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New Alaska governor, new vision

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

Alaskans from across the state met on the campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage over the weekend to talk about the transition to a new governor’s administration. The process itself was unusual, a crowded, open forum about ideas.

But even more rare: The depth of participation by Alaska Native leaders, chairing several key committees, participating on panels, and having a say in what happens next.

The co-chair for the Gov.-elect Bill Walker and Lt. Gov-elect Byron Mallott is Ana Hoffman, executive and president of the Bethel Native Corp. and co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives. She read a statement Sunday said the public transition process was designed as a “collaboration” and “to create a vision for Alaska.”

That vision represents a significant shift. Starting with this sentence: “We should identify best practices and utilize tribal structures to capture the values in our state,” Hoffman reported.

Think about that for a minute. In a state where the idea of native governance has been reduced to only a for-profit corporate model, the new leaders’ of the state are talking about using tribal structures to improve values and lives. In other words: Tribal governments matter. Even in Alaska.

Hoffman’s articulation of the transition principles carried forth some other radical notions.

— That Medicaid expansion can lead to self-sufficiency (as well as improved health care). This is exactly right. Medicaid dollars for the Alaska Native medical system, like the Indian health system in other states, is funded by federal dollars. That means more health care dollars; a bigger pie.

— “We have covered the entire spectrum from education to oil and gas and we recognize there are greater economic development opportunities ahead for Alaska,” Hoffman said.

— And, I love this, the document says, “We all agree to put fish first.”

This is how it should be. In a world where fish come first, there is a natural order, a sanctity of life, and a guarantee of clean water and health families.

Gov.-elect Walker praised Craig Fleener who had been his running mate until the fusion ticket came together with Mallott. Fleener, Athabascan, is a former deputy commissioner of Fish and Game and has worked for tribal governments. “This is the guy,” Walker said describing their conversation when he asked him to withdraw from the ballot. “He said, ‘OK. But you had better win.’ Without that, Byron and I would not be standing here today.” (more…)

Welcome to 21st century Alaska

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

Watching Alaska politics, for me, has been like looking back in time. The animosity of state institutions toward Alaska Natives is all too familiar. It’s Arizona during the 1950s and 1960s. Or Washington state during the 1960s and 1970s. Or Montana just after the turn of the new century. Not that those states are perfect now. Far from it. But what’s reflected in Alaska is a list of official state acts that show contempt for Alaska Native concerns.

Alaska voters just flipped on the time machine and zoomed forward. Welcome to the 21st century, Alaska.

The story is both improbable and historic. The year started with a three-way race for governor.

The current governor, Sean Parnell, who has been zealous litigant against Native interests during his time in office. His message was consistent: No to sovereignty. No to rethinking subsistence hunting and fishing in a way that would work for people who’ve managed game and fisheries for tens of thousands of years. And even a no when it came to ending court cases that Alaska Natives had already won. No. No. No.

Then two candidates, one an independent and the other a Democrat, challenged that idea in forum after forum. At the National Congress of American Indians in June, for example, Bill Walker and Byron Mallott already sounded like they were on the same page when it came to Alaska Native issues. This was expected from Mallott, a member of the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, and a clan leader of the Kwaashk’i Kwáan of the Raven people. But Walker was right there too, issue after issue, showing how to open the door to a new century.

Alaska should be the model for Indian Country and state relations. Alaska Natives are nearly 20 percent of the population and growing faster than the general population. And, like so many other states, Native presence, culture, and economic acts are intertwined with Alaska’s success. This state will never be more than an oil and gas colony unless it gets right with Alaska Natives.

The election is over. Promises are made. And now it’s time to see that model engaged. A transition team — one that includes Native leadership — is already moving forward.

Last August Gov.-elect Walker told me that it would take him about “fifteen minutes” for Alaska to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. This alone is huge. The Alaska Native medical system is remarkable now, but imagine what can be done with additional money. Imagine what can be done with a better partner from the state. A partnership that should create new jobs and improve health care delivery. As Walker himself said, “It helps between 10,000 and 40,000 Alaskans. And it creates 4,000 new medical jobs in our state and brings down the cost of health care. Why would we not do that?”

Why not, indeed?

But “why not?” is worth asking about on so many issues of contention between the state and Alaska Natives. (more…)

Who voted, and Indian country

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

This was a tough election. Those who are against the Affordable Care Act, don’t believe in global warming, and think that President Obama is the cause of all our problems swept into office. We won’t know the final tally for a month or so, but the Republicans picked up at least seven Senate seats, added to their majority in the House and did well in state houses.

But this is how this election was supposed to be. This is how the sixth year of a presidency looks (even for the now sainted Ronald Reagan). The whole premise of 2014 was to get out enough voters together so that the country would not have to take another step backwards. So we didn't beat history.

