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A new White House report details the economic impact of Medicaid expansion and is sharply critical of the 22 states that have not done so. The report is titled, “Missed Opportunities: The Consequences of State Decisions Not to Expand Medicaid.”

I like that: Missed opportunities. Why? Because this Council of Economic Advisers’ 44-page report fails to include any calculation of Indian Country as one of those missed opportunities.

I get that the population of American Indian and Alaska Natives is small, one percent or so. But you cannot build an economic case for Medicaid in Alaska, Oklahoma, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arizona, New Mexico (and even Washington and Oregon) without at least back of the envelope estimates. This is important because of the way Medicaid is structured; it’s a shared partnership between the states and the federal government. However American Indians and Alaska Natives are eligible for a 100 percent federal match, so the money spent by a state Medicaid program is fully reimbursed by the federal government.

This system, of course, makes no sense. And it’s probably why the White House failed or forgot to include Indian Country. A much sounder approach would be for the Indian health system — whether federal, tribal, urban or nonprofit — to get funding and administrative rules directly from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Then Alaska, Oklahoma, or the other states that are currently rejecting Medicaid expansion would lose their say about what happens to American Indian and Alaska Native patients.

Let’s dig deeper into the White House report — then I’ll add numbers and context.

The administration is quite right to hail the Affordable Care Act’s economic success story. “Since the law’s major coverage provisions took effect at the start of 2014, the nation has seen the sharpest reduction in the uninsured rate since the decade following the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, and … the nation’s uninsured rate now stands at its lowest level ever.”

However 22 States—including many of the states that would benefit most—have not yet expanded Medicaid (although Montana has passed legislation to expand Medicaid and is working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to determine the structure of its expansion). These 22 States have seen sharply slower
progress in reducing the number of uninsured over the last year and a half, and researchers at the Urban Institute estimate that, if these States do not change course, 4.3 million of their citizens will be deprived of health insurance coverage in 2016.”

In Indian Country, the big three non-expansion states are Alaska, South Dakota and Oklahoma.

The Alaska Legislature recently adjourned without a vote on Medicaid expansion (a measure was proposed by Gov. Bill Walker). But an expansion may be still possible if the governor acts without legislative approval.

The White House report estimates Alaska would gain some $90 million in federal funds by expanding Medicaid. But that number, I believe, misses out the intersection between Medicaid and the Indian health system. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium estimated that 41,500 Alaskans would be eligible for Medicaid — including 15,700 Alaska Natives and American Indians. In other words, more than a third of potential enrollees are eligible for a 100 percent federal reimbursement. Forever.

The numbers are similar and striking in South Dakota and Oklahoma.

The White House report says health insurance also reduces the risk of death. “This analysis estimates that if the 22 states that have not yet expanded Medicaid did so, 5,200 deaths would be avoided annually once expanded coverage was fully in effect. States that have already expanded Medicaid will avoid 5,000 deaths per year,” the report says.

This is a bit complicated, but I doubt if that number includes American Indians and Alaska Natives who are at risk of death because of funding shortages in the Indian health system. What’s now called Purchased and Referred Care is better funded than it has been in recent years, but that budget line still runs out of money for some patients needing specialty care outside of the Indian health system.

But the key point is that the Indian health system is underfunded and as the Kaiser Family Foundation noted “not equally distributed across facilities and they remain insufficient to meet health care needs.”

That unevenness is dangerous for the Indian health system — and it’s states that are limiting dollars by refusing to expand Medicaid.

We are seeing the evidence about how the Indian health system is picking up additional resources in states where there has been Medicaid expansion. In Washington, for example, I recently reported that tribal health facilities have increased their Medicaid funding by nearly 40 percent since expansion. This is new money in an era of austerity and it’s automatic funding that does not require appropriation from Congress.

Of course it would be ideal if the White House was making this case with hard numbers. The Indian health system is a federal obligation,— a Treaty right — that does not cost states. Yet states are setting the rules, so at the very least our advocate ought to be chronicling the impact. A missed opportunity.

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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The first ballots for the 2016 presidential election will be cast in a little more than seven months. That means between now and January there will be a rush of candidates, a winnowing of those who fail to raise money or attention, and, if we are lucky, a philosophical and practical debate about the challenges facing the United States.

