‘You can’t know this country’s story without learning how Indian Country fits in’

CounterSpin interview with Mark Trahant on Native American Presidential Forum.

SOURCEFairness and Accuracy in Reporting

Janine Jackson: The Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa, was a long-overdue spotlight on Native American communities and concerns, and was attended by top-tier candidates. So what happens now? What sort of questions should we (and journalists) be asking to distinguish between candidates’ talk and their walk on issues of importance for indigenous communities?

The historic forum was moderated by our next guest. Mark Trahant is a veteran journalist and journalism professor; former president of the Native American Journalists Association, he is now editor of Indian Country Today. He joins us now by phone from Arizona. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Mark Trahant.

Mark Trahant: Thank you. Glad to be here.

JJ: I don’t usually ask this kind of question, but: As a journalist, as a Native American, as a political person, what was it like to be part of this path-breaking event?

MT: It’s really an understatement to say it was historic. Twelve years ago, I was also moderator of a forum that was held in California. And that one, they couldn’t get any of the top-tier candidates. And it was a great conversation, and it raised some interesting issues. But this one, you know that there’s a good chance that some of these candidates will eventually be in the next administration; some might be continuing their work in Congress. The opportunity to really make change was very evident.

And no matter what happens, all of the candidates came away with a new appreciation of the complexity and the depth of some of the issues involving American Indians and Alaska Natives. The idea that treaties are still relevant, and that there needs to be a policy in the United States, not only for recognizing what treaties it’s committed to, but making sure that the funding mechanism and other ways of fulfilling that obligation takes place.

JJ: I know that many things were in evidence that may have been new to some audiences, and before we move on, I just wanted to ask you: Who was Frank LaMere?

MT: Frank LaMere was—they call him a Native American activist, but he was, actually, the folks that put together the conference have a better description of him as a civil rights leader. One of the things, he was a longtime member of the Democratic National Committee, so very involved in politics. He was actually at the first forum they called Prez on the Rez 12 years ago, and was very much a participant in that. He also worked really hard to eliminate alcohol sales in Whiteclay, Nebraska, on the border of the Pine Ridge Reservation, and being able to control alcohol sales there, and was very effective in that fight. He actually won it.

JJ: Well, okay, it’s not like it was a decision made from on high suddenly to pay attention to Indian issues. A lot of work, a lot of smart and dogged organizing by groups like Four Directions, for example, has gone into elevating Native Americans into national political discourse, hasn’t it?

MT: It really has. I think part of it was really hard work by Four Directions. When they first called and said, “Would you moderate this debate?” it was an easy “Yes,” because I didn’t think it would happen! I was way wrong.

But not only that, but I think the last election really set the stage for this, because you have the first two Native American women in Congress. And across the country, people could see that, you know what, there are some votes here. And Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, one of the candidates, points out Indian Country tends to vote as a bloc. And he was saying in his races, in Montana, he’d gone to these communities, and suddenly it’d be 100 to one, 200 to one. And he said, when you’re behind, you make up a lot of ground real quickly with that kind of one-way vote.

JJ: Well, yeah, when we talked to you last May, you said it felt like a very exciting year, and you certainly were not wrong. And I was going to ask you, on just that point, because I’m not used to hearing about Native Americans and “political clout” in the same news article, and I’m even reading about Native communities being a “decisive” voting bloc. It sounds like you share that sense of, not just importance, but of heightened engagement among the community.

MT: I think so. Like a lot of minority communities, the Native American voter tends to disappear during off-cycle elections, and has some real strength during presidential elections. Two years ago, they turned that around, and there was record-breaking turnout. And I think they’re only going to build on that going forward.

Two really critical states that I think will be in play because of the Native vote are here in Arizona, which is always a purple state, and Wisconsin. Both of those states have a significant Native vote. And if it’s motivated and turns out, that could really be the difference for one of the candidates.

JJ: Big media seem less interested in non-debate-style forums, but you can learn a lot of things, starting with who shows up. Biden and O’Rourke declined to attend in Sioux City; you can argue what that means, but it means. Beyond that, what can we say at this point about various candidates’ actual policy ideas with regard to Native Americans?

MT: Let me get the first part of your statement first, because I think it’s really interesting. The national media that did come was really focused on Elizabeth Warren, and that’s about it.

JJ: Yeah, yeah.

MT: And it was interesting how quickly they came and went. And Senator Sanders had a much bigger connection with the audience, but most of the media was gone at that point.

JJ: Wow.

MT: One of the other interesting things is with this last election, Congress now has a little over 0.75% representation of Native Americans, really tiny, but that’s twice as much as the news media.

JJ: Wow.

MT: And it really showed, the lack of understanding about some of these issues. One of my reporters wrote a column on not wanting to educate every reporter on Indian 101. So she put it in the column, so that people could see it for themselves, that she could refer them to.

