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Posts published in “Trahant”

A part of the state of the union

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

The thing I like about state of unions -- the national kind, the NCAI kind, and the tribal kind -- is that it’s a to do list. Leaders see this is a list of “action items” while I see this as a list of fascinating issues that are worth exploring in future columns.

I want to start with an idea raised by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union message: “Let’s make this a year of action. That’s what most Americans want – for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.”

What would a “year of action” look like in Indian Country? And, more important, how do we get there?

National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby began this year’s State of Indian Nations by talking about so many of the success stories from Indian Country. “Tribal leaders and advocates have never been more optimistic about the future of native people,” he said. But that sense of possibility is “threatened by the federal government’s ability to deliver its promises.”

President Cladoosby released NCAI’s budget request for the coming fiscal year. That document calls for funding treaty obligations with the “fundamental goal” of parity for Indian Country with “similarly situated governments.” As a moral case, and cause, this is exactly right. This is an aspirational document, as it should be.

But in a year of action there needs to be another route forward. This Congress is incapable of honoring treaties. Even in a more friendly era, members of Congress proudly called Indian health a “treaty right” only to appropriate less than what was required. This year’s federal budget essentially is flat (which means less program dollars because Indian Country’s population is growing). NCAI puts it this way: “However, the trend in funding for Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior does not reflect Indian self-determination as a priority in the federal budget.”

But it’s not the Interior Department. It’s all of government and especially the Congress. (more…)

Year of the native voter?

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

Could this be the year of the Native voter?

That’s a tall order for a population that’s less than one percent of the country. But American Indians were key contributors to winning coalitions in Wisconsin, North Dakota and Montana two years ago and there is the potential to do even better this time around.

Three things have to happen first, though. There must be candidates who are inspirational. Next, there must be organization and money. And, third, American Indians and Alaska Natives have to actually vote.

Step one is on target. There are already more high profile candidates for office in 2014 than in any election I can recall. For example, former Colville tribal chairman Joe Pakootas is running against Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers in Washington state. This is a tough race, but Pakootas has a great election narrative: How he turned around a money-losing tribal enterprise and made it profitable, creating jobs along the way.

The candidacy of Byron Mallott for governor of Alaska has to be at the top of any list. Mallott has the ideal resume. He’s a member of the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, and a clan leader of the Kwaashk'i Kwáan of the Raven people. He has worked in state government and as the chief executive of Sealaska corporation. Mallott was mayor of two towns including Juneau, the state capital.

Mallott’s path to the Democratic Party nomination is clear so he will face incumbent, Republican Gov. Sean Parnell.

Parnell, it seems, has gone out of his way to be on the other side of Alaska Native issues. The governor rejected Medicaid expansion, saying the federal Indian Health Service is good enough health care access for Alaska Natives. This is absurd. There is not enough money in the Indian health system. But at the same time he tells the federal government to cover health care for Alaska Natives, the governor demands sovereignty over subsistence hunting and fishing asking for a Supreme Court review of the Katie John case. (more…)

Congress and the budget of meh

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

The adjective of the day is “modest.” That’s the standard phrase to describe the $1.012 trillion spending bill for a federal fiscal year that has less than nine months left. The bill gives modest relief from the sequester. There are tiny (I can’t bring myself to say “modest” even in jest) increases in some federal programs, including the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and it puts off the fight over the size and nature of government until another day.

This is the Budget of Meh. It better reflects a broken governance structure than it does true spending priorities. Neither the right, those who want to shrink government, nor those of us who want to the government to invest in key program areas can claim victory. Meh.

This budget reflects a continuing trend of austerity. The federal government is shrinking. Sort of. And austerity rules.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, took credit for this idea in his news release about the compromise spending plan. “The Omnibus will fulfill the basic duty of Congress; it provides funding for every aspect of the federal government, from our national defense, to our transportation systems, to the education of our kids,” Rogers said. “The bill reflects careful decisions to realign the nation’s funding priorities and target precious tax dollars to important programs where they are needed the most. At the same time, the legislation will continue the downward trend in federal spending to put our nation on a sustainable fiscal path.”

But Rogers’ line of thinking is misleading. This huge, 1,500-plus page spending bill, only covers federal dollars that are appropriated, about one-third of the budget. This is the budget that’s shrinking, while two-thirds of the budget continues untouched on an automatic pilot, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance and, I hope, money that is pumped into the Indian health system through the Affordable Care Act.

So for Indian Country the appropriations process is broken beyond repair; business as usual is no more. The federal programs that have served Indian Country well are essentially continuing to shrink. The Omnibus budget, for example, shows an increase of $18 million for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Eighteen million! Wow. In percentage terms that’s less than one percent. The IHS increase is under 2 percent. (more…)

A look ahead in Indian country

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

It’s a new year -- and a new story. There is nothing more important to political discourse than a good story. It shapes our thinking, sets the rules for the debate, and, sometimes, warps reality. Stories matter. We humans think in terms of story. We dream, tell, and remember stories. We live stories.

