget Chairman, Ryan published a  full review of federal programs that address poverty. “We need to take a hard look at what the federal government is doing and ask, ‘Is this working?’ This report will help start the conversation. It shows that some programs work; others don’t. And for many of them, we just don’t know.” His idea was to reshape the way government delivers programs and roll them together to save money.

So Ryan’s War on Poverty review lumped Indian Health Service funding in with other social programs. “The IHS was officially established within the Department of Health and Human Services in 1955 (then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare) as part of the Transfer Act. But the federal initiatives designed to increase access to health services for tribal members existed as far back as 1830.” As I wrote at the time, what Ryan calls a “federal initiative,” I call a treaty obligation.

In general, a Ryan presidency would mean substantially less money for federal programs, including those that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives.

However Cole has in the past disputed that grim assessment. He told Indian Country Today Media Network: “This idea that a Ryan budget means cuts in Indian programs is simply not true. We have evidence that while it lowers overall government spending, it also allows us to reprioritize where the money goes. And on the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Interior and Environment, where I sit, there’s a bipartisan commitment to increasing funding in Indian country well beyond what the White House has asked for. We have a lot of people on both sides of the aisle who recognize the Indian country has been historically underfunded.”

Ryan also has a track record for reaching across the aisle and making a deal. The 2013 budget agreement with Washington Sen. Patty Murray provided at least some relief to the harsh budget measures found in the sequester.

Some relief? That’s hardly a winning campaign slogan.

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

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

#NativeVote16 – Six seats Native candidates can win to flip Congress

Screenshot 2016-02-11 07.32.02
Former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas is running for the House of Representatives in Washington’s 5th district. (Campaign photo)


Mark Trahant


Indian Country is a key voting bloc in the Democrat’s campaign to win more House seats. Sort of.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is focusing on 19 seats that the party thinks it can win from Republicans, labeled as the “Red to Blue” campaign. Three of those seats have a signifiant number of Native American voters.

This is good news for Democrats who are competing in these districts because it should mean there will at least be seed money from a national network of donors. (Previous: Trahant Reports on the challenge of funding a congressional campaign.)

The most important seat on the Democrats’ list is Montana where Denise Juneau is challenging Rep. Ryan Zinke. Montana is an ideal state for a Democratic pickup. Montana’s demographics are changing and there will be a lot of ballot and fundraising chaos should the Republicans nominate Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. And, Native Americans already have a good turnout track record during presidential years.

Another House seat on this list is Nevada’s 4th district where former Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, Walker River Paiute, is a candidate. (He still must win a primary.) This district is almost 15 percent Native American.

DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, a New Mexico Democrat, told Politico that “House Democrats are on an offensive and will pick up these seats in 2016, and these effective, hardworking and diverse candidates are the foundation of our success this year.”

In a normal election cycle, a focus on two seats with Native candidates would be a good thing as part of a diversity foundation.

But this year I think Democrats could do more. A lot more. There are congressional districts that could get a huge boost from a strong Native American candidate. One of the best things that the Liberal Party did in its sweep of Canada’s election was recruit strong Aboriginal candidates. (If you want to see how powerful that was in one image, check Adam Scotti’s official picture of Justin Trudeau asking Jody Wilson-Raybould to be the nation’s Attorney General.)

Where this DCCC list most conflicts with the principle of diversity is Arizona 1st congressional district. (Even though it’s already represented by a Democrat, the seat is still a target because it’s expected to be so close). This district is the most Native in the country — more than 22 percent and growing — and it’s time for Native representation. One. Who. Can. Win. The Democrats should be recruiting star candidates from tribal government, academia, or business. In an election cycle where outsiders are being rewarded by voters, this is a “ya’ think?” moment.

Instead Democrats have chosen Tom O’Halleran, a former Republican legislator, turned Democrat. Wonderful. That should excite folks across Indian Country.

Two other districts with Native candidates are not on the list. Probably because they are considered long shots at this point. True. But this will not be a normal election year.

Those districts are Washington’s 5th district where former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas is running again; and Arizona’s 2nd district where Victoria Steele, a Seneca, is polling well but lacks money. Both Steele and Pakootas face primary challengers.

I would add one more seat to any target list: Alaska. Rep. Don Young is vulnerable even if that doesn’t show up in polling. And, like Arizona 1st, it’s time for an Alaska Native to represent Alaska. Democrats should be relentless in their recruiting (and that actually should be easy) and make certain that any candidate has enough money to be competitive. There are so many talented Alaska Natives who could win. (Note to Democrats: Do I need to put a list together for you? Or will you do your homework yourself?) It’s time.

