Era of Contraction (Like Termination) Begins Slowly; Tribes Have Time to Find New Resources

Mark Trahant

It’s nearly impossible to know when a new political era has begun for certain.

Congress enacted House Resolution 108 on August 1, 1953, officially beginning the era of tribal termination. This dreadful policy was supposed to abolish federal supervision over American Indian tribes and to subject tribal members to state and county authority.

Yet termination didn’t really take off as policy until the late 1950s and 1960s. It was a terrible idea that slowly evolved into a disastrous policy.

It was a similar shift when President Richard Nixon announced the new policy of self-determination without termination on July 8, 1970. “It is long past time that the Indian policies of the federal government began to recognize and build upon the capacities and insights of the Indian people,” the president said. “[W]e must begin to act on the basis of what the Indians themselves have long been telling us. The time has come to break decisively with the past and to create the conditions for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions.”

Five years later Congress enacted the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

And so it goes again. The new U.S. policy of contraction—one that will impact all Americans, including American Indians, for years to come—probably started after the November 2010 elections. But the actual policy implications remain distant, more threat than actual destructive force. But make no mistake: This policy route is set and based on a terrible idea that will slowly evolve into a disastrous policy.

This policy of contraction is certain because both Republicans and Democrats have bought into the premise. As President Barack Obama said Monday, “Washington has to live within its means. The government has to do what families across this country have been doing for years. We have to cut what we can’t afford to pay for what really matters.”

The president, at least, understands that the Bush-era tax cuts and two wars did as much as anything to bury the country in deficits. He also appreciates that domestic spending isn’t the long term problem; it’s a demographic issue. But in the end that back and forth is nearly irrelevent.

What matters is that tribal governments are soon going to have to completely change what they do, how they operate and how they pay for government services because of these larger policy shifts.

Last week the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced $10 million in planning grants for 129 organizations to become community health centers, including here in my community, Fort Hall, Idaho, for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. In the past it’s been easy for tribes to count on the Indian Health Service, underfunded though it may have been, for basic services. But that is no longer the case. The Indian Health Service will likely see a steady decline of resources during this era of contraction. This year it might be a 2.5 percent cut (while populations continue to grow) but that is only the beginning.

So as the policy of contraction unfolds, I think it’s essential for tribes to seek out multiple revenue streams, finding money both from government and from private sources. Wherever and whenever possible. Converting a tribal, or federal IHS clinic, into a Community Health Center is one way to do that.

I also think every tribe should create a community foundation, building up assets now (before the cuts come) that can be used to support and fund tribal priorities. How do you raise money for such a venture? Every tribe spends money with vendors, whether a government program, business or casino. So any company or individual who does business wth a tribe should be given “the opportunity” (as they say in fundraising circles) to help launch a community foundation. Some tribes might focus their nonprofit organizations on health care or scholarships for young people—all worthwhile enterprises. The key, to me, at least, is to engage new revenue streams that could continue to build community while the United States is busy shrinking its economy.

It may be impossible to know when the era of contraction began, but I do know for certain it’s here and Indian country must once again adapt. Quickly.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars, is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.

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thechief's picture
I am in favor of having every "tribal member" tithe. What better way to finance tribal government programs than have tribal members pay 10 percent of their income to the tribal government. Other social groups like the amish survive without any government assistance. I think this is the only way to sovereignty.
duwaynesmith's picture
I would agree. Community foundations sound like a novel idea. In addition to shrinking spending for domestic programs, casino income doesn't project out into the future as a very dependable revenue resource. As we all know, States are already talking about expanding legalized gambling. This appears to be slated for the future except in socially conservative states like Texas where religion is the zinger. But more important is the future make-up of Congress and the Presidency. Someone like Rick Perry could be a disaster for Indian Country. He is talking about turning the operation of Social Security to the states, and it would no longer be a federal program. We can look back in history to the termination period as you mentioned. At that time Public Law 280 had been passed, giving states jurisdiction over many facets of tribal government. It is hard to believe that something like this could happen again, but the thinking of someone like Rick Perry could alter the government-to-government relationship which could be detrimental to Indian Country. And while it looks like military spending will be curtailed by the Obama administration, Perry would likely expand it, making domestic cuts to social services and health care more inevitable. The pie is just so big and each slice counts.
davidquincy's picture
The slices of pie that is funding for IHS have been shrinking for several reasons, one is that increases, when there were increases, were offset by the cost of medical inflation and as is pointed out in this article, demographics, population increases. A second reason, is recent cases where Tribes have successfully sued IHS for their fair share of Contract Support Costs, that is the actual costs of administrating programs contracted by Tribes. Whereas, before the lawsuits, IHS paid a percentage of the actual Contract Support. The problem is that Congress did not appropriate any additional funds to pay for actual Contract Support Costs and the Courts did find that just because Congress did not provide enough funds, that this did not eliminate or reduce IHS’s obligation and responsibility to pay those costs to Tribes. Additionally, under the Bush administration, funding for Urban Indian Health programs were cut (about $32,000,000) with the rational being that there were Community Health Centers funded programs that could provide those services to Urban Indian Populations. Never mind the fact that over 60% of eligible Native Americans live in Urban areas, and that less then 2% of the IHS budget went to Urban programs. Congress did restore those Urban Health line items, but did not allocate additional funds to cover them, so the pie shrank. The notion of Community Health Centers has been around for a while and there are some Tribes who have taken advantage of those funds and have had their clinics designated as such. There are also some Urban Indian Health programs that receives such funding. Accepting such funding and designation does not come without pitfalls, notably a requirement to provide services to anyone who comes to the facility who meets income eligibility requirements. Tribes and Urban programs have to be very careful to provide Community Health Services to everyone and IHS funded services only to IHS eligible patients, (unless there is a special agreement signed with IHS). I agree with Mark that there will be tough times ahead for IHS and Tribal programs with this new era of contraction.