In an ideal world that discussion would include American Indian and Alaska Native concerns. But that never happens (unless you read between the lines).
So the Democrats — Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and the newest entrant, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (who once was a “liberal” Republican) — campaign on issues ranging from protecting and expanding voting rights to switching the U.S. to the metric system.

And the Republicans? Well, just listing the candidates is kind of like making sure you get all the names right when reporting about a school play. There are so many, you’re bound to miss someone. But here goes (in order of recent polling by Real Clear Politics): Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Dr. Ben Carson, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Donald Trump, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. And that’s only the 15 “major” candidates. So in order to make noise in that large a field some of those would-be presidents rode Harley’s across Iowa this weekend, revving up their engines and their rhetoric. Hardly the right atmosphere for a discussion about tribal sovereignty.

The early primary campaign season is not ideal for a serious discussion about Indian Country’s issues. The election calendar starts with Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in late January.

Nevada will be the fourth state to vote — and the first state with a significant tribal population. There are more than thirty reservation communities, urban residents, and a total Native American population of about 1.6 percent. More important, Nevada remains a caucus state. So if a large number of Native Americans show up in the right locations, well, all bets are off. (Only 33,000 Republicans voted in the last Nevada caucus out of some 400,000 G.O.P. voters.)

And what if there was a Native candidate as a draw? This ought to be the year to make that so.

A Native American candidate could take advantage of a nasty, undemocratic (but legal) structure. The law allows secret donors to spend unlimited sums of money to benefit a single candidate. So what if a few of the wealthy tribes, and, yes, I do mean casino tribes, raised a lot of money for such a super PAC? (Even though the money cannot go directly to a candidate, it still has been used to boost candidates. In 2012, for example, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was on the receiving end of more than $15 million from casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife.)

Coming up with a super PAC candidate from Indian Country is a tough sell for Democrats. Even though there are many folks who could (and should) be candidates, there are too few with a large enough political footprint. And taking that much money from a single source runs against what many grassroots type candidates believe anyway.
But on the Republican side, there is someone who has that credibility right now, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of the Chickasaw Tribe.

Cole is as conservative as his Oklahoma voters yet he is often the voice of reason in the House of Representatives. He’s said that new revenue — meaning taxes — might be needed to get past the sequester and that repealing the Affordable Care Act might not be possible as long as a Democrat is in the White House. This alone distinguishes him from the other fifteen Republican candidates running for president.

He’s championed tribal sovereignty and was a key player in the House vote for the Violence Against Women Act. Let me be clear here: Cole fits the orthodoxy of the Republican Party. He supports pipeline construction and increasing oil and gas production. Cole also wants less federal spending and votes for budgets that would have negative impact on tribal communities. But for a Republican primary, and for a Republican candidate, Indian Country would still come out ahead, if he were running and raised the issues in Indian Country that call out for a larger debate.

The down side of a Cole candidacy is that he would have to give up his seat in the House — and his seniority and influence. That’s probably too high a cost for an improbable presidential quest. But this might be the year to try something outrageous.

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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This is a great day for Al Goozmer (pictured above). So the tribal president wants to show us everything in this village of about 200 people.

We start at the airstrip where there’s a new fire station. A mural painted in vivid colors proclaims, “TUBUGHNA: The Beach People.”

Then he shows us the tribal garden growing fresh produce. A few vegetables are already sprouting inside the greenhouse. But this is just a beginning, Goozmer said, “I asked them to look into putting another garden on the other side, that is going to be dealing, primarily, with our native berries, blueberries, salmonberries, and all the other berries here.”

But the real gem is ahead. We’re on our way to visit a piece of land that’s being donated to the tribe by The Nature Conservancy. The land is a couple of miles from the village. On the way, between the beach and a high bank of soil, Goozmer picks up a clump of earth, and explains how the land evolved over time.

He is that passionate about the land.

“I have a son who was 36-years-old and I never have seen him until he was 36. When we first met, we just fell into each other’s arms and cried and cried. It was just an awesome, awesome thing,” Goozmer said. “This is the same thing with the land. Our land, it was traditionally our land for the past thousand years, is coming back into tribal government, tribal hands. It’s like meeting your long lost relative again and reuniting with them.”