The DCCC says this is only the first list. There will be more down the road. The sooner the better.

In case you are counting: There is a total of six seats where American Indian and Alaska Native voters could make a difference. When the goal is to win 30 seats, that’s not bad.

There has never been an election with more opportunity for Indian Country. Why? Because we are the ultimate outsiders. And in 2016 that’s the winning hand.


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










The politics of leaving coal buried deep in the ground



King County, Washington, called for more studies saying the rail system is “not built to handle the weight of mile-long oil and coal trains. This stresses an already dated infrastructure and increases the risk of potentially catastrophic derailments.” Photo credit: KingCounty.gov




First in a series.

It’s tempting to think of Indian Country as a “singular” voice. The vast majority of Native Americans agree that the United States should live up to its treaty promises. Most of us think that tribes are the best mechanism for governing our lands and people (all the while watching a steady stream of our citizens moving from reservations to cities and towns across America). And, we share a deep respect for the land, Mother Earth. Add it up and it shows that if we all vote together, our voices will represent a powerful bloc.

Except, that is, when we disagree.

That should not be a surprise. The phrase “tribal politics” earns an instant nod from folks who understand that Native people have the same divisions — philosophical, tribal, and familial — that surface in any governing structure. Generations ago this was an easy problem to resolve: Leaders who found themselves in a minority, just left camp, and followed their own way. Today tribal people who have different ideas about the future live and work in the community and use elections to determine the governing coalition.

Perhaps the greatest division within Indian Country is the debate about the environment and the extraction of natural resources. There are Native people on all sides of this question and it’s already an election issue.

Earlier this month the Crow Nation announced that some tribal employees “will have to be furloughed for some time during this quarter.” A Facebook post quoted Chairman Darrin Old Coyote saying that “because of revenues reduced by the Obama’s “War on Coal,” we are faced with a shortfall to our operating budget under the general fund. Our Cabinet Head and Directors are faced with reducing their budget to make it through this quarter. We do have funds out there but, will not be available in time. As a result, there will be wage reductions, and other steps taken to make sure the furlough will not last long.”

Crow is rich with coal — one estimate shows a reserve of 17 billion tons — and it’s the primary source of tribal revenue as well as jobs for more than 13,000 tribal members. Last year Old Coyote told a Senate hearing in Montana: “I simply desire for the Crow Nation to become self-sufficient by developing its own coal resources and to provide basic services for the health, hopes and future of the Crow people. With help from you – our historic treaty ally – in leveling the energy development playing field, we can achieve my vision and both benefit immensely.”

Obama might get the blame, but the coal industry has been collapsing on its own. Its use as an energy source in the United States is being replaced by natural gas which is both cheaper and cleaner. That leaves China as the major market for coal. But China is giving up on coal too. A report by Clark Williams-Derry from the environmental think-tank Sightline sums it up this way: “Many folks still believe that China has an unlimited appetite for coal and that the country’s industries and power plants would be delighted to buy any and all coal we send their way. But in reality, China’s coal consumption peaked in 2013, fell by about 3 percent in 2014, and fell another 4 to 5 percent over the first 11 months of 2015. All told, China’s cutbacks have totaled some 300 million tons per year—the equivalent of one-third of total coal output in the US, the world’s second largest coal producer. So while China still has a huge appetite for coal, the country has slimmed down impressively.”

The sharp decline in the Chinese stock market will likely speed up this trend.

But proponents of coal continue to promote plans that would make it easier for coal to reach Asia. Cloud Peak Energy Company has the option to lease 1.4 billion tons of coal from Crow lands. That company, and the Crow Nation, are investors in two new shipping terminals in Washington state. If completed, this would be the biggest coal export terminal in North America and account for nearly 500 sailings of ships transporting coal to Asia.

Northwest tribes are adamantly opposed to the terminal. Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby told The Seattle Times last week: “Coal is black death … There is no mitigation.” He and other tribal leaders say that the project would be a clear violation of treaty fishing rights. Cladoosby is president of the National Congress of American Indians which in a 2012 resolution called for a full, transparent environmental review.  

Then again, as The Times put it: “Burning coal creates pollution that harms human health and the environment. In addition to particulates, burning coal generates more carbon dioxide emissions than any other fuel, implicated as the number one source of human-caused climate change.”

The politics of coal remain a dividing line in U.S. and tribal politics. The Obama administration has stepped up environmental regulations of coal and just last week the Interior Department announced a review of coal leasing on federal lands.

