The new deal for tribes: Resource extraction & toxic waste (minus the jobs)

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No coal here. The Native Village of Tyonek, Alaska, celebrated the suspension of a project by PacRim Coal. The tribal community is located some 45 miles west of Anchorage. PacRim estimated the project would have mined some 242 million tons of coal. (Trahant file photo)
Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

A couple of years ago a tribal leader showed me an abandoned lumber mill near the village of Tyonek, Alaska. The company promised jobs. And, for a time, for a couple of decades, there were those jobs. But after the resource was consumed, the mill closed, the company disappeared, and the shell of the enterprise remains today.

This same story could be told in tribal communities across North America. Sometimes the resource was timber. Other times gas and oil. Or coal.

The lucky communities were left with a small toxic dump site. More often there was major cleanup work required after (plus a few more jobs). And in the worst case scenario, a Superfund site was left behind requiring government supervision and an even greater restoration effort.

But all along, and in each case, the accompanying idea was that jobs would be a part of the deal.

There would be construction jobs to build the mine, pipeline, or processing plant. Then there would be truck driving jobs moving materials. A few executive jobs (especially in public and community relations) and, of course, the eventual supervision of the cleanup (especially if the tribal government had its own environmental protection agency.)

That was the deal. But it’s one that is no longer true. Now the resource is extracted, pipelines are built, and toxic waste is left behind … while the promised jobs are limited to the initial construction jobs.

The renewed effort to build the Keystone XL pipeline is a classic example of this shift. When President Donald J. Trump signed the executive order to approve the project he promised “thousands of jobs.” That’s true enough for the construction phase, but only 35 employees would be needed to operate the pipeline, according to the State Department report.

Keystone, at least, is prospective jobs. New ones. But the bigger challenge for the Navajo Nation, the Crow Nation and some thirty tribes with coal reserves or power plants is that new deal for resource-based plants and extraction does not create as many jobs.

The numbers are stark.

The U.S. Energy and Employment Outlook 2017 shows that electricity from coal declined 53 percent between 2006 and 2016. Over that same period, electricity from natural gas increased by 33 percent and from solar by 5,000 percent.

Coal is still a major source of energy. But it’s in decline. Coal and natural now gas add up to two-thirds of all electricity generation in the U.S. And that’s expected to remain so until at least 2040 when the market share declines to a little more than half.

But because it’s a market that’s going down it means that tribes that develop coal will not share in the rewards of either major profits or in a spike in jobs.

The only hope for this shrinking industry is to export the coal to other countries (something that will be extremely difficult because so many other nations have already agreed to the Paris climate targets). As Clark Williams-Derry has reported for the Sightline Institute:

“Robust, sustainable Asian coal markets were never a realistic hope for US coal exporters: the transportation costs were too high, the competition too fierce, and the demand too unstable. So the coal industry’s PR flacks may continue to spin tales about endless riches in the Asian coal market, the financials are telling a much more sobering story: that the coal export pipe dream continues to fade away, leaving a bad hangover on the coal industry’s balance sheets and a lingering bad taste in the mouths of coal investors and executives alike.”

On top of all that, Derry-Williams points out that China’s coal consumption has fallen for three consecutive years.

And the international context is that coal is the most polluting of the three types of fossil fuels. More than 80 percent of the world’s known coal reserves need to stay in the ground to meet global warming targets.

There are jobs in the energy field, but, as the Department of Energy report puts it: “Employment in electric power generation now totals 860,869 … (and) the number of jobs is projected to grow by another 7 percent but the majority will be in construction to build and install new renewable energy capacity.”

graph of U.S. net electricity generation and coal production, as explained in the article text

The green economy is taking over. (Trump or no Trump.)

The extractive economy (much like the farm economy a generation ago) reached its peak, probably back in 2014. Oil and gas employed 514,000 people. Today it’s 388,000. Coal and extraction related jobs peaked at 90,000 and now that number is about 53,000.

Then Indian Country’s development of coal (or not) has been the story so far in the Trump era.

Last month Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed a memorandum lifting restrictions on federal coal leasing. He said the “war on coal is over.” Then he quoted Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote saying, “there are no jobs like coal jobs.”

A day later the Northern Cheyenne Tribe filed suit. The tribe said the Interior Department did not consult it prior to lifting the restrictions. “It is alarming and unacceptable for the United States, which has a solemn obligation as the Northern Cheyenne’s trustee, to sign up for many decades of harmful coal mining near and around our homeland without first consulting with our Nation or evaluating the impacts to our Reservation and our residents,” Northern Cheyenne Tribe president L. Jace Killsback said in a news release. There are 426 million tons of coal located near the Northern Cheyenne and on the Crow Nation.

Meanwhile in Alaska, another coal project was put to rest in a tribal community. The village of Tyonek has been opposed to the Chuitna Coal Project. (Previously: Mother of the Earth returns to Tyonek) After a decade of planning, PacRim Coal suspended the project last month because an investor backed out.  The project could be brought back to life. But that’s not likely. Because coal is a losing bet for any investor.

