Editor’s Note: The following is a slightly condensed version of the speech journalist Mark Trahant gave last week at the National Congress of American Indians, meeting in Portland, Oregon.
We know, from our history, that the relationship between tribes and the United States has gone through dramatic swings. All of us have only lived through two such eras, termination and self-determination. I believe we have already entered a new period, one I call, the Era of Contraction.
At the beginning of the Removal Era, Elias Boudinot, the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, wrote that it was his duty — as he saw it — 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.”
The evils with which we are threatened. Tough words for tough times. I’ve been thinking lately about the “why?” of that message. What would compel policy makers in that century to be so incredibly inhumane? One answer, one that’s relevant today, is that when the economy is lousy, people in general are less generous, they are angry and they do unspeakable things.
Living Through Eras
The beginning of the Removal Era, it turns out, was one of those times. Economic recessions in 1825, 1828, and 1833 were marked by stock market crashes, trade wars and credit contraction.
The Allotment Era, the attempt to break up and steal Indian homelands, was during the “long depression,” a severe contraction that lasted from 1873 to 1896 (longer than the Great Depression).
The era of the Indian Reorganization Act is more complicated. The reforms were proposed in the 1920s before the Great Depression. But as the depression spread, under President Hoover, federal spending on Indian-related programs dropped to $26 million in 1932 — a 15 percent cut — and then a year later was cut again to $19 million. President Roosevelt increased funding for Indian programs throughout the Great Depression. This is the one historical exception. Remember, in 1937 the economy contracted even more sharply than it did after the stock market crash.
The Termination Era, too, has an economic component. The period after World War II was not technically a recession, but government spending was sharply curtailed because of debt and the cost of the war.
But any new era doesn’t begin or end on a certain date. Even after termination was rejected, Congress never went back and undid the damage, thus acts such as Public Law 280 remain on the books.
How do you know when you are in a new era?
Congress enacted House Resolution 108 on August 1, 1953, officially beginning the era of tribal termination. This dreadful policy was supposed to abolish federal supervision over American Indian tribes and to subject tribal members to state and county authority.
Yet termination didn’t really take off as policy until the late 1950s and 1960s. It was a terrible idea that slowly evolved into a disastrous policy.
It was a simlar shift when President Richard Nixon announced the new policy of self-determination without termination on July 8, 1970. Nixon said, “We must begin to act on the basis of what the Indians themselves have long been telling us. The time has come to break decisively with the past and to create the conditions for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions.”
Five years later Congress enacted the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.
And so it goes. The new U.S. policy of contraction — one that will impact all Americans, including American Indians, for years to come — probably started some time ago but the actual policy implications remain distant, more of a threat than an actual destructive force.
Contraction and Indian Country
The Era of Contraction has nothing to do with Indian Country … and everything to do with Indian Country.
This is a policy course that is already set and based on a terrible idea that will slowly evolve into a disasterous policy. The Era of Contraction is certain because we have already changed the way we live and in politics, both Republicans and Democrats have bought into the premise.
Let’s talk about what defines this era — at least outside of Washington politics — in terms of a few, larger trends.
The most important trend, I believe, is demographic and it’s global. Every where on this planet people are living longer than ever before. And that simple fact changes everything. Today one in ten people, globally, are over 60 years old. Forty years from now that number will double to one in five. By then, if current trends continue, people over 60 will outnumber children.
Remember these numbers are world-wide. The numbers are even more stark in the United States. You’ve probably seen the recent ads on TV: “We are 50 million strong, don’t cut our Medicare.”
A few numbers: Every 50 seconds someone turns 50. Fifty-five million people are over 55 and 34 million are over 65 — and those numbers will double by 2030. Indian Country is growing older, too. Only down the road. More on that in a minute.
My point is that so much of what we think of as a political debate — about our political ideology or the size of government or even the sustainability of the United States — comes down to how we think about our demographic future and what changes we are willing to make.
Our Future Austerity
The current debate — the one that defines the Era of Contraction — misses this very point. The debate focuses on the “massive debts” of the United States (even though this is a global issue, not just an American one.)
