Reflecting on the dangers and promises of the Trump era #NativePolicyDebate

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A president unlike any since, well, Andrew Jackson

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

A terrible year? Elias Boudinot considered 1832 as such.

The year started with the Cherokee Nation winning its case in the U.S. Supreme Court, only to be followed by a message of “so what?” from President Andrew Jackson. Boudinot’s home was slated for auction by the state of Georgia; the idea being that settlers would then force Cherokees to flee their own homes. And, Boudinot resigned his job as editor of The Cherokee Phoenix because he believed the Chief John Ross was dictating the newspaper’s positions. He wrote: “I do conscientiously believe it to be the duty of every citizen to reflect upon the dangers with which we are surrounded; to view the darkness which seems to lie before our people, our prospects, and the evils with which we are threatened; to talk over all these matters, and, if possible, come to some definite and satisfactory conclusion.”

Boudinot had three goals for The Cherokee Phoenix. To inform tribal citizens as “a free paper,” one that would “always be open to free and temperate discussions on matters of politics, religion, &c.” Second, to publish a defense of “our rights.” And, third, the “representation of our grievances to the people of the United States.” He was particularly troubled by the last idea, reaching out to Americans. “We can say nothing which will have more effect upon the community, than we have already said,” Boudinot wrote. “The public is as fully apprised as we can ever expect it to be, of our grievances. It knows our troubles, and yet never was it more silent than at present. It is engrossed in other local and sectional interests.”

And so we shift to 2017. Our challenges, of course, are different. But the idea of a serious reflection, a public discourse, about the policy choices ahead are as important now as it was then. I have been thinking about 1832 for two other reasons: First, Donald Trump will be a president unlike any we’ve seen since, well, Andrew Jackson. And, that era, like this is one is where reason and facts are discounted. There is a meanness in our public square. On top of that, our next president makes things up and yet some still people believe him. So, I guess, the public is once again as fully apprised as we can ever expect it to be.

Of course Trump supporters from Indian Country tell a different story.

They see him as a new champion of tribal sovereignty, especially when the focus is on energy development. (Previous: The deep divide on energy and climate issues.) The problem with this is that folks who think fossil fuels are our future are on the wrong side of history. In order to buy the logic of more oil, gas, and coal, you have to pretend that climate change is neither real nor human caused. The trade off requires believing that profits and perhaps a few jobs are better measures than science. And, to do this at a time when the rest of the planet is moving on. Linking Indian Country’s future to fossil fuels locks us into declining technology and shrinking markets.

One way a Trump administration could really help Indian Country is infrastructure. But we know so little about the president-elect’s plan and how that could impact American Indian and Alaska Native communities. (Other than pipelines, that is.) The president-elect has called building roads, water systems, electricity grids, and telecommunications as “a golden opportunity for accelerated economic growth.” But that plan has two serious obstacles for tribal nations. Trump promises to use private partnerships to pay for these projects. And, he wants the initiative to give “maximum flexibility to the states.”

Watch for this phrase in the coming weeks … “and tribes.” The Congress and the Obama administration often inserted that language into law and public policy to open options for tribes that were similar in scope to state governments. Will that continue? Or is giving states “maximum flexibility” a single paradigm?

That brings me to the two greatest challenges ahead in a Trump administration, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the severe budgets that are ahead.

Repealing the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, will likely be the first vote in Congress. But repeal is the easy part. “Then what?” is a much more difficult question. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, recently told the Journal-Sentinel that a replacement bill will “take time.” He said“clearly there will be a transition and a bridge so that no one is left out in the cold, so that no one is worse off. The purpose here is to bring relief to people who are suffering from Obamacare so that they can get something better.”

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, has said any replacement of the Obamacare should include a new version of Indian Health Care Improvement Act. That’s the ideal. But what about funding? The Indian Health Service has been historically underfunded. And the Affordable Care Act has added money, especially through Medicaid expansion. That may be the most successful element of the law and it nets the Indian Health System substantial resources, money that is supposed to remain at local clinics and hospitals.