Worse: We let a determined group of voters chart the next two years. These were voters that were older, more white, and more determined to reverse Obama.

The NBC Exit Poll showed how different this electorate was: Young people voted in smaller numbers than 2012. And, get this, even less than 2010. NBC said: “In today’s midterms, 37% of voters are over the age of 60 but only 12% of are under 30 years old. This 25 point difference is larger than the 16 to 20 point age gap seen in the last three midterms.”

But that same exit poll has this nugget about “a growing perception that the U.S. economic system is unfair. Sixty-three percent of voters said they believe that it generally favors the wealthy, compared to 32 percent who say it is fair to most Americans.”

That is important because it is a notion that can be used to build a policy argument, even in this political climate. (More about policy from me later this week.)

I’ll look more closely at the Native vote in the next few days, but I suspect that turnout was light there too. Cecilia FireThunder posted on my Facebook page saying, “I kinda looked at the numbers and we in Shannon and Bennett Counties did not do as well as we could have. Same thing happened with Tom Daschle, the organizers did not listen to us old timers on what they needed to do differently on the rez. Dems need to accept if they want our support in all things Democrat they have to listen to what works and its why we have to take part, not the candidates or single issues. Lets learn from these glitches and plan ahead every year all year round on Indian reservations in states with large NDN populations like SD where we have 9 reservations and Pine Ridge alone has at least 30,000 plus.”

So what did work? What should we celebrate this morning in Indian Country? Actually there are some bright spots.

There seemed to be enough Navajo voters turning out (even with the confusion on the tribal ballot) to return a Democrat, Ann Kirkpatrick, to Congress in Arizona. (more…)

A test of policy, not character

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

I have to confess: I hate most political advertising. There is this idea in American politics that the best way to win is to knock the other person down.

Alaska is a case in point where misleading ads about character are common. An ad for Republican candidate Dan Sullivan complains that Senator Mark Begich is “pretending to ride” a snow machine. Or on the flip side: A Begich ad that tied Sullivan to the early release of a sex offender who then went on to commit murder (that ad is no longer used).

We’ve been trained, as consumers, to use this as a framework for making our decision — at least most of us. The thinking goes like this: Hard-core Democrats will vote their way, committed Republicans will stick with their guy, so it’s these character ads that are designed to reach out to people in the middle. I do get that. It’s even ok to use character ads where the candidates define themselves, such as several on Sullivan’s military record or others about Begich’s frugal nature.

But it’s public policy that matters.

There are real policy political differences between Mark Begich and Dan Sullivan. And we would be better off if the campaigns fought over those distinct issues, not character.

On issues that matter to Alaska Natives the issues are serious and the divide is stark. So it’s not really a surprise that the Alaska Federation of Natives board met last week in private before endorsing Begich’s re-election. It’s rare for AFN to endorse candidates, although not unprecedented (such as Senator Lisa Murkowski’s unlikely write-in re-election bid four years ago.)

So let’s focus on policy. Their differences are mostly about one thing: The role of the federal government.
At the top of the list for Alaska Natives has to be a commitment to subsistence, protecting the hunting, fishing and gathering rights of native people who’ve lived on the land for thousands of years longer than any modern nation.

Last week at AFN, Begich was clear about his stand when he said that subsistence is “a right you own, its inherent, not granted.” If that logical argument was carried to conclusion it would place Alaska Native hunting and fishing on par with treaty rights for tribes in lower 48. That’s critical because it’s because of treaties that states like Washington have had success with tribal co-management of species, improving the resource for everybody.

Sullivan, on the other hand, unsuccessfully tried to walk a fine line. He told AFN that he supports subsistence but was the state attorney general who pressed the Katie John case when it could have been over. His argument is that the issue is about federal overreach and that the state, not the federal government, could bring about a subsistence regime. That’s a tough sell. So much so that at one point AFN’s audience booed Sullivan’s response. (more…)

Two weeks to go

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

I am hoping that my ballot is in the mail today. I am ready to vote.

What I really like about voting early is that it’s an inoculation against all the TV and Internet ads. Once I have voted, I know that I am just wasting campaign or special interest money.
So here we are two weeks to go until the formal Election Day and counting of ballots.

Remember two years ago Indian Country voters outperformed. As I wrote then, this smallest demographic slice of the population made a difference in the outcomes in Montana and South Dakota races for the U.S. Senate (the only two states Nate Silver called wrong).

In 2014 these are my three elections to watch: Alaska, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Two of those states have tight Senate races (the latest Real Clear Politics look at the average of all polls estimates a Republican pick-up of 8 seats, enough for a Senate majority.)