Goozmer starts his telling of the story with a coal mine that has been proposed by PacRim Coal. The land is near a deportation point for the minerals that would be shipped out. It’s a 160-acre parcel that had been homesteaded and was later donated to the Catholic Church. Then, in 2008, instead of selling the land for development (for what Goozmer calls “boo koo bucks”) title was conveyed by the church to The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy has now donated that land back to its first owners with support from the Great Land Trust. The deal includes a conservation easement, limiting development and allowing tribal members use of the land for subsistence hunting, fishing, and berry-picking.

The return of such a parcel to an Alaska Native village is historic because the idea of tribal lands in Alaska is growing in both importance and inevitability. However a discovery a couple of years ago made this particular site even more important: It’s a rich cultural and archaeological site showing significant evidence about how Tubughna people have lived for the past thousand years.

“When we learned of the deep cultural significance of this place to the Tebughna people, we realized that the people of the Native Village of Tyonek would be its best long-term stewards,” said Rand Hagenstein, Alaska state director for The Nature Conservancy.

The formal title for this land is now, Etnen Bunkda, or Mother of the Earth. It comes from the Dena’ina name for the region. There is evidence of several homes from different periods of time, demonstrating a long arc of history for Tebughna as residents.

The site also includes a number of cold storage pits. These were the first refrigerators, deep holes once lined with grass and bark to preserve salmon and other foods for winter consumption. The Mother of the Earth site is a clear example of the Tebughna reliance on fish for a thousand years.

“Land managers do not fully take into consideration the fact that indigenous people have a whole cultural identity that’s related to land and subsistence, an appreciation for what the land provides,” said Heather Kendall-Miller, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. So the agencies responsible for making decisions about land, fish and game did not get the subsistence connection to the land. “The Chuitt River is one of the last rivers in the entire Cook Inlet that still has habitat for King Salmon. And that would have been impacted by the coal project,” Miller said.

The Native American Rights Fund represents the village in the land transfer.

In addition to subsistence, the transfer of this land adds to the larger Alaska debate about tribal lands. This agreement recognizes the possibility of the land being taken into trust by the Interior Department once that process is open.

“For us to again have a land base is just awesome. We have our identity refocused and reconnected back to the land of who we are,” said Goozmer. The village was once a part of the Moquawkie Indian Reservation.

However, he said, “the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act took away our ability to own land.”

Instead the land title was conveyed to regional and village corporations. “So we became shareholders instead of land owners. The corporations … are the owners and we have shares, but it’s not the same.” But the transfer of such a significant piece of land is a step in a new direction. “For us, as Natives, to be land owners intricately tied to the land, its resources, its animals, and what it produces, this is our grocery store and our pharmacy,” Goozmer said. “Hopefully this is just a beginning to get our identity back and reconnect us to the land.”

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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House and Senate negotiators have reached a deal on a budget resolution. That agreement then would go to each House for a vote. (An outcome that is not certain.) But, if it passes, it would be the first budget enacted by Congress in six years.

Let’s be clear about this plan: It would require deep spending cuts in federal Indian programs.

While the budget itself is not law, it sets limits for each of the appropriations committees to follow. According to a report from The Associated Press the draft document adds some $40 billion to military spending and calls for deep cuts to all domestic programs, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service.

“The plan sets broad budget goals but by itself has little teeth; instead, painful follow-up legislation would be required to actually balance the budget,” the AP said. “It also permits the GOP majority to suspend the Senate’s filibuster rule and deliver a special measure known as a reconciliation bill to Obama without the threat of Democratic opposition. Republicans plan to use the special filibuster-proof bill to wage an assault on Obama’s Affordable Care Act rather than try to impose a variety of painful cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, student loans, and other so-called mandatory programs over Obama’s opposition.”

The House budget is blunt about the next steps required to balance the budget within a decade, including repeal of the Affordable Care Act. “None of the reforms proposed in this budget will be able to solve the underlying challenges in our health care system so long as Obamacare remains on the books. Our budget fully repeals Obamacare,” according to the budget plan.