“Given serious concerns raised about the federal coal program, we’re taking the prudent step to hit pause on approving significant new leases so that decisions about those leases can benefit from the recommendations that come out of the review,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “During this time, companies can continue production activities on the large reserves of recoverable coal they have under lease, and we’ll make accommodations in the event of emergency circumstances to ensure this pause will have no material impact on the nation’s ability to meet its power generation needs. We are undertaking this effort with full consideration of the importance of maintaining reliable and affordable energy for American families and businesses, as well other federal programs and policies.”

This action comes at a moment where there is a worldwide push to leave coal and other carbon-based resources in the ground as a way to hit the UN targets limiting C02 emissions. New data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says nearly 90 percent of the world’s coal is “unburnable.” Coal is considered the most polluting type of fossil fuel.

“The implication is that any fossil fuels that would take us over-budget will have to be left in the ground,” writes Roz Pidcock for CarbonBrief. “Globally this equates to 88 percent of the world’s known coal reserves, 52 percent of gas and 35 percent of oil.”


Source: US Energy Information Administration.

So the tribal bets on coal are coming at a bad time, both in terms of market-prices and meeting international agreements  to reduce emissions. Neither the Congress nor a future president can change this fact. Markets are not going to suddenly come back for coal and the rest of the world has already made a decision about the future of energy.

Of course, the Crow are not the only tribal government or Alaska Native corporation that’s sees a future in coal. The Navajo Nation purchased a coal mine in 2014. And the Tyonek Native Corporation has plans to develop the Chuitna Coal project with the PacRim Coal Company. The village corporation favors the project, while the Tyonek Native village, a tribal government, is opposed because of the mining’s impact on rivers, salmon and the community.

The impact 0f climate change is a huge concern for many tribes. But even before climate change the Northern Cheyenne — also a coal rich tribe — decided on a different route.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Northern Cheyenne demanded that its trustee block leases with Peabody Coal. Then the Northern Cheyenne successfully set higher air quality standards. According to the Bureau of Land Management: “The Tribe became concerned that, because of prevailing wind patterns, air pollution from these massive plants would pollute the Reservation airshed. Under prevailing legal standards, the powerplant was not obliged to minimize such pollution … The Tribe decided to become the first unit of government in the Nation – Federal, state, local or tribal – to voluntarily raise the air quality standard within its territory to the most pristine standard under law. Specifically, the Tribal Council moved to raise the Reservation air quality standard to the highest permitted by law – Class I – a standard which theretofore applied only to National Parks and Wilderness Areas.”

When I was a young reporter, during the late 1970s, I had several interviews with the late Alan Rowland who was then Northern Cheyenne’s chairman. He joked that you cannot breathe money. He said clean air and water were essential to his tribe’ health. Jobs come and go, but not water or air. When I think back, it’s almost as if Rowland saw the challenges of climate change ahead.

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



  • Oil, gas and pipelines
  • What replaces extraction?


Short takes: Republicans debate poverty, State of the Union

 GOP candidates for president gathered in South Carolina last week to talk about poverty in America. It was an event sponsored by the Jack Kemp Foundation. Kemp, who died in 2009, was a quarterback for the San Diego Chargers and the Buffalo Bills. He entered politics running for Congress in 1970 and described himself as a “bleeding heart Conservative.” He was no stranger to Native American issues, at one time promoting a tax-incentive for reservations and Alaska Native villages called “Promise Zones.” His ideas never become law but he did continually raise issues about equality within the Republican Party.

So how are Kemp’s ideas received in today’s conservative era?

Well, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is a huge fan. He helped organize the poverty conversation. In one of his first speeches as Speaker, Ryan said, “There are the millions of people stuck in neutral: 6 million people who have no choice but to work part time, 45 million people living in poverty. Conservatives need to have an answer to this–because we do not write people off in this country. We just don’t.”

The conversation in South Carolina, however, was less inspiring. Candidates promised more of the same bland ideas: Turn more federal programs over to the states (always a problem for tribal governments) as well as rejecting any national increases to minimum wage. And, of course, repeal the Affordable Care Act.

It’s too bad Republicans couldn’t dip into their own history and come up with a program that does meet the needs of Indian Country. There is, after all, a conservative argument that tribes are constitutional governments that would work well with a smaller federal government. That was part of President Richard Nixon’s thinking that helped launch the self-determination era. On top of that: You’d think there would be a better understanding of the constitutional issues regarding Treaty promises. 


