National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel began his annual report, State of Indian Nations, with a simple exclamation. “Indian country is strong!” That statement, he added, is something he hasn’t always been able to say. He then described this as “a moment of real possibility.”
And why not? There is a long list of tribal success stories. Tribes across the country are economic engines creating thousands of jobs. The phrase, “one of the largest employers in the county,” is one that’s repeated often and with good reason. (I see this type of success out my own window, looking at the Shoshone-Bannock Hotel and Event Center on the horizon.)
What’s more, Indian country has something that the rest of the country is missing: Young people. There are now more people older than 65 in the U.S than people between 18 and 24. However 42 percent of Indian country is under 25 years old, as Keel noted February 14. This is a huge advantage, a moment of real possibility.
Except. This advantage is coming at the same time as this massive wave called austerity is hitting.
A couple of things to think about. First, Austerity is not just about the sequester or the current budget; it’s a long-term trend that will rip apart many of the platforms that have been built and taken for granted by Indian country over the past forty years.
Austerity has the potential to wipe out any moment of possibility because it attacks the very group of people we need the most, young people. This shift actually started years ago when we allowed young people to be buried in debt in order to attend college. Soon it will impact Head Start, elementary and secondary schools, virtually every program we need to educate young people. So, at least in my way of thinking, this education deficit is the most serious debt problem in the United States.
The most immediate threat – but just the first – from this austerity wave will begin in a few days with the sequester, or across the board, federal budget cuts. Already many in Congress are already calling these cuts “inevitable” at least for the month of March. (There is a hope that the Continuing Resolution, the current budget, will fix the sequester. That CR expires on March 27 and must be re-enacted or there will be a federal government shutdown.)
Keel said NCAI and tribes are urging Congress to hold tribal programs and governments “harmless” from the sequester. Congress must live up to its treaty and trust obligations, which, Keel said, “are not line items.”
Obviously I agree with that. But the problem is that Congress is no longer an “it.” For much of this country’s history Congress acted as a singular body and decisions surfaced through an orderly process. Now, Congress is more of a “they.” The Senate has its own definition of the problem and proposed solutions (all requiring a supermajority for real action). The House is divided into three; Some Republicans, minority Democrats, and Republican insurgents who demand immediate austerity. This division matters to Indian country because it becomes nearly impossible to negotiate a solution: It requires four or five separate agreements which can evaporate before they are ever implemented. None of these factions have a majority; they compete on every issue for a winning hand. Then it starts all over again.
I believe that the best strategy for tribes is to look for unconventional solutions.
On tax reform, on the Violence Against Women Act, I think tribes should stress that these measures save money and give tribes the resources to replace appropriations. It’s self-determination and austerity.
Or look for funds that Congress hasn’t yet cut. On Indian health, for example, Medicaid is an entitlement program and not part of the sequester the same say as the Indian Health Service. If a person is eligible for Medicaid (or exchanges down the road), then the money is there. This is critical going forward when appropriations for IHS will continue to shrink (as I believe will happen). Yes, there is a treaty right to health care, but who’s going to enforce that? Which element in Congress do tribes complain to?
I still think this is a moment of real possibility. A serious moment of possibility. But that success will come from tribes finding every dollar it can and investing it in young people. This is the future, not the Congress, especially a Congress with factions bent on intergenerational destruction.
Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A new Facebook page has been set up at: https://www.facebook.com/IndianCountryAusterity.