South Dakota is now polling within the margin of error for a four-way race. That means the race is essentially tied and it will be won by the campaign that’s best organized to get their voters to the polls.
Former Gov. Mike Rounds, the Republican in the race, is viewed unfavorably by more than half of those surveyed, 51 percent, and that could lead a lot of conservatives to vote for Gordie Howie, an independent. In the most recent poll, Howie is earning about 5 percent support. As more of the national talk, however, focuses on either independent Larry Pressler or the Democrat Rick Weiland, I think this makes Howie more likely to get Tea Party support. So watch: if Howie gets more than 5 percent, that will come from Rounds and make it more likely that Pressler or Weiland wins.

And which one? That really depends on Indian Country. Will there be a turnout and consistent vote for one or the other. President Obama won nearly 3,000 votes from Shannon County in 2012, 93.4 percent of the vote. Can that number grow as voters consider changing the name of the county to Oglala Lakota County? My guess is that Weiland will get the majority of those votes, but the bigger question is can he get a large percentage, 80 or even 90 percent? (If you look through the 2014 election map and every blue county is an American Indian homeland.)

The other thing to watch is early voting numbers. The bigger the early returns, the more likely outcome favoring Weiland.

Turning to Wisconsin. The hot race in this state is for governor — and there are several issues that impact Indian Country, including mining policy. Polls show this as a tight race. Two factors that are hard to see how they will play out is the increased number of jobs and the drop in gas prices. Both are good news — so it’s a matter of perception (Are the governor’s policies responsible? Or does the president get credit?)

The Native Vote Program for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters has a goal of increasing the Native American turnout by 6 percent. To put that challenge in perspective: The turnout of Native voters was only 34 percent in the last governor’s election while the general turnout was 52 percent. That means there is a lot of room for growth. Especially with early vote. (Just think: With early voting, a community could even hit 100 percent turnout.)

I’ll have a lot more to say about Alaska this week. The First Alaskans Institute’s Youth and Elders Conference is underway in Anchorage (Shoni Schimmel speaks today, yay!) and Thursday is the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. Both are big deals — especially during an election year.
Gotta run. Idaho needs my ballot mailed back.

Will Native Americans turn out?

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

Montanans have long recognized the importance of the Native vote. Speaking at the National Congress of American Indians in September 1956, U.S. Rep. Lee Metcalf called political participation Native people’s best hope because “Indians are their own best spokesmen, their own best diplomats, but they can only exercise these roles effectively only in proportion to their … combined strength and their concerted voice.”

In other words: The more Native folks who vote, the more power and say we will have over our future.

Montana is an a great example of that promise. And, there is a long list of success stories: The elections of Sen. Jon Tester, Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Tribes, as well as Governors Brian Schweitzer and Steve Bullock (who’s in office now).

You can even argue that because of that success at the ballot, Montana produced the best relationship between tribes and a state government, in well, possibly forever.

As former Gov. Schweitzer once said, “Indians have played a major role in my Administration from day one. They lead departments, provide sound policy advice, run programs, and work tirelessly on my behalf to stay connected to tribal leaders, members, and communities throughout Montana.”

Former Sen. Carol Juneau recently wrote in Char-Koosta News about the state’s leadership role. “We now have three Indian majority senate districts and six Indian majority house districts in Montana that give Indian country a real voice in the direction of our state,” she said. “We have a much stronger state-tribal relationship being built because of this political power.”

Think about the significance of Native Montanans strength and voice. America Indians make up less than seven percent of the state’s population, but have have a say, even determining election winners.

So that’s how it ought to be. Only it’s not always that way — even in Montana. (more…)

The global warming reason to vote?

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

The People’s Climate March in New York City Sunday was supposed to be huge. There were some 1,500 organizations as sponsors, including several indigenous groups from around the world, expecting more than 100,000 people.

But they were wrong because more than 310,000 people showed and feeds on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were jammed with reports of family and friends marching and demanding environmental justice. The New York event even started with a request for permission to protest on occupied Native land.

And if the New York City protest wasn’t enough, there were similar events across the globe. As Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, said Sunday, “You know what, this is the most important place in the world right now.”

So if people understand the implications of global warming and climate change, do politicians?

“Time is not on our side,” said World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Michel Jarraud in a news release. “If we don’t act on climate change, it means we are living at the expense of what we leave to our children. It’s like borrowing money and leaving a huge debt to our children.” (The WMO has an interesting “weather” report from the future, explaining some of the climateprojections in an easy to understand newscast.) Though averting that scenario is still possible, “It will require bold decisions, courageous decisions,” he said. (more…)

On Scotland, and tribal implications

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

What about Scotland? Will it vote to remain a part of the United Kingdom or go its own way? And, could this be a future for tribal nations?

Thursday’s vote — a simple “yes” or “no” — is the ultimate question and answer in democratic form. Should we be our own country?

Should we? Rarely do citizens get to vote “yes” or “no.” Most of human history is about the war that follows such outrageous demands. We spend lives trying to answer that a question, fought by those who are willing to die (and kill) to prove their authority.