TUESDAY is President Barack Obama’s last State of the Union. He will outline his vision for his final year in office. This will be an interesting speech. He’s facing a Republican-controlled Congress, so it’s not likely that any new legislation will be serious. But it will be the ideal time for him to reflect on his two terms in office. Agree or not with his politics, Obama has been remarkably successful. He entered office when the country’s economy was collapsing, the worst crisis since the Great Depression, and fighting two wars. Then Obama has reshaped the health care system, improving the funding for the Indian Health Service, And, he worked with other nations to forge a climate change plan. That’s a lot for nearly 8 years.

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One of the First Lady’s guests at the State of the Union will be Lydia Doza representing the “Generation Indigenous” initiative. The Alaska Native works to get more young women involved in the STEM fields, or, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. One of the cool things she does is teach others how to “code, the tool to write formulas that make computer programs work.

You have to say that Generation Indigenous represents much of this president’s commitment to Indian Country. He really sees an opportunity to improve the lives of young Native Americans and is using the weight of his office to make things happen. Many suspect that this is something that Barack and Michelle Obama will continue to do after they leave the White House.

And that date is coming fast. Next January a new president will take office with new priorities. It will be interesting to see how much of Obama’s initiatives become permanent, such as Indian health funding through the Affordable Care Act to the annual White House government-to-government meeting with tribal leaders. Obama will be gone, but these issues ought to be at least topics during the 2016 campaign from both Democrats and Republicans.

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

#NativeVote16 – How would Republicans fund Indian health


EVERY WORD? Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, voted for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act without presenting an alternative to fund the Indian health system. (Senate photo)

Obama will veto Senate bill, but will next president?


Republicans who serve in the House or the Senate should be asked a simple question: How would you fund the Indian health system? The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, is a mechanism that has added new dollars to many tribal, nonprofit and Indian Health Service clinics and hospitals. So without Obamacare, what’s the alternative?

Thursday night the Senate voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act using the budget reconciliation process. The House will have to agree to the amendments and then it will be sent to President Obama. He’s already promised a veto.

But this is a presidential year. A Republican president would support  this repeal effort. So it’s important to find out just what is the alternative (and not just for the Indian health system) to the Affordable Care Act.

Turns out House Speaker Paul Ryan said it’s time for Republicans to offer an alternative. “When people ask me what’s wrong with the law, I usually say to them, how much time do you have? But if I had to point out one thing, it would be the mandates, the restrictions, all the red tape. How do I know they have failed? You notice we don’t talk about lowering premiums anymore. We’re supposed to be happy if they don’t go up by double digits,” Ryan said Thursday in a speech at the Library of Congress. “There are a lot of other ideas out there, but what all conservatives can agree on is this: We think government should encourage personal responsibility, not replace it. We think prices are going up because people have too few choices, not because they have too many. And we think this problem is so urgent that, next year, we are going to unveil a plan to replace every word of Obamacare.”

Ryan and the Republicans would repeal every word of the law. Even though parts of the law are working really well. Look at the numbers. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Affordable Care Act has resulted in “significant coverage gains. The number of uninsured nonelderly Americans in 2014 was 32 million, a decrease of nearly 9 million since 2013. ”

So any repeal discussion ought to start with that: Would you take away insurance coverage from 9 million people?

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Indian health funding is at risk

Now let’s zoom in on the Indian health system. Senators who are running for re-election in states with large Native American populations should be pressed to present an alternative to fund Indian health.

Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski voted for the repeal (even though she had expressed concerns about the provisions in the bill to strip funding from Planned Parenthood). Yet in her statements on the Senate floor, and in a recent op-ed, the senator explains why she is against the law without so much as a single line about its impact on healthcare for Alaska Natives.

Alaska does have a special problem with the Affordable Care Act because of high premiums. And that’s worth fixing. But Alaska also has much to gain from the law, especially the expansion of Medicaid and new funding streams for the Alaska Native health care system. So the logic must be: In order to fix one problem we should make things worse?

Here are Senators who voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and are up for re-election in states with a significant numbers of Native Americans: Murkowski, Sen. John McCain, Arizona; Ron Johnson, Wisconsin; John Hoeven, North Dakota; James Lankford, Oklahoma; and, John Thune of South Dakota.

The vote Thursday night was absent any discussion of Indian health. It’s as if Republicans hope no one will notice that a million American Indians and Alaska Natives are funded via Medicaid. Or that the Affordable Care Act includes the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. (To be fair: Not everyone would lose Medicaid insurance under the Republican’s repeal but it would result in millions of dollars less for the Indian Health Service budget. Perhaps more important, third-party insurance including Medicaid is funding that remains with the local service unit, clinics and hospitals.)