This very notion sets up an debate. President Barrack Obama would need to sign any appropriation into law — so a veto threat has merit. But the Congress still must pass a bill to appropriate money that would defy their own budget rules on programs such as the Indian Health Service (because some of that agency’s authorizing legislation is the Affordable Care Act. Remember: The Indian Health Care Improvement Act is a chapter of the ACA.)

This debate is going to be difficult to resolve.

At the same moment that the Congress is pursuing its latest “repeal” of the Affordable Care Act more states, even states controlled by Republicans, are moving forward with an expansion of Medicaid. This may be the most important part of the Affordable Care Act, especially for Indian Country because it’s adding new dollars to the underfunded health care system. Montana is the latest state to expand Medicaid.

A new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation says hospitals in states with Medicaid expansion are reporting a significant decrease in uncompensated care and a boost from Medicaid revenue. “Overall,” the report said, “hospitals in Medicaid expansion states saw increased Medicaid discharges, increased Medicaid revenue, and decreased cost of care for the poor, while hospitals in non-expansion states saw a very small increase in Medicaid discharges, a decline in Medicaid revenue, and growth in cost of care to the poor.”

In past budget years, American Indian and Alaska Native programs have been able to get support from the appropriations committees, but in this cycle there will be less flexibility because of the instructions in the budget. The ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Nita Lowey from New York, said the “Majority’s allocations, which are based on the House budget resolution that passed on a party-line vote, are insufficient and fundamentally flawed.”

She said: “The Interior bill’s allocation paints a similar picture with an allocation that is $246 million below the FY 2015 enacted level. We will still have to cover the increased costs to combat deadly wild fires, provide contract support costs in the Indian Health Services, and prepare for Centennial anniversary of the National Park Service, all from an allocation below last year.”

This budget resolution would cut deeper than even the sequester. As Lowey said in a press release, “I think my colleagues on the other side generally agree that sequestration was a failure, and a return to those sequester-level caps threatens important defense and non-defense priorities alike.”

The Republicans have yet to identify specific spending numbers based on their budget targets.

No Democratic votes are required in either the House or the Senate to enact this budget resolution. The president does not need to sign the resolution, but he will need to sign into law any future appropriations based on the spending plan.

Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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Austerity

No child grows up hearing — or asking — for numbers. Instead the four words, “tell me a story,” are the ones deeply embedded into our human software. And that will never change. But the power of numbers, the importance of data, is growing exponentially and becoming essential to how we understand larger narratives.

Then this is not new. The use of statistics, counts, numbers, all have always been a part of how we tell stories. Buffalo hide paintings are great examples from another century. Pictographs recorded people, buffalo, soldiers, villages, and meteor storms. The data was recorded. Then we did the same things with ledgers, books, computer tapes, and a couple of decades ago floppy discs, CDs, and thumb drives. Today we carry more data capacity in our phone than we ever had in our offices and homes. And what’s on that recording? IBM once estimated that the content of all of human history totaled some 5 exabytes (or five billion gigabytes of information). Now we produce that many videos, pictures, and words every couple of days.

We need more useful numbers — and this is one of Indian Country’s great challenges in an era of both austerity and transparency. In 1900 the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget was $8.2 million. It took nearly 80 years before that funding level topped a billion dollars. Then the first $2 billion was in 2001. Last year $ 2.6 billion. And the Obama administration’s current request is for $2.924 billion. (I am working on a history of Indian appropriations — more on that soon.)

So I have been thinking about these numbers in the context of the recent narrative about Native youth. The stories themselves are inspiring, starting with the president’s visit with young people in North Dakota, followed by the recent meeting at the White House. As First Lady Michelle Obama put it: “So we all need to work together to invest deeply — and for the long-term — in these young people, both those who are living in their tribal communities … and those living in urban areas across this country. These kids have so much promise — and we need to ensure that they have every tool, every opportunity they need to fulfill that promise.”

This is where the numbers and the story intersect.