So what’s Indian Country’s “story” for 2014?

Before I answer that question, let’s look back at recent narratives.

The first story goes like this: Congress broke promises made to Indian Country by cutting federal budgets beyond all reason, especially through the sequester. This made reservation life far more difficult, removing children from Head Start, scaling back educational opportunities, severe funding for healthcare delivery, and basic government infrastructure.

The New York Times, in a July editorial, captured this storyline. “It’s an old American story: malign policies hatched in Washington leading to pain and death in Indian country. It was true in the 19th century. It is true now, at a time when Congress, heedless of its solemn treaty obligations to Indian tribes, is allowing the across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester to threaten the health, safety and education of Indians across the nation.”

This is an important story to know. And to tell. But it’s also important to know that the story already has its ending. There are only two ways to change what happens next, vote out Congress or limit the damage. (More about both of those scenarios in future columns.) The second alternative is remote, but possible in 2014, with measures such as Montana Senator Jon Tester’s bill to fund Indian health programs a year in advance.

Another story told this year is about changing the name of the Washington NFL team. This story is important because it’s a success story (I know, the issue isn’t resolved. Yet. But it’s inevitable. The question is how long the team owner will fight on, not the outcome.) Forget the merits of the mascot debate for a minute and just think about the storytelling aspect.

This story is all about the long view. Suzan Shown Harjo, Raymond D. Apodaca, Vine Deloria, Jr.; Norbert S. Hill, Jr.; Mateo Romero; William A. Means; and Manley A. Begay, pressed a case calling for the cancellation of the team’s trademark protections. It’s step-by-step litigation that’s built a through record about “pejorative, derogatory, denigrating, offensive, scandalous, contemptuous, disreputable, disparaging and racist designation for a Native American person.”

The velocity of change picked up in February when the National Museum of the American Indian held a public symposium on the mascot issue. This was a story told in the heart of Washington, challenging and burying status quo.

So much so that Harjo and her allies have already won the tides of history and public opinion. The NFL doesn’t see it that way. Yet. But it will will. And if not, the litigation continues in a new form, the case now known as Blackhorse et al v. Pro-Football Inc. This is a story that’s ready for an ending.

A third story -- another one about success -- is the signing into law of reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, including provisions that recognize tribal jurisdiction. This law is a tribute to the power of story. It probably would not have become law until Deborah Parker, Vice Chairman of the Tulalip Tribes, told her story to Sen. Patty Murray and then in a Senate news conference. Parker’s narrative changed the politics. The law’s supporters built a successful coalition that trumped the politics of the ordinary, especially in the House of the Representatives. This Violence Against Women Act story, though, needs an ending. It’s not enough to pass a law, there has to accounts about how this law has really made a difference in the lives of women are abused. (more…)

The Forrest Gerard story

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

What is “The Canon of Indian Country?”

Those stories that are recited in schools, the ones most young people know by heart, tales of valor, excellence and an optimistic future.

We do have great modern stories to tell.

How leaders like Joe Garry or Lucy Covington out maneuvered Congress and put an end to the nonsense called termination. Or how Taos leaders patiently pressed the United States for the return of the sacred Blue Lake, even though that effort that took nearly seven decades. Or how a summer program in New Mexico helped create an entire generation of American Indian and Alaska Native lawyers.

But there is no canon. So important stories drift about in individual memory, forgotten far too easily, instead of being told again and again.

The story of Forrest Joseph Gerard is one that ought to be required in any Indian Country canon. He died on December 28, 2013, in Albuquerque.

Forrest Gerard was born on Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation on January 15, 1925, on a ranch near the Middle Fork of the Milk River. He told me that his “childhood I had there would have been the envy of any young boy in the United States. We had a horse of our own. We could walk maybe 15 or 20 yards have some of the best trout fishing in northern Montana. We had loving parents. We had love, support and discipline. And this was my universe, this was a world I knew.”

That world he knew changed many times in his early life. During the Great Depression his family moved into the “city” of Browning so his father could take a job. After his high school graduation, Gerard was eager to join the military and enter World War II. He was only 19 on his first bombing mission on a B-24 with the 15th Air Force. “We were forced to face life and death, bravery and fear at a relatively young age. That instilled a little bit of maturity into us that we might not under normal circumstances,” Gerard recalled. The military also opened up access to the G.I. Bill of Rights and a college education, the first in his family to have that opportunity. (more…)

Indian health money left behind

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

Monday was a key deadline for the Affordable Care Act. In order to begin insurance coverage on January 1, 2014, people were supposed to sign up by December 23, 2013, for that shiny new policy.

