TRAHANT REPORTS— A terrible year? Elias Boudinot considered 1832 as such.
The year started with the Cherokee Nation winning its case in the U.S. Supreme Court, only to be followed by a message of “so what?” from President Andrew Jackson. Boudinot’s home was slated for auction by the state of Georgia; the idea being that settlers would then force Cherokees to flee their own homes. And, Boudinot resigned his job as editor of The Cherokee Phoenix because he believed the Chief John Ross was dictating the newspaper’s positions. He wrote: “I do conscientiously believe it to be the duty of every citizen to reflect upon the dangers with which we are surrounded; to view the darkness which seems to lie before our people, our prospects, and the evils with which we are threatened; to talk over all these matters, and, if possible, come to some definite and satisfactory conclusion.”
Boudinot had three goals for The Cherokee Phoenix. To inform tribal citizens as “a free paper,” one that would “always be open to free and temperate discussions on matters of politics, religion, &c.” Second, to publish a defense of “our rights.” And, third, the “representation of our grievances to the people of the United States.” He was particularly troubled by the last idea, reaching out to Americans. “We can say nothing which will have more effect upon the community, than we have already said,” Boudinot wrote. “The public is as fully apprised as we can ever expect it to be, of our grievances. It knows our troubles, and yet never was it more silent than at present. It is engrossed in other local and sectional interests.”
And so we shift to 2017. Our challenges, of course, are different. But the idea of a serious reflection, a public discourse, about the policy choices ahead are as important now as it was then. I have been thinking about 1832 for two other reasons: First, Donald Trump will be a president unlike any we’ve seen since, well, Andrew Jackson. And, that era, like this one is where reason and facts are discounted. There is a meanness in our public square. On top of that, our next president makes things up and yet some people still believe him. So, I guess, the public is once again as fully apprised as we can ever expect it to be.
Of course Donald Trump supporters from Indian country tell a different story.
They see him as a new champion of tribal sovereignty, especially when the focus is on energy development. (Previous: The deep divide on energy and climate issues.) The problem with this is that folks who think fossil fuels are our future are on the wrong side of history. In order to buy the logic of more oil, gas, and coal, you have to pretend that climate change is neither real nor human caused. The trade off requires believing that profits and perhaps a few jobs are better measures than science. And, to do this at a time when the rest of the planet is moving on. Linking Indian country’s future to fossil fuels locks us into declining technology and shrinking markets.
One way a Donald Trump administration could really help Indian country is infrastructure. But we know so little about the president-elect’s plan and how that could impact American Indian and Alaska Native communities. (Other than pipelines, that is.) The president-elect has called building roads, water systems, electricity grids, and telecommunications as “a golden opportunity for accelerated economic growth.” But that plan has two serious obstacles for tribal nations. Donald Trump promises to use private partnerships to pay for these projects. And, he wants the initiative to give “maximum flexibility to the states.”
Watch for this phrase in the coming weeks … “and tribes.” The Congress and the Obama administration often inserted that language into law and public policy to open options for tribes that were similar in scope to state governments. Will that continue? Or is giving states “maximum flexibility” a single paradigm?
That brings me to the two greatest challenges ahead in a Donald Trump administration, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the severe budgets that are ahead.
Repealing the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, will likely be the first vote in Congress. But repeal is the easy part. “Then what?” is a much more difficult question. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, recently told the Journal-Sentinel that a replacement bill will “take time.” He said, “clearly there will be a transition and a bridge so that no one is left out in the cold, so that no one is worse off. The purpose here is to bring relief to people who are suffering from Obamacare so that they can get something better.”
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, has said any replacement of the Obamacare should include a new version of Indian Health Care Improvement Act. That’s the ideal. But what about funding? The Indian Health Service has been historically underfunded. And the Affordable Care Act has added money, especially through Medicaid expansion. That may be the most successful element of the law and it nets the Indian health system substantial resources, money that is supposed to remain at local clinics and hospitals.
It’s important to remember that the Affordable Care Act has substantially reduced the number of uninsured Americans, including American Indians and Alaska Natives (from 16 percent in 2013 to a historic low of 10 percent in 2015). This is the number to think about: More than half (51 percent) of Native children are insured via Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. This is important because those who have insurance are more likely to get a broader range of health care services than those who only rely on IHS for care.
So depending on how the repeal and replace legislation unfolds between 11 million and 60 million people could lose health insurance coverage. And the Indian health system could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding streams.
Then the issue of money for American Indian and Alaska Native programs might be the toughest one of all. I have been writing for years about austerity as a trend. We have been lucky during the Obama years because Indian country was mostly held harmless (especially in the health arena).
But President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for the Office of Management and Budget is Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-South Carolina. He’s one of the most strident voices in Congress against federal spending (even voting against his own party when budgets were not harsh enough).
While in Congress Mulvaney championed reducing the size of the federal workforce by at least 10 percent. One of his proposals would have limited agencies to one hire for every three departures. He advocates increased work by contractors while reducing total costs.
Mulvaney defended the 2013 sequester — a disaster in Indian country — as something that “bodes well for the future.”
“We are, all of us, Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike, having a national dialogue about what is really important for our government, and what our government could do without,” Mulvaney wrote. “And it has been much too long since we have done that.”
That conversation will define 2017.
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 Twitter @TrahantReports.