It’s important to remember that the Affordable Care Act has substantially reduced the number of uninsured Americans, including American Indians and Alaska Natives (from 16 percent in 2013 to a historic low of 10 percent in 2015). This is the number to think about: More than half (51 percent) of Native children are insured via Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. This is important because those who have insurance are more likely to get a broader range of health care services than those who only rely on IHS for care.

So depending on how the repeal and replace legislation unfolds between 11 million and 60 million people could lose health insurance coverage. And the Indian Health system could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding streams.

Then the issue of money for American Indian and Alaska Native programs might be the toughest one of all. I have been writing for years about austerity as a trend. We have been lucky during the Obama years because Indian Country was mostly held harmless (especially in the health arena).

But President-elect Trump’s choice for the Office of Management and Budget is Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-South Carolina. He’s one of the most strident voices in Congress against federal spending (even voting against his own party when budgets were not harsh enough).

While in Congress Mulvaney championed reducing the size of the federal workforce by at least ten percent. One of his proposals would have limited agencies to one hire for every three departures. He advocates increased work by contractors while reducing total costs.

Mulvaney defended the 2013 sequester — a disaster in Indian Country — as something that “bodes well for the future.”

“We are, all of us, Democrats, Republicans and independents alike, having a national dialogue about what is really important for our government, and what our government could do without,” Mulvaney wrote. “And it has been much too long since we have done that.”

That conversation will define 2017.

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 – A champion for change will be on South Dakota’s ballot

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Henry Red Cloud is the Democratic candidate in South Dakota for Public Utilities Commission. He is an entrepreneur that builds solar energy projects. (Photo via YouTube.)

The Year of the Native American candidate

Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

It’s easy to dismiss this election. Every day there’s more news about something outrageous that was said by a presidential candidate. Grab the remote. Click. It’s gone and and ignore.

But that’s only one way to think about the 2016 election. Flip the narrative and this is the most interesting and exciting election ever. Especially for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Just look across the country at the sheer number of Native Americans candidates challenging the status quo in races from county commissions to Congress. This much is certain: This is the year of the Native American candidate. If it’s also the year of the Native American voter, well, look out, innovation is ahead.

I have always thought many people with experiences in Native communities have a lot to offer the broader community. I often see creativity and innovation.

South Dakota Democrats nominated Henry Red Cloud as the party’s nominee for a spot on the state’s Public Utilities Commission. Red Cloud, Lakota is the founder and owner of a renewable energy company based in Pine Ridge. “Lakota Solar Enterprises is located on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe,” the company’s web page says.  “We believe that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is important. And on tribal lands, it is imperative. We hope you will join us in helping tribes achieve energy sovereignty.” He calls renewable energy “a new way to honor old ways.”

His company, and associated nonprofit, do that by installing real solar systems into people’s homes. But Red Cloud has said he sees these projects beyond (as important as it is) sustainable energy. He sees this as a route to build a stronger economy within tribal nations.

This is a great story to tell during an election campaign. Voters will be introduced to a creative and innovative energy path that’s creating real jobs now, employing people to build and install solar energy systems. Contrast this with the usual discourse about energy or the nonsense about how climate change isn’t real.

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President Obama honored Red Cloud for his work in 2014 as a “Champion of Change.”

Red Cloud told The Associated Press he is “honored” by the nomination and is “eager to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing consumers and utility companies in South Dakota.”

The South Dakota Public Utilities Commission in January certified the Keystone XL pipeline route through the state. The agency said at the time that if a presidential permit is issued, and then “the pipeline is built, the PUC will monitor the progress to ensure the construction conditions are met.” In other words: This is a critical agency for pipelines and energy planning.

And, unfortunately, this is where that presidential race creeps back into the process. The next president could think differently about Keystone XL than President Obama. Plus there is a new challenge based on free trade.