According to Alaska Public Media that meant a joyful celebration in Tyonek.  The president of the village Native Council, Arthur Stanifer said, “What it means for us is our fish will continue to be here for future generations, also our wildlife, like the bears and the moose and the other animals will be secure and they’ll be here. They’ll have a safe place to be.”

And what of the jobs? That’s the hard part. The prospects for extraction-related jobs are about to be hit by even more disruptive forces. For example in the oil fields of North Dakota one of the great paying jobs is truck driving. Moving material back and forth. But already in Europe companies are experimenting and will soon begin the shift to self-driving vehicles. It’s only a matter of time before that trend takes over because it fits the model of efficient capitalism. Self-driving trucks don’t need rest breaks, consume less fuel, and fewer accidents. That same disruption of automation is occurring across the employment spectrum. Jobs that can be done by machines, will be.

So if jobs are no longer part of the equation, does natural resource extraction benefit tribal communities?

The answer ought to include a plan where the United States government and tribes work together to replace these jobs: Retrain workers and invest in the energy sector that’s growing, renewable fuels. But that’s not likely to happen in Trump Era.

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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THE ELECTED: Opening up a channel for discourse about Indian Country’s issues

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Updated interactive version of this graphic, here.  (Trahant Reports)

Native American Republicans include two elected members of Congress; a dozen serving in seven state legislatures

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Indian Country cannot afford to close the door to Republicans in Congress and in state legislatures, especially those Native Americans who have been elected to office and serve as Republicans.

There are two tribal citizens serving in Congress: Representatives Tom Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, and Markwayne Mullin, a member of the Cherokee Nation.

There are at least at least a dozen Native American Republicans serving in state legislatures (compared to 51 Democrats) in seven states. That list includes Alaska Sen. Lyman Hoffmana Democrat, but he caucuses with the Republican majority and now serves as a chair of several committees and sub-committees. Hoffman is Yup’ik. In the Alaska House, Rep. Charisse Millett, Inupiaq, is now her party’s minority leader.

Not all the elected Native American Republicans make tribal issues any sort of priority. Minnesota Rep. Steve Green, for example, does not include tribal membership in his biography or in his campaign literature. Yet his district includes the White Earth Nation.

However most of the Native American Republicans who are elected to office also engage in Native policy issues before state legislatures, including support for enhancing tribal languages, teaching Native history, expanding or limiting tribal jurisdiction, voting rights, and, soon, state measures to shape the next version of health care reform.

One shared trait of the Native Americans who are elected as Republicans is support for fossil fuel energy development. “As a local elected official, I am outraged that Indian Country is prevented from harnessing our own energy resources by ever-increasing regulations,” New Mexico State Representative Sharon Clachischillage said in a Native Americans for Trump promotion. “The Trump Administration will ease restrictions on American energy reserves worth trillions of dollars. Together we will block the bureaucrats holding Native American businesses back and bring new jobs into our communities.”

But even the idea of energy development gets more complicated in Indian Country.  As Sen. Hoffman reports on his biography page: “Every Alaskan deserves affordable energy. As a resource rich state (oil, gas, wind, and tidal), our state should and could, harness all of this energy to benefit all of its citizens. I pledge to continue to work towards reducing the high cost of energy in rural Alaska.” Anyone who’s purchased gas in a village — topping $6 a gallon in Hoffman’s home in Bethel — gets that.

But many of these same communities, especially in rural Alaska, are at the global warming frontline and more money will soon be required to build sea walls, fight more fires, or even relocate entire villages. In his biography, Hoffman only cites the opportunity. “Our backyard is changing opening new ventures, with the thawing of the tundra and the melting of the Arctic ice,” he writes. “It is my intent and my responsibility as your state Senator, to ensure our region participates …”

Then not every Republican even goes that far. Montana Sen. Jason Small, Northern Cheyenne, ran for office against Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, a Crow, to spur reinvestment in coal. Small recently wrote in The Billings Gazette: “Thirty million dollars a year in lost royalties, hundreds of direct jobs lost, thousands of families out of work and out of options, entire towns destroyed, statewide economic ripples, and over $1 trillion dollars in stranded assets, not necessarily because of market forces, but directly attributable to a political agenda. That is what we face in the current and unprecedented assault on reason and Montana’s economy in what has been dubbed ‘the War on Coal.’”

Then market forces will be a test of this notion. Can pro-coal Republicans legislate the revival of the coal industry? Small argued in the piece that “carbon capture and combined cycle technology can solve the global climate challenge posed in part by the world’s more than 7,000 coal-fired power plants.” Coal prices did surge after Trump’s election, at one point topping $110 per metric ton, but have since declined to about $83.50 per ton. Since the election at least one major power plant, the Navajo Generating Station near Page, has been marked for closure in two years. The Arizona utilities that own the generating station say that the low cost of natural gas is their primary reason for closing the plant. That in two words, market forces.