A commitment to invest deeply and for the long-term requires serious cash and resources. The president’s budget matches that rhetoric with a budget request of $1 billion to promote Generation Indigenous, an initiative designed for Native American youth. “In today’s global economy a high quality education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity – it is a prerequisite to success,” the Interior Department said. “President Obama set out a vision for a 21st century education system grounded in both high academic standards and tribal values and traditions. Making advanced education opportunities available for tribal members is a high priority for tribes, who see education as the path to economic development and a better quality of life for their communities through an educated and skilled tribal member workforce.”

Today’s Native youth are perfectly cast for this initiative. Even on remote reservations or Alaska villages this is the digital native generation. They have grown up collecting more data on their phones — music, Facebook posts, video and photographs — than any other generation in history. They grow up connected to other Native youth across the country making deep digital friendships with dozens, even hundreds of other Native American youth. That’s new. It’s exponential.

I also think about the digital opportunity ahead for young people who live in a remote community. You can live anywhere in the world and produce videos for YouTube. Or write computer code. In 1971 a Unix computer had a couple hundred thousand lines of code. Today the software for a modern car has more than 90 million lines of code. That’s a lot of jobs for young people who have the right skills. And why not Generation Indigenous?

Of course that means Congress will have to actually appropriate the kind of dollars to make youth a priority. Not just a story, but a future that’s bolstered by real numbers.

Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the freeTrahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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Austerity

Could we be nearing the moment to really address climate change?

A quick answer is “no.” Of course not.

The Republicans in Congress are hell-bent on pretending that climate change does not exist let along agree to any shifts in policy. So they continue to fight for the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. As the House Energy and Commerce Committee tells the story, the pipeline expansion “would carry up to 830,000 barrels of oil per day 875 miles from Alberta, Canada to Steele City, Nebraska. From there, the oil would go to refineries in the Midwest and Gulf Coast. The new pipeline would also transport some of the rapidly-increasing oil production from the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Montana.”

But here is the thing: There is already a glut of oil and the idea of adding more makes no sense.

As National Public Radio reported last week “there has been some concern that the U.S. will run out of places to put it all. Some analysts speculate that could spark another dramatic crash in oil prices.” How big a decline is an unknown. NPR quotes a Citigroup analyst saying $20 a barrel is possible. Others predict a continued fall in oil, to, say, $35 a barrel. Oil is a commodity and traded on public markets. So the price depends on perception about its supply and scarcity.

One reason why there is so much oil out there is that people are using less. The Nation recently wrote that the Energy Information Administration “projected that global oil demand would reach 103.2 million barrels per day in 2015; now, it’s lowered that figure for this year to only 93.1 million barrels. Those 10 million “lost” barrels per day in expected consumption may not seem like a lot, given the total figure, but keep in mind that Big Oil’s multibillion-dollar investments in tough energy were predicated on all that added demand materializing, thereby generating the kind of high prices needed to offset the increasing costs of extraction. With so much anticipated demand vanishing, however, prices were bound to collapse.”

I happen to think the decline in consumption is a long-term trend. There are a couple of reasons for that. The first is that people drive less after 40 years old — and the Baby Boom is long past that. A New Direction Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future, a 2013 report by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund found that “Americans drive no more miles in total today than we did in 2004 and no more per person than we did in 1996.”

And, while Baby Boomers are less inclined to drive, the Millennial generation is thinking about transportation differently, “driving significantly less than previous generations of young Americans. Millennials are already the largest generation in the United States and their choices will play a crucial role in determining future transportation infrastructure needs.”

Even if gas prices stay low these trends are not likely to reverse. As the New Direction report points out: “If the Millennial-led decline in per capita driving continues for another dozen years, even at half the annual rate … total vehicle travel in the United States could remain well below its 2007 peak through at least 2040—despite a 21 percent increase in population.”

Of course Indian Country is unlikely to be included in this data. Too many reservations require driving because there are few other alternatives. And the price of gas determines how much we’ll have to spend on everything else.

And the idea of cheap gas could help sell climate action. If it’s not profitable to pump oil right now, perhaps, oil companies will find a reason to delay investments in new projects. That means leaving carbon products in the ground for a better return on investment.

This is already happening in Canada. TransCanada is giving up on plans for a new energy port and delaying one of its pipeline projects.