My friend Diane Lim Rogers, the former chief economist for the House Budget Committee and now at the Concord Coalition, points out that even if we erased all of our debt, somehow if it magically disappeared, we would still have a sustainability problem. She writes in her blog:
“(R)ight away our debt would start accumulating again because the dynamics of the fiscal outlook would still be all wrong: promised entitlement benefits would still be growing too fast for the economy and revenues to keep up. While without any debt we’d eliminate about $200 billion in net interest this year, the rest of mandatory spending alone–without counting any discretionary spending–would still use up nearly all of our revenue. So even having ‘zeroed out the debt clock’ we would have another large deficit right away this year, immediately starting the debt clock back up again, and that new debt would be immediately projected to keep growing faster than GDP – the definition of an “unsustainable” fiscal outlook.”
But sustainability is not defining our discourse. Instead the debate is largely on the margins, focusing on domestic federal programs, those very programs that mean so much to people living in Indian Country.
The result is that severe austerity is our future.
Where the Cuts Will Fall
It’s one thing to think about “budget cuts” as an abstract phrase. It’s quite another when basic services are eliminated, steady jobs disappear and young people’s ambitions are blocked because college is no longer affordable.
Federal spending, essentially, boils down to three types of accounts: Interest payments, mandatory spending (programs that people automatically qualify for such as Medicare and Medicaid) and discretionary spending. Interest gets paid no matter what. The Super Commitee will likely propose at least modest cuts election to mandatory spending. The third part of the budget is discretionary spending, including the cost of the military. But most of the attention (even if it’s the smallest number) centers on domestic, discretionary spending.
That’s what funds everything from transportation to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Tribal governments are at the tail end of the rhetoric that drives public policy. The arguments about what to cut – and how much to cut – focuses on the tiniest slice of the pie. At least during the Obama Administration, both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service have avoided any deep cuts, but that direction is going to sharply change over the next few months and years.
How Bad Can It Get?
As all of you know, the policy of contraction puts Indian Country at risk of a total economic collapse. It’s as if policy makers want to see how bad things can get on reservations and in native communities where the economy is already bleak.
The policy recipe being advocated is to significantly reduce government funding; reduce or eliminate the only good paying jobs available, and hope for the best. In the larger economy the mantra is that the private sector will pick up the pieces. But that is total fiction in remote Alaska villages or on Indian reservations because there is no significant private sector. The vast majority of jobs are government, either tribal or federal.
Ideally Indian Country would get some sort of exception to this policy of contraction — a hold harmless provision. That is happening a tiny bit. You see it in support from Republicans in Congress to protect the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Indian Health Service budgets. The problem is that tribal funding comes from a variety of government programs, cuts to community health clinics are nearly as important as direct IHS funding.
Preparing for the Inevitable
So how should tribes prepare for the inevitable?
The most important thing, I think, is to consider this an opportunity. The tide of austerity — the Era of Contraction — will occur whether we like it or not. So the choices are to fight the inevitable or embrace that future and look for every advantage for our people.
It’s natural to fight for what was promised by the United States through solemn treaties. It’s a strategy that’s worked before, at least in recent history. But if you look at the whole history of the United States that’s not true. Valid treaties were ignored during the eras of Termination, Allottment, Relocation and even during a few good times.
Moreover, the scale of this current wave threatens the very foundation of the United States, making it very difficult, if not impossible, to secure something for such a small population. This is even more difficult when you consider that the United States doesn’t know what to do about these structural issues; the divide is as great now as it was say, during, the Civil War.
Again, so how do tribal governments prepare and adapt to the Era of Contraction?
First: Continue to do what you do. Make the case, as best as you can, for the federal dollars and programs that make the most sense. I think the treaty and constitutional arguments make the most sense.
At the same time, behind the scenes, think about a few suggestions, most of which are already being done by some tribal governments across the country.
Look at tribal budgets with fresh eyes. What costs can be trimmed? How best do you protect services and employees from a downturn? What other resources might be there? How can you protect your tribal general fund, your cash? History shows that during a contraction, cash is the most important economic resource.