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Waiting for Congress

Most state legislatures are waiting for Congress before taking action before another round of healthcare reform at the state level. And that’s a debate that is still hot. There are three distinct points of view about repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare). The plan by the House leadership (which has not been released yet) is supposed to be designed around tax credits instead of the insurance subsidies that are in the current law. Several of the most conservative members of the House and Senate see that as a new entitlement and have signaled their opposition. A third group of Republican moderates have been working with state governors to preserve Medicaid expansion because that insures some 22 million people (including more than $800 million for the Indian health system).

Rep. Cole is a likely supporter of the plan that emerges from House leadership. That includes a repeal of the Affordable Care Act as well as the Medicaid expansion. He recently told Native America Calling that Oklahoma did not choose to expand Medicaid and that made the system unequal.

However Cole said what ever plan emerges he said the Indian Health Care Improvement Act is a “bedrock” legal authority that must remain. “This legislation was included … purely as ‘vote bait’ to secure Democratic votes and has nothing to do with” the Affordable Care Act,” Cole said. “It is vital and ensures that Native Americans have quality health care available to them and their families. There is no controversy here – it sets the national policy for many programs and services provided by the Indian Health Service.”

A few weeks ago the repeal of the Affordable Care Act seemed like a sure thing. And now? The next week or two could answer that question. And the course that’s picked will have a huge impact on the Indian health system. 

And, over that same time frame, Native American Republicans will be asked to take a stand about deep budget cuts across federal agencies. Several news agencies have reported that the Office of Management and Budget is calling for a $1.3 billion cut at the Interior Department. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke employees that he did look at the budget and is not happy about it, according to Energy & Environment News. “We’re going to fight about it,” Zinke said, “and I think I’m going to win at the end of the day.” E & E News reported that Zinke would engage in a major reorganization of the department, one that focuses the agency on the next one hundred years (including the promotion of tribal sovereignty).

It’s easy to find the issues where Native American Democrats and Republicans disagree. Indeed it would be simple for me to shape every column as doom and gloom, the logic of “Oh, what is that Trump going to do next?” But that won’t help the policy debates that are so important to Indian Country. But that idea discounts how much agreement there is out there — even in this hyper-partisan climate. It was Rep. Cole who helped champion the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, including the provisions for tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians. Tribes still have a lot of work to do to implement that law. Deborah Parker, former vice chair of the Tulalip Tribes, and a key supporter of the act, said tribes should get their law and order codes ready now to comply with the law. Too few tribes have taken that step and VAWA will again require reauthorization in 2018 so Indian Country has to present its strongest case for this Congress.

One example of a Native American issue that cuts across party lines is unfolding in Wyoming. The Indian Education for All, House Bill 76, would require the state’s schools to educate all children about the history and economic contributions by the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes.

Sen. Affie Ellis was just elected in November and is a co-sponsor of the legislation. She’s a Navajo who grew up in Wyoming and she told the Casper Star-Tribune that Native American students sometimes are threatened by verbal abuse during sports trips across the state. “It’s a really important first step to understanding each other a little bit better,” she told The Star-Tribune. “It’s a brief idea, and I think it’s a fitting one.”

At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, Ellis spoke at a panel titled, “Rising Stars in the Conservative Movement.” Back in Wyoming her appearance generated both praise and criticism. The newspaper Planet Jackson Hole asked the question if Ellis was a “sane Republican alternative” to Trumpism? The paper quoted Ellis saying:  “I think our country needs so desperately some thought and some well researched responses …  There’s so many times when it’s easy to name call and have these cute hashtags that stick but we have to have strong facts and start communicating those facts in a very effective way. I think the hard part is the devil in the details of policy you’re working on doesn’t fit into small hashtags. Maybe we just need long hashtags.”

I don’t know about longer hashtags. The one I use,  #NativePolicy, is short. But we certainly need more thoughtful, complex policy debates.

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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President Trump speaks to Congress; budget plan shifts billions to military

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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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

History to be made as Native legislators take on leadership roles across country

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Speaker Bryce Edgmon is the first Alaska Native in that post. (360North.Org photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Last year I expected a record number of Native Americans to get elected to offices across the country. There were just so many really superb candidates running for Congress, state legislatures, and statewide offices. At one point my list topped a hundred candidates. Of course it didn’t turn out that way. Too many of those exceptional #NativeVote16 candidates lost. But my tally to date: Sixty-six elected representatives and senators.  So the 2016 election cycle turned out to be more of a rebuilding year instead of one that broke records.

Yet it turns out there is still history to be made.

State legislatures are convening around the country this month and there is an interesting twist: Native Americans are in key leadership positions in at least seven states. That’s impressive — and critical right now because of the types of conversations that will be going back and forth between Washington, D.C., and state capitals about Medicaid, health care and energy policy.

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Interactive version of this graphic here.

Alaska is a great bipartisan example.

