Canada just finished its national elections and the governing Conservative Party expanded its majority in parliament. Last week Prime Minister Stephen Harper also announced the historic appointment of two Native Canadians to that country’s cabinet. (Vancouver Sun: “Two Aboriginal MPs Picked for Cabinet for the First Time”)
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo said it was the first time the cabinet would include both an Inuit member and a First Nations member, returning Health Minister Leona Aqlukkaq and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Penashue. (Assembly of First Nations: “National Chief Congratulates New Cabinet – Calls for Focused Action to Advance First Nation Priorities with 41st Parliament”)
This Canadian record-breaker is worth thinking about in the United States. There is a deep pool of Native American talent already working at federal agencies such as Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Indian Health Service, so it’s time to see the promotion of an American Indian or Alaska Native to the post of Surgeon General, as a member of the Federal Communications Commission, or better yet, to run another cabinet agency? (We’ll save the “who” on this list for another day.)
But will President Obama even have a second term? And will Indian country be as excited about Obama in 2012 as it was in 2008?
It’s way too early in the process to answer the first question. We don’t even know yet which of the Republican challengers is the strongest contender, making it hard to compare philosophy, record and approach to governing. Answering the second question is also complicated. Many in Indian country saw the last election in terms of immediate change. Some are disappointed because President Obama didn’t do this or that. But the U.S. government is slow. Real change needs to be a sustained effort over time. The president has done a solid job working with tribal leaders on core issues, ranging from consultation to protecting the budget from sharp congressional cuts. And the idea that U.S. policy could be worse—far worse, at that—is not a message that excites voters.
After the last election, Wizi Garriott, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, who was then working for the Obama campaign, told Indian Country Today, “For us, the campaign has always been about community empowerment. We’ve tried to put as many resources as possible into Indian communities so we can help our own people organize and empower themselves. That’s what this is all about.”
That’s still what it is about. The type of change that’s required is not going to come from any presidential administration. It will require more people to organize and empower themselves at the community level. To my way of thinking the Obama administration’s policies have complemented that very notion. If that message is clear—especially if it is accompanied by specific Obama administration policies and actions—then there is a good chance Indian country will turn out and vote again.
I write opinion and not straight news. So I will be blunt. It’s critical for Indian country to re-elect President Obama. We also need a Democratic-controlled Senate (if not House).
But to make that happen it’s important that Indian country look for reasons to get excited about a second term for President Obama, instead of simply being against a Republican candidate. That excitement (not anger) is what will stir a stronger turnout. This was true in 2008. It was true in Alaska’s Senate race. And it could be true again in 2012.
An energized Indian country could make a difference and decide the outcome in Alaska, Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Washington. This one voting bloc could be the difference between a Republican Senate and a Democratic one.
Why does this matter? The House Republican budget is a template for what that party would like to do to the federal budget. Its impact on Indian Country would be catastrophic. We cannot let this happen—so winning the next election is critical.
And, like Canada, perhaps a second Obama administration will break the record when it comes to federal cabinet appointments. ‘Course it’ll only take one appointment to do that.
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.