Listening to voters. Mark Trahant interviews Chase Iron Eyes, Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun and Ruth Buffalo in Bismarck.

A Pre-Election Note About a Few Lessons Learned This Year

Mark Trahant

TRAHANT REPORTS—A little more than a year ago I was teaching a class and was showing students how to build a map. I blogged about it: “What kind of map? Well, it would be cool to show where every American Indian or Alaska Native is running for office. At the federal level, Senate and House, at the state level, legislatures, and important offices, such as city councils or state superintendent of public instruction.”

A few days later I was using the hashtag #NativeVote16 and trying to cover the election in a way that had not been done before. Except, I should point out, I was impressed by the spreadsheets and regular political postings from Canada’s Indigenous Politics Blog. It reported a record 11 First Nation, Metis and Inuit candidates elected to parliament. I wrote about that, too, in a piece, Five Lessons for Indian Country from the Canadian Elections. And a day before our national election, one point from that essay still rings true:

Turnout is key. Again, as pointed out often, if Aboriginal voters had voted in previous elections there would not have been a Conservative government. Not voting is a powerful statement. It’s the same in the United States. American Indian and Alaska Natives are pretty good voters during presidential election years; then we disappear. That’s backwards. We’d have far more pull in a low turnout, off-cycle national election. Of course if we have fifty-something candidates running for Congress, that could change for the better.

And not voting remains the most powerful statement.

Mark Trahant

A year later, a couple hundred thousand words later, I am struck by how much more there is to say. This election story is about Indian country’s remarkable talent: People who look at what can be done. And then set out to do it.

Across the country there are more candidates, I think, than ever before. But what’s really interesting is the way that many chose to run, talking about Native American issues as a part of a discourse that every American should know.

There remains so much more to do, though. There needs to be a database of every Native American candidate, from school boards to county commissions, to legislatures, and, of course, Congress. It’s important because it’s not just names on a list, but a way to measure our success in the body politic. When we do that we maker it easier to discuss and engage in better policy options for tribal governments, or for Native people who are living on reservations, villages, and in urban areas.

We need to do more because Native American candidates don’t have the same access to public discourse. Recently, I traveled across North Dakota with Chase Iron Eyes, Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun, and Ruth Buffalo. I asked questions in public forums. But the thing is, this should be the ordinary. This should have been happening all along by media other than me. This is how citizens get to know their leaders. Native politicians need to be included in the routine. It’s historic that three Native Americans are running for statewide office. It ought to be a big deal. It’s what we used to call, “news.”

Then the media is no longer even trying to reflect the country and its diversity. And that more than technological disruption is why media represents a failed enterprise. The country is changing rapidly. There is a new demographic reality that will require inclusion.

Native American voters are part of a growing coalition that will win the future (no matter what happens Tuesday.) My headline was: The Road to the White House is Red, Brown, Black and Young. I still think that way, but I should have added gender to the equation. All week I have been saying watch the numbers 53 and 56. Four years ago 53 percent of all ballots cast were by females. So far in early voting states that report gender, the number is 56. If that percentage holds nationwide, this will not be a close election.

I also think we need to continue to press forward on election reform. The system we have does not work. It needs to be fixed before something goes wrong, such as a presidential election that ends up in the House of Representatives instead of decided by voters. (Three pieces to consider: America and the Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Election; The Hidden History of Why Native Americans Lose Elections (And What To Do About It); and, How Does A Country With A Rigged Two-Party System Reinvent Itself as a Multiparty Democracy. )

Another lesson I learned this year is about the power of graphics. People today consume (and share) information in new ways. This really hit me after the Iowa caucus. I took a screen shot of a precinct from the Meskwaki Nation. It went viral. I lost count, but the views were more than a hundred thousand. So from that point on I have tried to make graphics a key part of my storytelling.

Some experiments did not work. I built an app (it’s still here) but it has virtually no audience. A new experiment, however, Apple News already has a significant audience. If you have an iPhone, check out Trahant Reports.

Of course it’s social media that makes Trahant Reports possible. I don’t have a news organization as a home. But I have found a distribution method that works for me. I post something and it travels via social media and is shared by others. Or it’s posted by other media, often as their own. Either way: I write. But I don’t control the distribution. It’s up to others. But there is a growing audience and that makes me wonder if there is a way to build a new kind of news organization, one that’s focused on policy discussions, data, and discourse.

Enough introspection. I have other stories I need to post this weekend.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On @TrahantReports” target=”_blank”>Twitter @TrahantReports.

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