Two years ago former Sealaska chairman Byron Mallott, Tlingit, was elected the state’s Lt. Gov. (He was the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor, but joined an independent fusion ticket along with Gov. Bill Walker.) The Walker-Mallott administration elevated Native issues to an unprecedented level of influence. One of the governor’s first appointments was Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson, an Orutsararmiut Native Council tribal member, and a long time health advocate, as the state’s commissioner for the the state’s Department of Health and Social Services. She will be the one negotiating with the Trump administration about what Medicaid will look like if Congress acts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Then the state legislature and the Walker-Mallott administration have been at odds over state spending and resources. Alaska has a multibillion dollar budget deficit largely because of the state’s reliance on taxes from oil and gas. As The Fairbanks Daily Miner put it: “Fortunately for the state, previous years when oil revenues were high allowed legislators to sock away billions of dollars in savings accounts. Unfortunately for the state, it was easier for legislators to spend from these savings accounts than make the hard decisions that would put Alaska on a path to a balanced budget.” Further complicating that budget challenge, Alaska citizens are paid a per capita distribution instead of paying income or other general taxes.

So after this election a new alliance was formed in the legislature to try and come up solutions, three Republicans and two independents joined the Democrats to form a majority caucus. The Speaker of the House in this coalition is Bryce Edgmon, Yup’ik. He said his native background is how he views the world. He told the Bristol Bay Times: “I know it’s not only my children and maybe their children’s future, but it’s also the future of our way of life out here in rural Alaska and a lot of our Native villages.”

There are now eight Alaska Natives in the legislature representing both parties. Rep. Sam Kito III, Tlingit, is chair of the Labor & Commerce Committee as well as the Legislative Council (a joint committee with the Senate). Neal Foster is co-chair of the Finance Committee.  And Dean Westlake, Inupiaq, is chair of the Economic Development Committee and Arctic Policy. In the Senate, Lyman Hoffman, a Democrat who caucuses with Republicans, is co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee. The House Minority Leader is Charisse Millett, Inupiaq. In a previous legislature, Millett was instrumental in legislating Alaska Native languages as official state languages.

Actually I wrote “bipartisan.” That’s probably the wrong word for what’s occurring in Alaska because a few elected representatives run for election identifying with one party, only to caucus with the other after the election. (Perhaps a model for Congress?)

Oklahoma and Montana are the two states with the most Native legislators, nine. A larger group of Native legislators makes it easier to form a caucus so members can work together on issues important in Native communities. And both states have an active Native caucus.

Oklahoma legislators are leaders in both parties. In the House, Rep. Mark McBride, Potawatomi, is the Assistant Majority Floor Leader. Rep. Chuck Hoskin, Cherokee, is the Minority Whip. And in the Senate, Anastasia Pittman, Seminole, is the Assistant Democratic Leader.

Montana’s newly elected Rep. Shane Morigeau, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, will serve in leadership this session as Minority Whip. It’s a rare honor for a freshman.

Montana’s American Indian caucus was an important voice in the last legislature on issues ranging from tribal college funding to water compacts. “We’ve been literally and figuratively the minority’s minority,” Rep. Susan Webber, Blackfeet, told the Billings Gazette. “I know it looks like we have a lot of people in the Indian caucus, a lot of people were elected, but in reality it should be more. But just us getting in there, from my perspective, is a real positive.”

A critical challenge for the American Indian Caucus this session will be Medicaid. Montana came late to Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act but its impact has been swift. The state’s uninsured rate dropped from 20 percent in 2012 to 7.4 percent last year. A report by The Montana Budget and Policy Center says a repeal of the Affordable Care Act “could have disastrous impacts on Montana, putting at risk the health care coverage of over 142,000 Montanans who have benefited from ACA measures. At the greatest risk are the over 61,000 Montanans who gained access to affordable health care coverage through Montana’s Medicaid expansion plan.” Worse: the report found that “repeal could cause a greater number of uninsured Montanans than before the ACA was enacted.”

Montana Budget and Policy says 8,000 American Indians are enrolled in insurance through the Medicaid expansion program. Third-party insurance, such as Medicaid, has added nearly a billion dollars to the Indian Health Service budget. “Nationwide, reimbursements at IHS facilities, tribal operated facilities, and urban Indian clinics have increased 21% since the expansion of Medicaid,” the report said. “In 2014, nearly 40% of American Indians did not have health insurance, but Medicaid expansion represented one of the most significant opportunities to expand coverage for American Indians.”

This is important because if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act, it will be up to state governments to pick up the pieces (as well as the cost) or strip millions of Americans from health insurance coverage. Repeal without new resources could devastate the Indian health system.

Other states where Native American legislators are included in the leadership structure: Hawaii, where Andria Tupola is Minority Floor Leader; and in Colorado, Rep. Joseph Salazar is a committee vice chair.

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Sen. John McCoy is the chair of the Washington Senate Democratic Caucus and will help foster the party’s vision and values during the session. (Legislature photo)

In Washington Sen. John McCoy, Tulalip, has been a long-time champion of issues that are important in Native communities.

McCoy sponsored legislation to close coal burning power plants and “dramatically reduce the amount of coal burned to generate energy for Washington residents, reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Colstrip by 5 million tons — the equivalent of a million cars — a year.”