(On Monday the White House announced the deadline is extended a stay. That’s a good thing for people trying to navigate the web site at the last minute.)

How many American Indians and Alaska Natives signed up for this new program? Who knows? But you’d think that something this important would have so much information posted about that it would almost be annoying. There should be posters, flyers, signup fairs, reminders and banners. This should be a big deal.

Instead this deadline whizzed by, hardly making a sound in Indian Country.

So this is why the deadline, and health insurance, matters.

From this point forward every American Indian and Alaska Native who signs up for some form of insurance, through a tribe or an employer, via Medicaid, or through these new Marketplace Exchanges, adds real money to the Indian health system.

How much funding? Healthcare reform expert Ed Fox estimates the total could exceed $2 billion. But what makes that $2 billion even more important is that it does not need to be appropriated by Congress. (more…)

Health reform ahead

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

The healthcare.gov web site is working. I spent some time on it this weekend and it was easy to navigate, pages popped up when they should, and I quickly found answers.

All of this is good news because it will make it easier for folks to fill out the forms and see what’s possible under the Affordable Care Act. If you want insurance to begin on January 1, 2014, then you need to fill these forms out this month. The deadline is December 23.

But for American Indians and Alaska Natives this process is both confusing and damning. It’s confusing because it’s a form that requires financial information, a lot like a tax return, so it means rounding up some documents. The damning part? I’ll get to that shortly. First let’s explore the healthcare.gov process.

For American Indians and Alaska Natives: The most important form is “Appendix B.” This is the paperwork that secures a lifetime exemption from the insurance mandate. Lifetime is a pretty good deal. So paperwork or not, this is worth doing this month (or you can also file this with your tax returns in April).

There is help to fill out these forms. Go to the Indian Health Service or a local urban or tribal clinic. Find someone there who has been trained. You should get answers, because, as IHS acting director Yvette Roubideaux wrote recently, “I don’t know is not an acceptable answer.”

One of the best things I read this weekend was an item in Montana’s Char-Koosta News with a schedule of community meetings on the Affordable Care Act. Yes! This should be happening across Indian Country.

There needs to be information, not just cheerleading, about what this law means and how it might change the Indian health system. (This is the main reason for my five-part video series with Vision Maker Media .) The law will shake up the Indian health system dramatically, opening up new funding sources, as well as presenting new challenges.

The problem is that so much of the discourse has been cast in absolute terms. Democrats need to recognize that this law, like the web site, is not perfect. It’s just one step -- and a complicated one at that. And Republicans would better serve the country if they would stop crying repeal and look for constructive additions or subtractions. (more…)

Filibusters and Indian country

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

The United States Senate is a curious institution. It's not democratic. It's not representative. And it's the ultimate millionaire's sandbox.

So in the U.S. constitutional scheme: The 38 million people living in California get two votes out of 100, the same as the 576,000 folks who are residents of Wyoming.

One person's vote is worth more if they live in a tiny state, but at least it's a vote. Because some four million American Indians and Alaska Natives -- citizens of tribal governments -- aren’t counted as a unique constituency. By land mass, Indian Country's 50-plus million acres are bigger than almost half the states. Even breaking that number up into population counts, Cherokee’s 819,000 people or Navajo's 350,000 is in the same ballpark as one of those small states.

But that’s the deal. And the Constitution is sacred script (roll the organ-heavy musical theme now). So get over it, right?

But the thing is the U.S. Senate, this undemocratic institution, is made worse by the filibuster. Especially now that the filibuster has become a routine, invoked on every nominee or every bill. Instead of fifty votes, a supermajority of 60 votes, was required to get anything done. That changed last week. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, used another rule (one requiring just 50 votes) to overrule the filibuster on judicial and executive nominees. Only now that that procedure has been invoked, it’s only a matter of time before the filibuster is gone forever. (The filibuster is only a tradition, not a constitutional procedure. It’s only been used for about a century. And in the past decade it’s use has increased significantly.)

Let’s be clear: The super-majority has not been good for Indian Country. One of the reasons it took so long to pass the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act was that 60-vote hurdle. Or reach a final settlement on the Cobell lawsuit. Or we’ve been reading all about the complications with the Affordable Care Act. One of the key appointments, Donald Berwick, was never confirmed as the director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, and took the job with a limited timeframe as a recess appointment. (more…)

A promise that can’t be kept

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

Modern U.S. presidents have a curious relationship with North America’s first residents, American Indians and Alaska Natives.

President Richard Nixon in July of 1970 sent a special message to Congress calling for a new era with the indigenous tribes because “on virtually every scale of measurement -- employment, income, education, health -- the condition of the Indian people ranks at the bottom.” Nixon called for a “new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions.”