In an ideal world, Republicans would offer this alternative to Obamacare. They could say the United States will directly fund treaty obligations as an entitlement without requiring insurance or other bureaucratic steps. That would be a real answer.


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

#NativeVote16 – Senate debates stripping funding for Indian health


Congress would strip millions of dollars from the Indian health system


The U.S. Senate is debating a measure this week that would repeal much of the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare). Senate leaders are using a budget process called reconciliation which is important because only 51 “yeas” are required for the bill to pass.

On October 23 the House passed H.R.3762, Restoring Americans’ Healthcare Freedom Reconciliation Act of 2015 that would end the Affordable Care Act budget provisions and “terminate the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which provides for investment in prevention and public health programs to improve health and help restrain the rate of growth in health care costs. Unobligated funds are rescinded.” The bill also says no federal funds can be used to fund Planned Parenthood.

It’s really not news when the House repeals the Affordable Care Act. That body has voted for at least fifty repeals. The Senate has been a different story. A full repeal of the bill would need a supermajority of 60 votes. That’s why Republican leaders are using the reconciliation process (the same process that was used to originally pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010.)

Senator Mitch McConnel (R-KY) photographed at the Capitol on December 2, 2008. Photograph by Karen Ballard (McConnell Senate Photo)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said “Obamacare’s structural failures are … baked into the law, and they only seem to get worse as time moves on. Just as we’ve seen costs rise, choices narrow, and failures mount, we’ve seen congressional Democrats block attempts to start over with real health reform. This week, we finally have a chance to vote to end Obamacare’s cycle of broken promises and failures with just 51 votes.”

The Senate repeal bill will make health care an election issue. Again. The president is certain to veto any bill and then Republicans can say they  delivered on their promise to repeal Obamacare.

The final language of the Senate bill has not been released yet. And once debate begins, the language may change again, as senators will vote on additional amendments. But one provision that will be considered has a direct impact on the Indian health system, the expansion of Medicaid. According to Politico, McConnell’s plan would phase out the expansion of Medicaid over the next two years.

To my way of thinking: Medicaid expansion has been the most successful provision of the Affordable Care Act. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control found that “the number of uninsured persons continued to decline from 2013. In the first 6 months of 2015, 28.5 million persons of all ages (9.0%) were uninsured at the time of interview—7.5 million fewer persons than in 2014 and 16.3 million fewer than in 2013.” The law is working.

The Indian health system has a lot of money at stake in this debate.

First, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act is a chapter in the Affordable Care Act. So a repeal, depending on the language, could end many initiatives funded through that law. Second, the House language (and therefore likely the Senate language) is broad in its scope. It says it would “terminate the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which provides for investment in prevention and public health programs to improve health and help restrain the rate of growth in health care costs. Unobligated funds are rescinded.”  That would include insurance subsidies that make some insurance plans available to Native Americans at no cost. And, third, a rollback of Medicaid expansion would be a huge hit to Indian health funding. More than a million American Indians and Alaska Natives currently receive Medicaid funding.

The Senate bill, like the many House repeal efforts, has no chance of becoming law while President Obama is in the White House. The bill will likely be vetoed minutes after it reaches the president’s desk.

But this repeal effort will be an issue for voters in 2016.

In Alaska, for example, Gov. Bill Walker agreed to agreed to the Medicaid expansion in July. Its early in the program, but some 20,000 Alaskans are in the process of signing up  for the insurance plan and 42,000 are eligible.     Those are potential voters who would lose their health insurance plan should the Republicans repeal the Affordable Care Act. Not to mention the money: The state of Alaska is expected to receive more than a billion dollars (creating some 4,000 jobs) from the program.

The state’s senior senator, Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, would be on the ballot defending her vote for a repeal.

It’s a similar story in Montana. The state Legislature recently agreed to expand Medicaid and 10,000 people have signed up before the program begins next month. Medicaid expansion will be an issue in the House race between Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke and the Democratic challenger Denise Juneau.

Ten Republicans are up for re-election in the Senate representing states where tens of thousands of people have insurance through the Medicaid program.

The extraordinary thing about this new chapter in the debate over health care reform is that opponents of the law are sticking with themes that do not stand up against the data. It’s a fact that fewer Americans are uninsured. It’s a fact that the cost of Medicaid has slowed and that states are spending less under the law. And it’s a fact that the Affordable Care Act has opened new revenue streams to fund the Indian health system.

And the alternative? Republicans say they’ll come up with a new plan in a couple of years. That’s a notion that really ought to be on the ballot.


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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