The senator says Washington Republicans and dental lobbyists are blocking the creation of a mid-level dental practice along the lines of what’s been done in several states. “Indian country may not have the loudest voice in Olympia, but it still has basic needs,” McCoy wrote in The Seattle Times.

“The idea is pretty simple — allow native communities to train and recruit dental therapists to help clear the backlog of an ongoing oral-health crisis. The research is alarming — one-quarter of Native Americans aged 35 to 44 years have fewer than 20 of their natural teeth,” he wrote. “The dentists also ignore the groundbreaking success of similar programs in other states. It’s been working for 11 years for indigenous communities in Alaska, where 45,000 people are seeing reliable providers for the first time in their lives.”

This issue is not going to go away. A new national survey reports that 45 percent of U.S. voters say they go without dental care because of cost or lack of insurance. But 8 of 10 favor adding midlevel providers as a solution. “Good oral health is critical to overall health, yet policies to expand access to dental care do not reflect this,” said Tera Bianchi, project director of the Dental Access Project at Community Catalyst. “Dental therapists offer better access to care for the most underserved populations in a cost-effective way to the system. They are a smart, effective bipartisan way to improve access to care.”

And this session McCoy will be the he face of the Democratic Party, chairing the caucus where he says he will help “foster the vision and values of Senate Democrats as they navigate the 2017 session.”

In other words: Sen. McCoy has a seat at the head of the table.

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

Interior secretary pick has a record of listening to tribes

Rep. Ryan Zinke in Frazer, Montana, last summer. (Trahant photo)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

HELENA, Montana — Just about a week ago it was clear that Cathy McMorris Rodger was headed to the Interior Department. Nope. It was a headfake. President-elect Donald Trump has instead picked Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke for the post.

This is a  much better appointment for Indian Country. Zinke is no less conservative than Rodgers, but since his days in the Montana legislature he has had an open door. He has reached out to tribes in a number of ways. He introduced and championed the Blackfeet water compact and he has supported federal recognition for the Little Shell Band of Chippewa Cree.

“The truth is Ryan does know the value of public lands, he does know, to an extent, I don’t know how deep, the issues of Indian Country,” said Sen. Jon Tester at the Montana Budget and Policy Center’s Legislative Summit Wednesday. He said the Senate confirmation hearing process will be useful in getting Rep. Zinke on record explaining his views on such things as the government’s Trust Responsibility to tribal nations.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, speaking at the Montana Budget and Policy Center Legislative Summit in Helena. (Trahant photo)

 “It’s a big deal for the state of Montana,” Tester said. “He has a chance to do some really good stuff. Compare him to some of the people nominated before, AKA Sarah Palin, we will take him in a heartbeat.”

At a congressional debate in Frazer, on the Assiniboine Sioux Tribal Nation, Zinke said he had been adopted as an Assiniboine. He said he supports tribes and sovereignty. “I don’t think anyone has worked harder trying to get Blackfeet Water Compact done … I have been out here not because I am your congressman, but because I care.” He said he has been to people’s homes, met with tribal councils, and visited powwows.

Harry Barnes, chairman of the Blackfeet Nation, told The Helena Independent, that the appointment is “a great day for Montana” and that “Montana tribes will have an ear in the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”

Montana Republicans, many Western Republicans, are eager for an Interior Secretary who will open up more federal lands to oil and gas development. And on this score, Zinke will not disappoint. “I’m excited that the Trump administration plans to unleash the economic power of the resources of the nation,” Jeff Eisman, chair of the Montana Republican Party, told Montana Public Radio. “The federal government does control a lot of resources, especially in our end of the country.”

And it’s not likely tribes will often agree with Zinke. This is a Trump administration and Zinke was one of his early supporters. And Zinke has voted against tribes on other issues, such as the Violence Against Women Act,  a law that expanded tribal authority on domestic violence. 

If Zinke is confirmed by the Senate there would be a special election for his House seat.  (Previous: Juneau for President?)

And Denise Juneau?  She said Wednesday night: “I am looking forward to doors opening, figuring out if I want to take advantage of that, and bringing people with me.” That’s a far better answer than a yes or no. 

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

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

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

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

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

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

So let’s start with what we know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If, then, this.

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

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#NativeVote16 – Deadlines near for registration, early voting starts soon

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If Indian Country is going to make a difference in this election there are details that need to be completed first.

Voter registration is easy. NativeVote.Org has an online set up here that is really easy to use.

And the September 26 – 30 is Native Vote Action Week. (Look for hashtag, #NativeVote16 for events and social media posts.)

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The National Conference of State Legislatures produces this chart of the different voting set-ups across the country.

A few states, including Alaska, require election registration 30-days before the election. Other states are 25 and 20. Here is the list, state by state.

In North Dakota a federal judge limited a strict voter identification law, one that the court said would have impacted 3,800 Native American voters.

“Voter fraud in North Dakota has been virtually non-existent,” said U.S. District Judge Daniel L. Hovland. He was appointed by President George W. Bush. He said the state “produced no evidence suggesting the public’s confidence in the electoral process would be undermined by excusing those voters who cannot reasonably obtain an ID.” The key point after the ruling is that there is a “fail-safe” process allowing voters to swear they live in a current precinct (such as north of Cannonball) or a poll worker could vouch for that voter’s eligibility.