Walk through your tribal offices. How many of the people who there work through goverment contracts? What does it mean if ten percent of that funding goes away? What kind of transition can be made? Can something be done now?
Looking to the States
Another thing to remember is that state and local governments are going to be hit by the same wave. A new report from the nonprofit State Budget Solutions estimates states’ major debts at $4 trillion. (I should mention other estimates are far lower, but it’s always interesting to me to read the assumptions behind those lower estimates. I think the bigger number is the one to use.)
This is both a threat — and an opportunity — for tribal governments. It’s a threat because states and counties will look to tribes and tribal members for more revenue. They’ll try to tax everything that can be taxed, including property and revenue of tribal enterprises, tribal members and other places that are now off limits.
It’s also a threat because under current law, states set the rules for Medicaid. It’s a strange system: The federal government pays 100 percent of the cost for American Indians and Alaska Natives eligibile for Medicaid, yet it is the states that make the rules. That, too, is an opportunity because the case can be made that it is in states’ interests to build a stronger Indian health system.
However, I believe, before this era of austerity ends, we will question many of our basic assumptions about government itself. What happens when there are not enough funds for a police shift? Or when there is not enough to repave a highway? Or when a state cuts loose a public university? Already some local governments are in bankruptcy and it’s not inconceivable that some states will be there as well.
The demand for basic services could be an important building block for better cooperation between tribes and local governments. Smart governments will look for ways to leverage services instead of engaging in expensive litigation with tribal governments with the only goal a duplication of services.
Preparing for the Worst
In my view tribes should prepare for the worst. We need to think through the impact of contraction policies and look for ways to protect people during the coming downturn.
One policy that I would recomend is transparency. We have to be more open about what tribes do, what our priorities are, and how scarce resources serve our communities. In the age of Social Media, transparency is a valuable resource.
Transparency also opens up the door to innovation. If people know the problems, the challenges, then, well, as Elias Boudinot put it, “We can talk over all these matters, and, if possible, come to some definite and satisfactory conclusion.”
Every tribe might also consider its foreign policy. What are the foreign policy goals for the tribal community? What are possible trade relationships? What is required to make that so? Is there even a designated person to look for international funding or building relationships with global governments?
Indian Country has an advantage in dealing with global resources that isn’t true for the rest of the United States. Our infrastructure is already built using “state-owned” enterprises. We call them tribal enterprises and they range from farms to hotels and casinos. We already know how government investment can create jobs and a fair return to government.
Build a Community Foundation
Another idea, one that I would do quickly, as in now, go home, and start a community foundation. It’s essential for tribes to build new multiple revenue streams, finding money both from government and from private sources.
The law already allows divisions of tribal governments to act as 501(c)3 non-profits. So do that, build assets (before the deepest cuts come) that can be used to support and fund tribal priorities.
How do you raise money for a foundation? Every tribe spends money with vendors, whether a government program, business or a casino. Go down the list. Be methodical. Any company or individual who does business wth a tribe should be given “the opportunity” (as they say in fundraising circles) to help launch this new community foundation. Some tribes might focus their nonprofit organizations on health care or scholarships for young people — all valuable enterprises. The key, to me, is to create new revenue streams that could continue to build community while the United States is busy shrinking its government.
Indian Country’s Opportunity
Let me close by talking about our great opportunity, our young people. As I mentioned earlier, demographics are much of the context for our challenges. But for Indian Country it’s also a remarkable opportunity.
The median age in the United States is 43 — that is half the population is older and half is younger. But that number is rising every year. Indian Country, on the other hand, has a median age of 30. And, about 30 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives were younger than 18, while only 8 percent were 65 and older.
This is very different than the United States’ profile. But to take advantage of that opportunity, that gap, we must invest in our young people like we never have before. We need to make sure that all education programs — from schools, to colleges, to training programs — have the recources necessary for success. We need to be creative and recognize that young people are more essential than ever. We need to live this principle. We have to act like our very lives are at stake. And they are.
As Elias Boudinot said, that survival starts when we “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.”
I started by saying I am an optimist. I remain so. Especially if we reflect on our prospects — and plan for a different kind of future, taking full advantage of the opportunities that are before our people.