« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Winning the day


Happy New Year. Or, I should say, happy election year. From now on, the national battle for president (as well as the house and the senate) shifts from a vague threat to an actual election. But not just any election, because the 2012 result could represent a significant threat to Indian Country.

No matter who or which party wins, there will be ginormous changes in federal programs and dollars that are invested in Native American communities. Remember both Democrats and Republicans are promising significantly less spending as we enter a new era of contraction. The reasons for that policy shift are complicated by the nation’s debt levels and the the country's aging population.

Still, there remain major policy differences between President Barack Obama and his field of Republican challengers about how to make these cuts and what alternatives might be put in place to cushion the blow. The Obama administration has done a pretty good job of protecting funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service, recognizing decades of underfunding. That protection will no longer be certain if any of the Republican candidates are elected. In fact, the more strident G.O.P. candidates promise to eliminate the BIA and to strip tens of millions of dollars from IHS.

Elections are about choices. Do we choose to participate? And, if we do, what person or party is the better alternative? And, most important, can we win the day?

I hear from and appreciate the views of those who choose not to participate in American elections. That is a choice -- and one that means that decisions will be made that impact your life without you. The American Civil Liberties Union in a 2009 report said that “South Dakota (has) used an alleged lack of Indian interest in state elections to justify denying residents of some counties the right to vote or run for county office.” In fact, one reason to get excited and engaged in the 2012 election is that many Republican-controlled state legislatures are trying to restrict voting or dilute American Indian votes.

Historically, I think you can make the case that both parties have their merits and their missteps when it comes to policies and positions that affect Indian Country. Many Democrats supported termination and the modern framework of self-determination surfaced during a Republican administration. But in this election cycle, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. There are code words for termination hidden in the details of Republican budgets. There is no room for tribal self-determination or even a way to build a native economic community when the party's defining philosophy is anti-government. The current Republican premise is incompatible with Indian Country.

So can we win the day? Only if Indian Country gets engaged. The Native Vote 2012 (a project of the National Congress of American Indians) identifies 13 states where American Indians and Alaska Natives could tip the balance in election outcomes. Any list would start with Alaska, where the native vote was operative in the re-election of Sen. Lisa Murkowski after she had lost her primary in 2010.

The presidential campaign this time around will be different than the last one. In 2008, for example, one of the things that led to Obama's success was his campaign's 50-state strategy. Now, Obama is more likely to focus on what it will take to win 270 electoral votes.

In this new scenario, Indian Country’s influence will be key in six states: Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. In its report, “The Path to 270: Demographics versus Economics in the 2012 Presidential Election,” The Center for American Progress says that these states (I added Arizona to center’s list of states in play) are all “marked by fast growth and by relatively high and growing percentages of minority voters ...” and may also be easier for Obama to snag because of their white college graduates. This combination could result in an effective election coalition.

In Arizona and Michigan you also have American Indians running for Congress and that could increase both enthusiasm and turnout. The recall election in Wisconsin is also building a campaign infrastructure that could help generate a win there.

Nearly four years ago there was tremendous excitement in Indian Country because of the election of Barack Obama. But along the way we forget that it takes elections -- not an election -- to help make the promise of hope and change a reality.

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.