But this is also why this election is so important. Red Cloud is running for the regulatory post and next door, Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun, is seeking a seat on the three-member North Dakota Public Services Commission.  The Public Service Commission regulates the oil and gas industry as well as telecommunications, weights and measures, and pipelines. In January the agency approved the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Previous: Pipelines, rail cars, and the price of oil.)

Red Cloud and Hunte-Beaubrun are two of five Native American candidates across the country running for statewide office. And on the front lines (or is that the front desk?) of making decisions about pipelines, energy policy and climate change.

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 – The power of ‘what if?’ Paying tribes to leave coal in the ground

A Montana coal train headed west.
Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

What if? Two words that ought to be the every day language in politics. What if we tried this? What if we did that? What if we imagined?
I have been thinking a lot of “what ifs?” when it comes to coal. Coal is a paradox for several Native American communities. The United Nations says that nearly 90 percent of proven coal reserves are “unburnable” and should be left in the ground. 
Historically the industry has created good paying jobs, but now it’s in sharp decline (Mostly because of market forces, the availability of inexpensive natural gas). Yet stakeholders — workers and even a few tribes — blame the government for too many regulations. And, on the flip side, many of those working to change the energy paradigm demand that coal be left in the ground without thinking through the consequences to families who earn their living digging or shipping coal or even to the governments who rely on the revenue. Previous: The politics of leaving coal in the ground;  Investing in coal (or better a transition away from coal). 

That’s where we begin the “what if?” thinking.

What if we could leave coal in the ground? What if we could still pay tribes for that resource and workers could benefit from the inevitable transition?
Turns out there is a solution that does both. Stephen Kass, a New York attorney who works on climate issues, suggested in the Washington Post last week that the United States buy the entire coal industry and shut it down. “Although it is not possible to estimate accurately the total cost of acquiring all of the several hundred currently operating coal-fired power plants, the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated the net benefits of the greenhouse-gas reductions under the Clean Power Plan at between $26 billion and $45 billion by 2030, not counting the substantial public-health savings from reducing coal plants’ toxic emissions unrelated to climate change,” Kass wrote. “Such savings should go a long way toward making it feasible for the government to purchase or condemn the plants, which are typically almost 40 years old, fully depreciated and only marginally profitable under current and foreseeable market conditions and environmental requirements. Moreover, because Plan A would compensate private owners for the market value of their plants, it would avoid conservatives’ claims of excessive regulation without compensation.”

This is the perfect time to buy the entire coal industry. Many coal companies are in bankruptcy; and across the board, prices are low.

And I would take this idea one step further. Some thirty tribes have coal resources, totaling  at least one third of Western coal, on lands from Arizona to Alaska. So the United States should pay the tribes with coal assets a significant sum to not mine their resource. 

Montana’s Crow Tribe has a reserve of at least 9 billion tons of coal. In making the case for coal, Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote told InsideEnergy: “I don’t want to be dependent on the U.S. government. We have the resources, we have the manpower, we have the capability of being self-sufficient. There’s no reason why we should be this poor.”

What if that resources were purchased? True, the cost of any buy-out would be enormous. Unless the accounting included the even more massive costs associated with climate change. Then the purchase of coal to not mine should be considered as an investment not a cost.There is precedent for paying to take coal out of production. Farmers and ranchers are paid to not farm and ranch in order for the land to recover through several programs, including the Conservation Reserve Program. This would be the same. Tribes (and individual landowners) would be compensated for their resource and the coal would stay in the ground.

The international goal of reducing greenhouse gasses requires significant changes in energy policy. We need to rethink the energy paradigm across the board from oil and gas production to what it will take to jump start more green energy sources. And all of the changes ahead will be tough politically. So what if we start that effort with a win-win-win? A win for coal owners, including tribes. A win for workers. And, a win for the environment. This is how we leave coal in the ground.

So what if? 

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