On Tuesday the White House said the U.S. will double the pace of carbon reduction from 1.2 percent per year on average during the 2005-2020 period to 2.3-2.8 percent per year on average between 2020 and 2025. “This ambitious target is grounded in intensive analysis of cost-effective carbon pollution reductions achievable under existing law and will keep the United States on the pathway to achieve deep economy-wide reductions of 80 percent or more by 2050,” the White House said.

And Keystone XL? I don’t see how the White House could justify this project on economic or climate grounds. And especially now because the only way to reach those targets (which most experts say is only a modest improvement) is leave oil right where it is. And now, for a moment at least, it’s the interest of oil companies to do the same.

So long live $20 oil. And let’s leave it in the ground.

Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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Austerity

What will Alaska look like in 10,000 years? Who will be here? What will they do? And, most important, what will preserved from the past kilennium?

These are not easy questions. Even thinking about the next decade, let alone thousands of years, is interrupted by every crisis that requires attention. There is business to transact. Cell phones buzz. Unanswered emails compound. And, so, we think about the now, not the next.

What if we step back and only think about the future? We turn off our phones, don’t answer email, and ignore interruption.

The First Alaskans Institute recently gathered a group of people together for a week in Bethel to have that very conversation. Elizabeth Medicine Crow said that very idea is a part of the institute’s vision and came from the founding board members. “I think intuitively it makes a lot of sense for Native people. But I also think for most people it’s really hard to wrap their arms around, ‘what does that mean? For 10,000 years.’ It’s really not so much of a mystery for us because we can actually turn around and look directly at our past because we’ve been here for longer than that. We know that as stewards of our time, on behalf of our people, that we have at minimum a trajectory of that much time to look forward to.”

Medicine Crow, who’s president of the institute, said it was a chance to convene a diverse gathering of people who were eager to think deeply about “where we’re going.”

“So it’s not just corporations, it’s not just tribes, it’s not just non-profits, it’s also artists, it’s elders, it’s young people, mothers and fathers, aunties and uncles, storytellers, performers, it was a real mix” she said. “It’s non-hierarchical. So it’s not just people who have a title. Leadership to us is our Native people who are stepping up to help our communities and to help our people.”

Medicine Crow is Tlingit and Haida from Kake. She told a story about a lesson she learned from Polynesian navigators. “The traditional practice of sailing by the stars requires that they set their bow looking forward but they are navigating from the stars behind them because from that they can know the direction their bow is going. I think that is such a powerful analogy about the way our ancestors think about time. And the way we should think about it, too.”

The long story that reflects the Alaska Native experience — or Native America’s for that matter — is mostly about the interruptions from the past century or two. So the current challenges are not the norm, certainly not over a 10,000 year history, but nonetheless require our attention to get back on course.

And some of this course correction requires immediate action. In less than fifteen years, for example, Alaska will have a higher percentage of Alaska Natives, Asian Americans, Hispanics and African Americans than white people. “The state is already super-diverse. It may not look or feel that way depending on where you’re from in the state but as a whole the state is really diverse. As we continue to march through time, especially for Alaska Native populations, most of our population is under the age of 25 and that birth rate is only increasing. So if you apply that to all the other populations, the same thing is happening, plus we’re having so many more people move up. What Alaska will look like on its face is going to be a lot different by the year 2040 than it does today.”

This means new sources of political power and coalitions will be formed to deliver change in Alaska (and in so many other parts of the country). Medicine Crow said people felt a sense of power, a recognition that it already exists, ready to walk out the door and do something.

One conversation focused on ending sexual abuse and decided to find a way to create more involvement with the Men’s and Women’s houses. “That was so powerful for the participants from the houses,” Medicine Crow said. “But they came out of it knowing that it was something that was good for our community … to be able to talk about the issue and to really say, ‘enough is enough.’ That was really exciting to see because they were not waiting for someone to say, ‘We now deem you authorized to take care of this, this is not your territory,’ but rather, we’re all Native people, it’s all our responsibility and this is something we can do.”

What struck me about the Bethel gathering (and I was only there part of the time) was a sense of optimism about the future. The benefit of a 10,000 year horizon is that it makes every problem solvable because at the end of the arc is people who continue to live and survive in land of their ancestors.

