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State of the Union, Part 2: A Call for Votes and Resources From America’s First Nations

Mark Trahant
1/27/12

The National Congress of American Indians every year releases its “State of Indian Nations,” an alternative prospect for the Congress reported during the week of the State of the Union. This has become an important exercise for many reasons. As NCAI President Jefferson Keel says, “Tribal nations are its first governments—one of three sovereigns recognized in the United States Constitution. And our America is a place where each member of the American family of governments contributes to a prosperous future.”

That outline of how the world should be—at least from the point of view of tribes—is consistent and straightforward. Namely: The United States made promises to American Indians through solemn treaties. Those deals carry the force of Constitutional law (something that seems to be missed from those calling for a return to Constitutional principles.)

Keel’s message was before a Washington, D.C., audience at the Newseum but it was also streamed on the Internet before interested people, students in schools, and tribal leaders. It represents a moment when technology can create an instant connection across Indian country so that ideas can be shared, debated and, possibly, executed.

One of those ideas is lofty: Turn out Native American voters in record-breaking numbers. “We know it can be done,” Keel said. “For instance, on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana, turnout rates are regularly over 80 percent. A survey of seniors at UCLA showed that Native young people participate at rates higher than any other group of students. This is especially important because almost half a million Native youth will be eligible to vote for the first time in the next four years.”

There is a record of success to build on here. The upset election of Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska was because of Alaska Native organization, money—and votes.

Keel also called on Congress to make it easier for tribal governments to be successful, removing obstacles to success. This is a message that ought to make sense to all. Indeed, NCAI’s top legislative priority is fixing the confusing Carcieri decision by the Supreme Court.

But the broader issue is what Keel described as “the old way of doing things.” He said, “the Swinomish Tribe, in Washington state, saw this first hand. The tribe had worked out a deal with Wal-Mart for a big new store on the reservation. This was a great deal—a million dollars a year in lease revenue for the Tribe, and new jobs for tribal members and people throughout the community. As with every lease on Indian lands, the federal government needed to approve it. The process took more than a year and by the time it was approved economic conditions had changed and Wal-Mart had made other plans.”

Any conversation in Washington, D.C., these days is also about money—and significant federal spending cuts. Keel said, “the Budget Control Act poses great risks. The act requires Congress to cap discretionary spending for the next 10 years. Much of the funding that fulfills the federal trust responsibility is categorized—wrongly, in our view—as domestic discretionary spending. The trust responsibility is not a discretionary choice. It is not a line item. It is a solemn agreement that has been sustained over hundreds of years.”

Keel called on Congress to hold tribal programs harmless. Other wise tribal programs face cuts in the range of ten to fifteen percent across the board for the next decade. These budget actions “will threaten essential services and affect millions of native citizens throughout vast regions of rural America.”

It’s important to note about the mechanics of Budget Control Act. It’s already the law. And unless Congress changes that law (an idea supported by those who fear deep cuts in military spending) then the money is already gone. The first rule of Congress is that it’s easier to kill legislation than enact it. So any changes to the Budget Control Act will be extremely difficult.

But it seems to me there ought to ways to move some revenue designed for American Indians and Alaska Natives off of regular budget lines and into larger programs such as Medicaid. One way to do this is to treat Indian Country as a 51st state. Medicaid is expensive because of the complexity of managing 50 different systems (it’s a state-federal partnership), but Indian health programs are paid for by the federal government, but the benefit rules are set by states. That makes no sense.

The federal budget may dominate the discourse from Washington these days, but constraints do not need to limit creativity.

A personal note: This is my last column until April. I will be out of the country on a fellowship. Thank you to all the folks who read this column and who regularly send ideas and comments.

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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