 

Three other state voter ID laws were limited by federal courts. This remains a contentious issue as state legislatures try and make it harder for people to cast ballots.

One cool voting improvement is the number of states that are setting up automatic registration. According to The Brennan Center for Justice: “Automatic voter registration is picking up speed and bipartisan support. The 2016 session saw more automatic voter registration bills introduced than any other kind of voting legislation. Under automatic registration, the government automatically and securely registers every eligible citizen who interacts with designated government offices unless the person declines to register.”

It’s also possible in many states to vote early. There are now 37 states that open up polls early in designated locations (including some in Indian Country).  Other states allow absentee voting for voters by request. And, in three states, Colorado, Washington and Oregon, the entire election is conducted by mail.

I particularly like early voting. It takes away the “x” factor. You know, things like, “something came up.” “I forgot.” “I had a crisis at work.” What ever. Vote early and it’s done. — Mark Trahant

 

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

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#NativeVote16 – Make no mistake: Standing Rock is on the ballot

A line to vote? Imagine the potential of adding 2,000, 3,000 people or more voters from the camps at Standing Rock. (Trahant photo)
Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

On social media and in real life we hear this often: “What can I do to help Standing Rock?” Some answer the question by donating money, many send supplies, and hundreds of people jump in their car and travel to the camps near Cannonball, North Dakota. Once there folks pray, some engage in direct action, and all of us learn more about the challenges facing humanity.

There is something else that can be done: Vote. 

Chase Iron Eyes, who is running for Congress from North Dakota, made that point on his web page this week. “I don’t believe North Dakota is racist, a certain percentage of the ReTrumplicans are—but we can vote them out—if you would only vote,” he wrote. “The majority of us are evolving in mutual respect. That’s our North Dakota.”

The congressional race is a stark example of these various differences: The incumbent, Rep. Kevin Cramer, wrote a position paper for Donald Trump that says any new climate policy should not “punish coal” or other fossil fuels. The Republican considers himself a climate change skeptic dismissing both international commitments made by the United States and the mountain of scientific evidence. 

But is this a moment when North Dakotans are open to a change? And, is there an evolving majority beyond North Dakota? How many allies are out there? How many people are ready for a significant policy shift when it comes to energy? 

The answers depend on how many people stand in line at polls, vote by mail,  and cast a ballot. If it’s a yes, or a hell yes, this could be the most significant organizing moment in American history.

Consider the camps at Standing Rock. Many of the water protectors arrived about a month ago and say they were willing to stay as long as it takes. That means (or it could mean) that they are residents under North Dakota law and could vote in the next election. How would that work? There would have to be some mechanism in place to certify the “new residents” either by identification or more likely by affirmation. If that is done now, then people at the camps can vote in the November election because North Dakota does not require voter registration.

Imagine adding 2,000, 3,000 people or more to the voter rolls in Morton County, ND. There could even be a write-in campaign for county offices (members of the county commission are currently running unopposed). This would send a message to those in office that the people at the camps are constituents, too.

This potential surge in voter registration would also promote the candidacies of the three Native Americans running statewide in North Dakota, Chase Iron Eyes, Ruth Buffalo, and Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun. Even better: The Spirit of Standing Rock could became a rallying cry that calls people across Indian Country to vote. Imagine if every community set a goal of as close to 100 percent turnout as possible.

Of course there are not enough American Indians to win on our own. We need allies. So when people say, “what can I do to help?” Answer, “vote.” 
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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#NativeVote16 – Overdue national debate about pipelines and ‘sound science’

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The federal government’s 2014 climate change assessment puts the Standing Rock dispute in context with this paragraph about the Great Plains. “Rising temperatures are leading to increased demand for water and energy. In parts of the region, this will constrain development, stress natural resources, and increase competition for water among communities, agriculture, energy production, and ecological needs.” (Trahant photo)
Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

On Friday I tweeted: “What an extraordinary day, the federal government has a pulse.” The United States finally weighed in on what many of us believe is the most important issue in the country right now: The question of how this nation will address climate change.

And pulse or not this remains an unsettled question. But at least last week the federal government took one small step toward the right answer.

Let’s back up. The Standing Rock Tribe filed suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because the agency did not adequately consult with the tribe as required law. On Friday U.S. District Judge James Boasberg disagreed, saying that the Tribe had not demonstrated that an injunction was warranted to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The most remarkable section of the ruling, however, was the background of the case.  “A project of this magnitude often necessitates an extensive federal appraisal and permitting process. Not so here. Domestic oil pipelines, unlike natural-gas pipelines, require no general approval from the federal government. In fact, DAPL needs almost no federal permitting of any kind because 99% of its route traverses private land.”

The only regulatory role for the federal government in this case “concerns construction activities in federally regulated waters at hundreds of discrete places along the pipeline route. The Corps needed to permit this activity under the Clean Water Act or the Rivers and Harbors Act – and sometimes both. For DAPL, accordingly, it permitted these activities under a general permit known as Nationwide Permit 12.”