The goal of the Bethel meeting was not a detailed strategic plan, but a framework for conversations that will continue “to make sure that we’re cultural distinct people. Not the same. Not Alaska Natives being the all the same. But culturally distinct societies of people. And these aren’t even my words,” Medicine Crow says with a smile. “They’re my grandfather’s words.”

Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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Austerity

The House Budget Committee unveiled its budget Tuesday — and the details are not good news for Indian Country.

First: The budget calls for more spending cuts than any previous Republican budget, some $5.5 trillion over the next decade. The pay off would be a balanced budget. But most of those cuts fall into “domestic” spending and that’s the source of most of the federal dollars for Indian Country.

Second: The budget repeals the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. “Obamacare is not working for America’s families, doctors or employers. It is imperative that the President’s health care law be repealed so that we can start over and make targeted, common sense reforms that will improve access to affordable health care choices,” the House Budget committee said.

“This budget repeals Obamacare in its entirety – including all of the tax increases, regulations, subsidies, and mandates” the House Budget committee said. That includes the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

The proposal would also transform Medicaid into a block grant program, giving the money directly to states. Medicaid now represents some 20 percent of the Indian health system funding.

In a language that’s not English, the report said, “the budget repeals Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion so the program is able to focus on its core mission of serving those in our communities most in need of assistance.” Translation: We’re cutting insurance for those who can least afford insurance. This is nuts. The Medicaid expansion has been the key to making health insurance more available. Since the enactment of the Affordable Care Act there has been a 35 percent decline in the uninsured, according to new data from the Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly 17 million people have insurance coverage under the law. The House budget offers no replacement provisions for those who would lose their health insurance coverage.

This report is full of Orwellian language. Another of my favorites is this line: “We do not invite the across-the-board sequestration cut that would occur if we were to simply budget or appropriate a defense spending level that is above the existing cap mandated under current law.” In other words, the sequester applies to every other part of government, but not Defense. As I mentioned in my last post, this is an attempt to balance the interests of those in Congress who want deep spending cuts with those who want more money for defense.

The budget does not actually appropriate dollars. That is still the job of appropriations committees. But this document would be an overall limit to spending and would force the folks writing budgets to keep their numbers below the caps. This budget is similar to Paul Ryan’s recent approaches to spending and House Democrats said that would mean a cut of at least $375 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a $637 million reduction for the Indian Health Service. But that’s just in direct appropriations. If you reduce Medicaid that could trim as much as a billion dollars from Indian health programs.

The Senate will unveil its budget later this week as well. The goal is to have a budget enacted before April 15. The Senate’s budget will not require a supermajority, by rule it cannot be filibustered. So this budget will reflect the will of the Republican majority in both Houses. The budget still will face a likely veto, especially since it includes a repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the freeTrahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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TRAHANT

 
Austerity

The battle over federal spending is about to get ugly. Real ugly.

It’s been a Republican promise to balance the federal budget within a decade. And in an election campaign that promise look soooo easy. Cut a penny here, another there, and somehow, magically, revenues match spending and there’s a balanced budget. Since Republicans now control both the House and the Senate this should be a done deal, right?

But that’s not how it happens in the real world. In the federal system there are all kinds of fiscal obligations that move through the system automatically. If a person is eligible for Medicare or Medicaid … then the money is spent. Congress doesn’t have to appropriate a cent. The automatic side of the budget is growing because Baby Boomers are older and drawing more benefits such as Social Security.

But that’s only the beginning of this complex spending debate.

The money spent on American Indians and Alaska Natives is a tiny fraction, far less than one percent of the overall budget. Yet every idea to cut federal spending ends up significantly impacting tribal communities, making it impossible for tribal leaders to plan ahead, and disrupting ongoing initiatives ranging from education to economic development. The president’s budget would benefit Indian Country.

And while there are supporters of Indian Country initiatives in Congress, the bigger issue is the overall budget and how much pressure there will be to trim spending for all every federal agencies.

The president’s budget does address the deficit. The Congressional Budget Office reports that the spending plan would have “no net effect” on the deficit in 2015 but would reduce deficits between 2016 and 2025.