Not every president got the memo.

President Ronald Reagan, for example, found himself in Moscow confused by the entire premise of federal-Indian relations. “Let me tell you just a little something about the American Indian in our land,” he told a group of students in the former Soviet Union. “We have provided millions of acres of land for what are called preservations—or reservations, I should say. They, from the beginning, announced that they wanted to maintain their way of life, as they had always lived there in the desert and the plains and so forth. And we set up these reservations so they could, and have a Bureau of Indian Affairs to help take care of them. At the same time, we provide education for them—schools on the reservations. And they're free also to leave the reservations and be American citizens among the rest of us, and many do. Some still prefer, however, that way—that early way of life. And we've done everything we can to meet their demands as to how they want to live. Maybe we made a mistake. Maybe we should not have humored them in that wanting to stay in that kind of primitive lifestyle. Maybe we should have said, no, come join us; be citizens along with the rest of us.”

Reagan’s idea was insulting to the five hundred tribal governments that existed before the United States. These tribal government survived conquest and exist today because the United States negotiated treaties with them for lands and other concessions. Those treaties promised doctors and hospitals, schools, and other basic governmental services.

That history sets the stage for Barack Obama.

As president he has announced no new sweeping policy initiatives -- how do you trump self-determination? Yet most of his policies have been generally supportive of tribal governments. At the 5th White House Tribal Nations Conference (held at the Interior Department because the largest room at the White House -- the East Room -- is too small for such a gathering) Obama promised to make his first “state” visit to Indian Country as president. (more…)

Health in Indian country

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

There has been much controversy about the Affordable Care Act, what some call Obamacare. The politics are beyond intense. And those computer glitches are making it virtually impossible for people to enroll.

But for American Indians and Alaska Natives there is a whole different story to tell about the Affordable Care Act. Native Americans have a right to health care. This is a deal the United States made, a promise that including sending doctors to the tribes that signed treaties in exchange for peace and for titles to lands.

Promise or not, treaty or not, the entire history of healthcare in Indian Country has been defined by shortages. There has never been enough money to carry out that sacred bargain.

The modern Indian Health Service was created in 1955. And over the following decades, more clinics were built, more doctors were hired, and health care for Native people improved. Still, the agency never had enough money.

In 1965 when Medicare and Medicaid were enacted into law there wasn’t even consideration about how these programs would impact American Indians and Alaska Natives. The Indian Health Service could not bill the agencies for serving eligible services. Native Americans were essentially left out of that health care reform effort.

That history of shortages is critical context to understanding the Affordable Care Act. Because from the very beginning of the legislative process, the Affordable Care Act included Indian Country. This happened because a decision was made by tribal leaders to roll the Indian Health Care Improvement Act into the larger legislation.

“Let me tell you why it was different this time,” said Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. For nearly twenty years tribes urged Congress to reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. Then the discussion began about a health care reform.

“We were sitting at an NCAI board meeting, tribal leaders around the table, and said we really have to engage in this health care debate this time around. There were those that said, “no, let’s stay where we are,’” she said. But former NCAI President Jefferson Keel knew the health care industry and he agreed with the broader approach. “So we immediately started to look at the overall health care bill, working with the members of Congress, to be able to find all those other places that it was important to insert ‘and tribes.’ So not only did we get Indian Health Care (Improvement Act) reauthorized permanently. But we were able to get provisions into Medicaid, we were able to get the tax exemption (for tribes that purchase insurance for members), we were able to include a lot of places where tribes should have been considered but probably wouldn’t have been if we didn’t integrate those two pieces of legislation.”

But there still is a question of why? Why American Indians and Alaska Natives need insurance of any kind when there is a treaty right, a statutory call to healthcare, that transcends this latest national experiment? Then recall the long history of shortages. The Indian health system has never been adequately funded, probably less than half of the appropriation that would bring about some sort of parity with other federal health systems.

The main idea in the Affordable Care Act is to require health insurance for all Americans because that lowers the cost for everyone, the so-called “mandate.” But American Indians are exempt from that mandate (even if the Indian health system does not count as insurance). So the way that exemption works, this year at least, is that American Indians and Alaska Natives will have to fill out forms for an exemption (once granted, it’s a lifetime deal). The good news here is that the whole website mess does not apply.

Then insurance itself is a complicated idea for Indian Country. What is called “third party billing” has been a small, but growing part of the financial resources for the Indian health system.

You see there is this odd American idea that links health insurance to our jobs. That’s how most Americans now get their health care -- and will continue to do so even under the Affordable Care Act. But that one element is a big difference for Indian Country. Only 36 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives have insurance purchased through work -- that’s half the rate for most Americans -- and 30 percent of us have no insurance at all. (more…)