That’s what’s remarkable about Scotland. This independence movement and the alternative (which is yet to be defined) is based on individual sovereignty expressed on a ballot. The draft constitution says elegantly: “In Scotland, the people are sovereign.”

I was in Aberdeen in 2009 for a conference on sovereignty and saw this movement first-hand. I talked to people who were enthusiastic about Scottish Gaelic being taught alongside English. There already was a sense of national purpose, rethinking what a country could and should be in the 21st century.

The notion of “devolution,” or returning power to Scotland, has been unfolding since a new Prime Minister, Tony Blair, fulfilled his election promise. The Scottish Act of 1998 provided the legislative structure. Blair told BBC that devolution would “show the whole of the United Kingdom that there is a better way that Britain can be governed, that we can bring power closer to the people, closer to the people's priorities and that we can give Scotland the ability to be a proud nation within the United Kingdom.”

A lot of folks hoped that would be that. Scotland would have “enough” power. Or to use that clunky phrase from American Indian law, be a “quasi sovereign.”

Not quite sovereign. And not quite free. (more…)

ACA is worth debating

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

Newsflash: Republicans hate the Affordable Care Act. Of course they can’t even call it that; it’s only “Obamacare.” A word that’s pronounced with a sneer, derision and contempt.

Ok. That’s not news. The message about how evil the Affordable Care Act was branded around the fiftieth time that House Republicans voted for repeal.

But how does it stand as an election issue? Should candidates run on the merits of the Affordable Care Act?

If the question is asked and answered as a political one, then probably not. The law is still not all that popular.

A poll released this week by the Kaiser Family Foundation reflects that unpopularity. “Registered voters are more likely to have an unfavorable view of the ACA than a favorable one (49 percent versus 35 percent),” Kaiser reports. “Opinion tilts even more negative among likely voters1 (51 percent versus 35 percent).”

But the health care law is also not as a big deal with voters as it was a few months ago. “Asked to name in their own words the two most important issues in deciding their vote for Congress, the most frequently-mentioned issue is the economy and jobs (21 percent),” according to Kaiser. “Thirteen percent of voters name health care as a top issue, including just 3 percent who specifically mention the Affordable Care Act. Those who view the law favorably are about equally likely to mention health care as a top issue in their vote as are those with an unfavorable view (12 percent versus 15 percent).

I would suspect that Indian Country is no exception to this polling. Most of the people I have talked to are not keen on the paperwork associated with the Affordable Care Act and don’t like the idea that insurance will be a major funding source for the Indian health system.

That’s an notion that makes sense — unless you consider the alternative. The alternative is nothing. There is no plan from those advocating repeal to improve funding for the Indian health system. (One funding test for Indian health will come from the House Continuing Resolution budget, a short-term spending bill, and those details are expected shortly.)

There are important questions that should be asked of every candidate: If you support repeal, then what happens to the funding mechanisms for Indian health? How will that money be replaced in this austere climate? I have asked many Republicans running for office across the country and I have yet to hear one single satisfactory answer. (more…)

The power of social media

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

I remember getting in trouble as a teenager. The story beat me home. I was stunned at the velocity of information in a small community. The chain went like this: Something happened. People talked. And the story spread. Fast.

I guess that’s why social media, to me, is an old form of storytelling. It’s how we naturally tell stories, spreading the word to one friend (or follower) in real time. And then another. And again.

But while the forum is essentially the same, there are two new twists, the use of digital tools and the increased size of our network. (A generation ago our “network” might be a few friends gathered for coffee at the trading post. Today it’s a thousand friends on Facebook, their thousand friends, and definitely more on Twitter, Tumblr or Snapchat.)

The ice bucket challenge to raise money to prevent ALS — Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — or Lou Gehrig's Disease is a great example of how social media works. The brilliant campaign has earned more than $70 million with the goal of creating a world “without ALS!”

Every day my Facebook feed has new posts from someone taking this challenge. (Of course this whole challenge thing is familiar anyway. It’s a lot like the Winter Challenge that spread across Canada and Indian Country. Carielynn Victor, from Chilliwack, B.C., told Global News Canada that the idea was not a new one, but the concept of taking it public was new.)

So why ALS? It’s a fabulous cause and worth doing. That said: What if Indian Country could harness social media to impact the diseases that are killing most of our friends and family?

So heart disease is the leading killer in Indian Country. What if we raised money for research and action for American Indians and Alaska Natives? Or diabetes? Or any disease that impacts most of us. It could be money targeted to make a real difference in our lives.

Then, the power of social media is not just about money. Imagine what we could do to health disparities if social media challenged tens of thousands of people to walk more. Or eat better. Then post results in real time so that we all stay on task. (more…)