But that’s not enough for those in Congress who demand a balanced budget. And even the sequester was not enough to do that.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, told a Senate panel that “the reality is that balancing the budget for any sustained period is probably not in our immediate future.” The budget would have to shrink by $5.5 trillion in ten years or eight times the size of the sequester plan and 65 times the Ryan-Murray budget deal (which didn’t last long).

You might think those numbers would be big enough, deep enough, to scare off even committed Republicans. And that’s true — when it comes to Defense spending.

Defense News quoted Sen. John McCain saying he will do “whatever it takes to avert sequester on defense. I will not agree to any budget that does not stop sequestration. We just had testimony this morning that will put the lives of American men and women in uniform in danger if we continue with sequestration.”

So that’s fight number one. Republicans who want to live up to a balanced budget pledge versus Republicans who want to end the sequester — at least as far as military spending. In a lot of ways this will be a contest of wills between the House and the Senate.

So which budget will prevail? The president’s budget — at least in terms of overall spending — has no chance. Congressional budgets will be unveiled shortly and then the fight begins and we can start to wonder what kind of last minute deal will be needed to keep the government operational.

As I said, the battle over federal spending is about to get ugly.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

I have been writing for years about the success — well, at least mostly — of Native American voters. During recent presidential election cycles the turnout from Indian Country is inspiring, helping to swing elections from Arizona to North Dakota.

And just last year Alaska Native voters helped dump a hostile state governor and replaced him with Gov. Bill Walker, an ally, as well as electing Byron Mallott, a Tlingit leader, as the Lt. Governor.

But do you want to know something really cool?

The demographic shift that reflects Native voting power is only beginning. What’s more the landscape is changing faster than expected and should bring about dramatic changes in states as “red” as Alaska and Oklahoma.

A new report looks at the numbers and the results are stunning. In 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president the population of the United States was 80 percent white. Today that proportion stands at 63 percent and it’s likely to be less than 44 percent by 2060. The report, “The States of Change: Demographics and Democracy” is a collaboration of the liberal Center for American Progress, the conservative American Enterprise Institute and demographer William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution. One of the goals is to “document and analyze the challenges to democracy posed by the rapid demographic evolution from the 1970s to 2060.”

One lens that is particularly revealing: States where people of color are the majority. The report said: “Right now, there are only four majority-minority states: California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas. But with the ongoing demographic transformation of the country, our States of Change projections find that this will become more and more common.” So in five years Maryland and Nevada will be in that category. Then by 2060 the number of majority-minority states will reach 22, including seven of the currently largest states, making up about two-thirds of the country’s population.

American Indians and Alaska Natives are very much a part of this new majority because we are younger and growing faster than an older white population.

Alaska is the ideal example. The report says the state will be majority, minority as soon as 2030. Alaska Native voters, Asian Americans, Hispanics and African Americans will make up more than half the population then and by 2040 nearly 60 percent.

Another state that’s about to change dramatically is Oklahoma. That state’s white population dropped 20 percentage points — from 87 percent to 67 percent — between 1980 and 2014. This means Oklahoma is likely to be a majority-minority state by 2045 and should be only 43 percent white by 2060.

Usually I am not please when I see demographic tables that lump the Native American category into the “other” category. But this report clearly identifies Native Americans as a significant development in that category. The report finds that South Dakota, Montana and North Dakota are also seeing a rapid increase in the Native population — and potential voters.

So what do these trends mean for Indian Country?

We are going to have more say. Or else.

Political parties and politicians must compete for American Indian and Alaska Native voters if they want to remain competitive. So it will not be enough to say that Native issues are a federal concern. Soon each state with a new majority of voters will need to adapt, being a better partner with tribal governments. The new voting majority means a better shot at Medicaid expansion to support the Indian health system or to improve state funding for tribal community colleges (a hot issue in Montana right now) because legislators are going to need to address these issues if they want to remain viable.

Of course none of these demographic trends represent a sure thing. Fact is we still have a gap between the Native population and the number of eligible voters (something the report says is shrinking). And Indian Country doesn’t turnout as many voters as is even possible now. But then again, being in the majority might change that. There’s nothing better than winning elections.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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