In other words — as a public policy — there is no public debate about this pipeline except in the context of water.

Several minutes after the court ruling three federal agencies issued their own statement.

“We appreciate the District Court’s opinion on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act.  However, important issues raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribal nations and their members regarding the Dakota Access pipeline specifically, and pipeline-related decision-making generally, remain.”

So the Department of the Army, the Department of Justice, and the Department of the Interior acted to “reconsider” previous decisions regarding the Lake Oahe site and its approval. “The Army will move expeditiously to make this determination, as everyone involved — including the pipeline company and its workers — deserves a clear and timely resolution,” the statement said. “In the interim, we request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.”

The statement also called for a serious discussion on tribal consultation about such projects. (More about that later.)

So what does this all mean? It means there will be a quick review (who knows what quick means in Fed-speak) about the underground water crossing of the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Reservation.

And, if the federal government has a pulse, it also has the ability to keep a secret. There is no way this was a rushed decision. This had to be debated at the White House level because so many multiple federal agencies were involved (it’s interesting that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy did not join in on this statement.)

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The idea that the water crossing needs a second look is a entry point into a larger question, how important are water resources in the era of climate change?

I suspect the oil and pipeline industry already knows the answer. A news release from the National Association of Manufacturers said “President Obama has crossed the line.” This decision “sets a bad precedent that could threaten future infrastructure projects.” The Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now was even gloomier in its assessment. “Should the Administration ultimately stop this construction,  it would set a horrific precedent.  No sane American company would dare expend years of effort and billions of dollars weaving through an onerous regulatory process receiving all necessary permits and agreements, only to be faced with additional regulatory impediments and be shutdown halfway through completion of its project.”

This is too rich. A federal judge (in a ruling the industry liked) said the process was not onerous. In fact it’s the opposite because domestic oil pipelines require no general approval from the federal government.

The Midwest Alliance went on to say: “We hope and trust that the government will base its final decision on sound science and engineering, not political winds or pressure.”

And that is exactly where the country ought to start the conversation, using sound science.

The federal government’s best science comes from the U.S. Global Research Program. In its most recent report, it says “climate change does not occur in isolation. Rather, it is superimposed on other stresses, which combine to create new challenges.”

The Dakota Access Pipeline is such a challenge. The industry’s own promotions say this pipeline will move more oil to markets faster, eventually moving 570,000 barrels a day. Instead of reducing consumption, it makes it easier and cheaper for Americans to have more.

Yet at the same time the United States has promised the rest of the world that we will use slow down our use of oil and reduce our carbon impact. The official goal is to limit the increase (not reverse) global warming to “well below” 2 degrees centigrade. That will not happen with more, cheaper oil.

Again, consider the Federal Government’s best science. It says: “Climate change challenges the idea of hydrologic stationarity, which assumes that the statistical characteristics of hydrologic data are constant over time—in other words, that water dynamics of the future can be expected to be similar to those of the past. Climate change means that this assumption may not hold for all cases, undermining fundamental paradigms of water resource management and infrastructure design.” My translation: We need to protect water as the most important resource on the planet.

That same report says in order to protect basic human needs there needs to be “a safeguarding of natural assets, promoting resilience in urban and rural areas, decoupling carbon emissions from economic growth, and encouraging sustainable production and consumption patterns.”

The sound science is clear. We need to make sure that water is treated as the nation’s most important natural resource. Water is life. That’s not politics. It’s science.

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

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#NativeVote16 – Why the White House needs to get involved in the Standing Rock dispute

President Obama answering a question about Standing Rock in Laos

Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

I’ve been thinking a lot about the silence from the White House on the situation at Standing Rock. There have been so many calls to get involved, including a direct plea from Chairman David Archambault II.

So on Wednesday President Obama finally spoke; answering a question in Laos. He cited the stellar record of his administration and then he said: “And this issue of ancestral lands and helping them preserve their way of life is something that we have worked very hard on. Now, some of these issues are caught up with laws and treaties, and so I can’t give you details on this particular case. I’d have to go back to my staff and find out how are we doing on this one.

But what I can tell you is, is that we have actually restored more rights among Native Americans to their ancestral lands, sacred sites, waters, hunting grounds. We have done a lot more work on that over the last eight years than we had in the previous 20, 30 years. And this is something that I hope will continue as we go forward.”

Of course this has been an amazing eight years. Or should I say almost eight years. The president was on the other side of the world answering a question when he had not been briefed. The president doesn’t have the time to watch the news, or read newspapers, so issues even as important as this one can slip by. But there should have been a paragraph, a short memo, something that was placed in front of the president. Instead the president, who has done more for Native Americans than anyone else, had a deer-in-the-headlights moment, not unlike George Bush or Ronald Reagan.

