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Winning the Day: Indian Country’s Election Year Begins Now

Mark Trahant
1/18/12

Happy New Year. Or, I should say, happy election year. From now on the national election for president (as well as the house and the senate) shifts from a vague threat to an actual election. But not just any election because the 2012 result represents a significant threat to Indian country.

No matter who or which party wins there will be ginormous changes in federal programs and dollars that are invested in Native American communities. Remember both Democrats and Republicans are promising significantly less spending as we enter a new era of contraction. The reasons for that policy shift are complicated by the nation’s debt levels and the aging demographics of the country.

Still there remain major policy differences between President Barack Obama and the Republican challengers for the office about how to make these cuts and what alternatives might be put in place to cushion the blow. The Obama administration has done a pretty good job of protecting funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service recognizing decades of underfunding. That will not happen if any of the Republican candidates are elected (and the more strident G.O.P. candidates are promising to eliminate the BIA and to strip tens of millions of dollars from IHS).

Elections are about choices. Do we choose to participate? And, if we do, what person or party is the better alternative? And, most important, can we win the day?

I hear from and appreciate the views of those who choose not to participate in American elections. That is a choice -- and one that means that decisions will be made that impact your life without you. The American Civil Liberties Union in a 2009 report said that “South Dakota also used an alleged lack of Indian interest in state elections to justify denying residents of some counties the right to vote or run for county office.” In fact, one reason to get excited and engaged in the 2012 election is that many Republican-controlled state legislatures are trying to restrict voting or dilute American Indian votes.

Historically I think you can make the case that there are merits and missteps from both parties when it comes to Indian Country. Many Democrats supported termination and the modern framework of self-determination surfaced during a Republican administration. But in this election cycle that is not the case because the Republican Party has moved so far to the right. There are code words for termination hidden in the details of Republican budgets. There is no room for tribal self-determination or even a way to build a native economic community when the defining philosophy is anti-government. The current Republican premise is incompatible with Indian Country.

Can we win the day? Only if Indian Country gets engaged. The Native Vote 2012 (a project of the National Congress of American Indians) identifies 13 states where  American Indians and Alaska Natives could be decisive. Any list would start with Alaska were the native vote was decisive in re-electing Sen. Lisa Murkowski after she had lost her primary in 2010.

The presidential campaign this time around will be different than the last one. In 2008, for example, one of the accomplishments of the Obama campaign was a 50-state strategy. This time around Obama is more likely to focus on what it will take to win 270 electoral votes.

In that scenario: Indian Country’s influence will be key in six states, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. The Center for American Progress in a report, “The Path to 270: Demographics versus Economics in the 2012 Presidential Election,” says these states (I added Arizona to center’s list of states in play) are all “marked by fast growth and by relatively high and growing percentages of minority voters ...” as well as an advantage for Obama among white college graduates. This could result in an effective election coalition.

In Arizona and Michigan you also have American Indians running for Congress and that could increase both enthusiasm and turnout. The recall election in Wisconsin is also generating a campaign infrastructure that could win there.

Nearly four years ago there was tremendous excitement in Indian Country because of the election of Barack Obama. But along the way we forget that it takes elections—not an election—to make hope and change so.

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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