JJ: I have to say—you know, a candidate, Amy Klobuchar, talked about “government-to-government” negotiations with Indian nations; another candidate talked about giving the Black Hills back to the Sioux. I don’t know how the Washington Post and the New York Times could come out of that and still headline, “Elizabeth Warren and DNA and Blah, Blah, Blah.” Though the Times has had a couple of op-eds from Sarah Vowell that have gone a bit deeper. But, yeah, I was disappointed to see that recycling this Elizabeth Warren business seemed to be the takeaway for national media.

MT: And the only takeaway. I mean, it’s certainly worth reporting and discussing. But it was one of many, many subjects, and the ones you just raised are excellent examples. One that I thought was stunning is, in the 1950s, the Congress, the United States decided to terminate Indian tribes, and to end the treaty relationship. This is called the termination era. And from that era, there are still a bunch of laws on the books, including tribes not having jurisdiction over non-Indians. Elizabeth Warren went, and she really schooled herself on this, she raised the possibility of repealing the Oliphant decision, which is one of those termination-era bills.

JJ: We always talk about storytelling, and with minority communities, it’s always a matter, not just of spotlighting issues, like tribal sovereignty, for example, that are of especial concern, but also of placing those people within other stories. Like last time we had you on, you were talking about healthcare issues. But I just know that there are lots of stories from Indian country that you would like to see explored, or explored differently, at the national level. So while we have what looks like perhaps a fickle kind of spotlight, what are some things that you would like reporters to be picking up on?

MT: Well, healthcare, certainly one of them. The Indian Health System—and I use that instead of the Indian Health Service—has changed dramatically in the last, particularly, 30 years. It’s now mostly run by tribes, and funded by the federal government. And the largest single funding source is not the Indian Health Service anymore, it’s now Medicaid. And yet the discussion is all about IHS as a government-run agency, and it’s just way more complicated.

If you want to look at excellence, the Indian Health System has some of the most progressive operating systems out there; the Alaska Native health system, I think, is as good as anywhere in the United States, as a public health entity. So that would be a great area of discussion.

One of the things that we raised with the candidates, since our team was so close to them for a few days, two days, is we said, “Why don’t you come back to Arizona and have a deeper conversation with us?” And several of them said they’d really like to do that. So instead of just getting the top-line issues that were raised at this forum, actually spending some time on some serious issues like Medicaid policy.

JJ: Some of the news that I’ve read has indicated, you mentioned Elizabeth Warren having a sort of more fleshed-out policy picture; Julián Castro as well I think has more of a plan. Do we see more candidates actually adding substance to the rhetoric, “let’s partner together,” but really picking up on the substance of concerns from the community?

MT: I think so. At least four of them talked really detailed policy issues, and because of that, the audience really reacted. There were four standing ovations, and I think that kind of shows that they did their homework. This was one of those forums where you really couldn’t go to it and do your stump speech, and if you did, it would show.

In fact, one of our reporters was in Iowa the weekend before, and one of the candidates, basically, on a reservation, did a stump speech, and she came away saying, “Wow, he didn’t know anything.”

So I think this is one of those opportunities where people can take a deeper dive into the issues and really learn something. And this is so important, not just for the candidates, but for the country. Because you just can’t know this country’s story without learning about how Indian Country fits into the big narrative.

JJ: Well, I did mean to ask you a question about concerns about the vote itself. I think listeners may have heard some worries around access, with regard to the Native American vote. The disconcerting court decision in North Dakota about requiring street addresses that some Natives don’t have. But I know that that also is something that groups like Four Directions have been working very vigorously on, right?

MT: They have, and it’s absolutely true that there are states trying to crackdown. One of the early ones we’re hearing about is: The voting rights measure in North Dakota the last time, to try to eliminate the Native vote, or reduce the Native votes, was sponsored by a Fargo, North Dakota, representative, and Ruth Buffalo was the one who beat him. And now the North Dakota GOP is responding by working to make sure her district is less Democratic, so that she will lose the next election, and they’re already working on this and being pretty public about it.

The thing about the North Dakota vote, and I think it’s true of anywhere where there’s overt suppression, is that it inspires people to turn out more. And so, the downside is they make it harder, but they also engage more people. And we certainly saw that in North Dakota last time around, where people went out of their way, for example, with the street addresses, one church told people, “Use our address, and we’ll register you that way.” And I think there’s an opportunity to engage folks in this next cycle that same way.

JJ: Well, I didn’t want to step on your previous point about how increased and deepened coverage of issues facing Native Americans is not just of interest to the Native American community, but that it really is about expanding our national narrative, and our understanding of this country’s history and its present.

MT: That’s right. Really, it comes down to the idea that, because tribes have a 10,000-year history on this land, plus-10,000 years, there are really some, I think, significant lessons in how people live with that. And one that I think of, that’s coming up more and more is, so I’m Shoshone-Bannock, and Shoshones once hunted mastodon, and you think about the changes that have occurred at the end of the Ice Age, and as we go into climate change, those are the kinds of stories that will be relevant again. How do you adapt to something so dramatic? And people of the land, I think, have stories to tell in that regard.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Mark Trahant, editor at Indian Country Today, online at IndianCountryToday.comMark Trahant, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

MT: Always glad to do it.


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