What should the White House be doing? Ideally propose a solution. President Obama’s executive order on tribal consultation is clear about what should be done. It says: “History has shown that failure to include the voices of tribal officials in formulating policy affecting their communities has all too often led to undesirable and, at times, devastating and tragic results. By contrast, meaningful dialogue between Federal officials and tribal officials has greatly improved Federal policy toward Indian tribes. Consultation is a critical ingredient of a sound and productive Federal-tribal relationship.”

There are hundreds of people camped near the Standing Rock Reservation, ready to engage in peaceful, civil disobedience, who are trying to avoid those devastating and tragic results. Meanwhile elected North Dakota government officials — who cannot even bring themselves to visit the camp and learn about what’s occurring — have a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the protest and are calling for more law enforcement action, including the National Guard.

Some history: Over the years I have interviewed a number of people who have worked in the Nixon White House. There were three major crises involving Indian Country: the occupations of Alcatraz, the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters, and Wounded Knee.

John Ehrlichman and Leonard Garment both told me about the tension between those who would use government power — law enforcement and troops — versus those who wanted to find a peaceful resolution

This is only the story as remembered by government officials, not the full account. Thart said: Alcatraz was first. The California island was occupied in November 1969 by a group of college students would form “Indians of All Tribes.” Goals ranged from inter-tribal ownership to the creation of a new university, museum and cultural center. But the federal government wanted the island back.

“What I sensed,” Garment told the Nixon Library in 2007, “was that the administration did not want any bloodshed. That there was already a lot of trouble in the country. I mean, later on when there was Kent State, I mean, all of these problems were … quite explosive.”

But Bob Kunzig, who was the federal official responsible for the island, wanted the Coast Guard to land on the island and remove students by force.

“When I heard about that,” Garment said, “I said tell him to forget about it so there was a kind of a little bit of a battle, not a battle royal, a battle royalette, a miniature battle, because he didn’t have the standing to do anything nor did anybody want bloodshed over Alcatraz. So it turned into a very interesting symbolic issue, which worked well for the Indians and it worked well for the administration. It worked well for the processes of history because here was Alcatraz, this prison island, lump of rock, and here were these people, Indians, out on the island, and here was the federal government withholding its powerful, its armed fist, and waiting them out. And it was an interesting time, learned a lot, had a lot of people who were very angry, wanted us to provision the island and it was a way of sort of, at least for me, of striking a balance between trying to enforce the law and also not to be so heavy handed that we wind up in a mess, in a bloody mess. So that was, that was Alcatraz.”

The same parameters were in place during the BIA takeover. The Nixon White House looked for solutions, one even as unconventional as paying the occupiers to leave town, money that was supposed to be used for people to buy bus tickets home. Garment told me “we were condemned, investigations were held, hearings, but there was no bloodshed.”

Wounded Knee was different. Nixon wanted action. We know from his secret tape recordings that he wanted the White House visible. He suggested lots of meetings where officials would be “going out and finding every camera you can get your hands on to put across a foundation. It would show the White House in operation.” But if that didn’t work, the president was willing to use military force.

“I think we ought to move tanks, the whole goddamned thing. Put a division in there, if necessary,” the president said. “It’s time for action on it. If some Indians get shot, that’s too goddamned bad. If some Americans get shot, that’s too bad, too.”

Garment said the 82nd Airborne and the Marshals were ready to move in “and that would have been bloody because they did, there were weapons.” But it was a general, Volney Warner, who talked the White House down. “He just went through what would happen. The number of troops that would be used, the tear gas, the number of deaths that were likely and when he finished there was no more talk about taking them out by force.”

Of course Standing Rock is different.

And one of those ways is frightening: Instead of debating the power of the federal government, we’re already seeing the use of a private security force who do not answer to civilian authorities. Indeed one of the problems here is that the owners of the Dakota Access Pipeline cannot wait for a peaceful resolution to unfold; the partnership’s entire strategy is to build the pipeline quickly before the regulatory process can catch up. The partners want banks to know this can be done fast and without political interference, avoiding the kind of delays that killed the Keystone XL pipeline and more recently, the Sandpiper Pipeline.

Energy Transfer Partners were clear about this plan. In May, for example, a spokesperson told The Forum News Service that its “depth of experience and relationship with regulatory agencies has made the company confident enough to start construction before all permits have been granted.”

And the state of North Dakota is eager too. Statements by the governor, county officials, and the company all acknowledge that protests are protected by the First Amendment. But they also frequently use the word “lawful.” They see protest as holding a sign, not holding a line. They misunderstand the nature of civil disobedience and the long-term presence of people who are willing to disobey an unjust process and unjust laws. The key to successful civil disobedience is moral authority, not “lawful” slogans.

How much government power will be used to protect the Dakota Access Pipeline? Or will that be a private security force that uses attack dogs and more? Is the state, the company, willing to kill to enforce its outcome? And now, potentially, the National Guard. As Nixon once put it, “if some Indians get shot, that’s too goddamned bad. If some Americans get shot, that’s too bad.”

The White House has two great powers. It can shine a light on the story, the whole story. It can also convene. Bring together the Dakota Access Pipeline partners, the state, the tribes, and make sure that the outcome does not end up a bloody mess.

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