Vice President Joe Biden (left) and Congressman Paul Ryan

Elections 2012: Vice Presidential Debate – Is the United States Doing Enough for Native Americans?

Mark Trahant
10/10/12

It’s too bad that Al Jazeera’s host of The Stream, Lisa Fletcher, is not moderating the vice presidential debate. Her program Tuesday asked: “Is the United States doing enough to protect the human rights of Native Americans?”

Fletcher moderated a conversation with James Anaya, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and Sherry Salway Black of the National Congress of American Indians.

Lisa Fletcher, host of Al Jazeera’s The Stream

“Essentially I found continuing vibrant communities,” Anaya said. “That is something that the American people need to be aware of. There is a widespread misunderstanding from the public at large.”

And that’s a good reason why Fletcher’s questions should pop up at the Vice Presidential debate Thursday.

The incumbent Vice President Joe Biden could respond to what, if any, changes the administration made after signing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

And Republican challenger Paul Ryan could be asked if a Romney administration would uphold its international commitments as part of this agreement.

Then a follow-up could be along the lines of, say, what do you think about the report by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? Did you read the report? Agree? What should be done?

Instead the Vice Presidential debate will probably be more about perceptions. Did Biden make a stand? Did he help President Barack Obama get back on track? Or, conversely, did Ryan upstage the sitting office-holder? Did he sell austerity as a medicine the American people are willing to drink?

Ryan’s role is fascinating. As the House Budget Chairman he has proposed the most radical budget in generations. It would end many federal programs or send them back to the states. His now boss, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, can honestly say that Ryan’s plan, not his, even though he agrees with much of it. But which parts?

We know that Romney, like Ryan, would parcel out programs to state governors, including Medicaid. Ryan’s budget would cut $1.4 trillion from Medicaid starting next year. A number so large that the Congressional Budget Office estimates that at least 14 million people would have to be dropped from Medicaid. A cut to Medicaid that large would cripple many tribal and Indian Health Service (IHS) clinics and hospitals because in some regions more money is spent by Medicaid on Indian health than by IHS.

Biden should be asked tough questions, too. While there are many success stories from the Obama Administration, the U.N. declaration requires far more from the United States. As the President said at the White House Tribal Nations Conference, the U.N. declaration is aspirational, a document that is a guiding principal, that “we must always seek to fulfill.” So does that aspiration translate into policy? Either in the United States or globally?

Both the U.N. Declaration and Anaya’s mission are global in nature. He is examining governments around the world on the standard of indigenous justice. Or as the U.N. Resolution put it: “To examine ways and means of overcoming existing obstacles to the full and effective protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, in conformity with his/her mandate, and to identify, exchange and promote best practices.”

A Vice Presidential debate about indigenous rights, globally and in the United States, is not on the agenda. But it is important because this one issue gets to the perception of the United States by people in other countries.

So is the United States doing enough? The answer is clear. Even if it’s not debated.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.

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