A SEAT IN THE CIRCLE
[Yes, I know the usual metaphor is "a seat at the table." I also know that what you do, in fact, see in the above photo is a table. But in our traditions, we tend to sit in circles for a meeting of any import, whether political or ceremonial, and whether or not a table is present - and under most administrations, even the circle has been effectively denied us.]
The photo you see was taken by White House photographer Pete Souza on December 15, 2010. It's the introductory image from this report: Achieving a Brighter Future for Tribal Nations: 2011 White House Tribal Nations Conference Progress Report. Both photo and report are, frankly, firsts, but especially so for a modern presidential administration. So, for that matter, is the locution "tribal nations" in the title - recognizing, in a very small but nonetheless significant way, that we are indeed sovereign entities
Lots of presidents - and presidential candidates - give lip service to our tribal nations. Most do virtually nothing of help, but they do plenty that's damaging, The best that can be said for any of them, generally, is that they give with one hand while taking away with the other - usually behind our backs, while swiping things of much greater value than what they're offering. As a people, we know we're in trouble when the only modern president to make any inroads in Indian Country was Richard Nixon, for crying out loud - and, up until a few years ago, the only presidential candidate to do likewise was Republican John McCain.
Deservedly so? Of course not. Nixon, in particular, made one really remarkable grand gesture for which he is still revered by the people in this area: the return of Taos Pueblo's sacred Blue Lake, stolen decades previously. Of course, what a lot of folks don't know is that this was purely a political calculation: Nixon wanted to shore up his numbers with the Indian vote, and so looked for some sort of sweeping grand gesture to establish himself as a "friend to the Indians" - a "New New Deal" for Indians - and even said so openly. This is not up for dispute. Now, we'll take it, regardless of his motivations, but no one should ever delude him- or herself into thinking that Richard Nixon did it because it was so manifestly the right thing to do. He did it purely for political gain. And people should also keep in mind that this is the same president who, in 1973, similarly pronounced himself happy to countenance "dead Indians" at Wounded Knee in order to put down the "Indian uprising" there - one led, I might add, by two of our own.
John McCain, of course, made a name for himself among our nations in part by appearing to take our issues to heart. More accurately, he took them to his wallet and ego, as usual. But many people still think that he was actually some kind of benevolent actor in, for example, such disputes as the Cobell case - or in the supposed Diné-Hopi land dispute (never mind that the Diné and the Hopi long ago reached their own internal agreements in that matter; McCain keeps trying to gin it up anew for the benefit of his corporate overlords, who seek to steal more tribal land).
But none of them has actually made an effort to go into country with open minds, open ears, and closed mouths, to find out what our tribal nations need and want. None of them has given a damn. For a lot of them, we were completely invisible - images on the screen of an old Western, at most. And even when we weren't, we were still, after all these years, an "Indian problem" to be "dealt with" and exploited, not sovereign equals deserving of notice, much less respect. And recent Republican administrations, when they've deigned to notice us at all, have uniformly taken the "to be dealt with and exploited" approach.
And then came 2008 and Barack Black Eagle, and for the first time, some of us wondered whether a tiny sliver of hope might not exist for our nations, as well.
Considering how past administrations have treated us, even that tiny sliver is very welcome. And three years into this administration, I find that my hope was not misplaced.
THE ACA AND THE IHCIAR
One of the most fundamental differences between Republican and Democratic administrations - one Indians encounter on a daily basis - is in their approach to health care. [Now, a caveat: This is not the place to rehash differences over the ACA or U.S. health care in general. I'm limiting my discussion here solely to the aspects of the ACA that affect Indian health, and they're a huge leap forward from what we had during the Bush years.]
Under the Affordable Care Act, Indians will reap the same benefits as non-Indians with regard to access, insurance, Medicaid expansion, etc. These provisions will be especially helpful to "urban Indians," as well as to those who live too far from an Indian Health Service (IHS) facility to use its services. However, the ACA also includes provisions specifically aimed at improving the health of American Indians and Alaska Natives, a demographic that now disproportionately comprises both the worst health and the greatest economic poverty in the country: specifically, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act Reauthorization (IHCIAR).
The IHCIAR - which is, you understand, a statutory obligation - has gone without an actual reauthorization since 2000. Bush and his buddies liked it that way, and yes, it was deliberate. Throughout that entire dark period, the best we could get were temporary budget extensions in minimal amounts that served only to keep the lights on at [most] IHS facilities for another year - and that only because of the valiant efforts of Byron Dorgan, which is one reason many of us mourn his loss in Congress so greatly. It got so bad that doctors were warning us to try and get outside health insurance, by hook or by crook, because they fully expected the funding to dry up completely and the lights to go out permanently - and sooner rather than later.
But under the ACA, the IHCIAR loses a letter: the "R." Because under the ACA, it no longer needs reauthorization; it becomes permanent, as originally envisioned. And suddenly, our most basic survival is no longer held hostage to partisan selfishness and bigotry, as it was during the last Republican era. Beyond that, it will also expand the programs and services available through IHS.
For example, it includes:
) Authorities for new and expanded programs for mental and behavioral health treatment and prevention;
*) Expanded authorities for long-term care services, including home health care, assisted living and community-based care;
*) New authorities for development of health professional shortage demonstration programs;
*) Expanded authorities for funding of patient travel costs;
*) New authorities for demonstration projects for innovative health care facility
*) New authorities for the provision of dialysis services;
*) Improvements in the Contract Health Services program, which pays for referrals;
*) New authorities for facilitation of care for Indian veterans; and
*) New authorities for urban Indian health programs.
With all the years of watching family and friends battle catastrophic illness, chronic disease, injury, addiction, and other health crises, this Democratic legislation is a more than sufficient reminder of why I vote for Democrats.
LET'S MOVE! IN INDIAN COUNTRY
With the support of her husband's administration, First Lady Michelle Obama has tackled the epidemic of obesity and poor health among the country's young people head-on. One result is Let's Move!, an initiative aimed at promoting exercise and reducing obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. With the cooperation of the DOI and other agencies, she's expanded the program into Indian Country.
I've previously written at some length about the health crisis in our Native communities. I'm not going to repeat it here; if you want a glimpse of the magnitude of the crisis, you can read about it hereand here and here and here. To give you an idea what some of our communities face on a daily basis, here's what I wrote elsewhere about contemporary conditions at Pine Ridge [source links in original]:
At Pine Ridge (like many other reservations), it is not unusual to find women as heads of household. Moreover, they're often housing and caring for multiple generations: children, grandchildren, sometimes great-grandchildren, as well as elderly parents or grandparents. Frequently, they take in uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, and distant cousins who are in need. Large numbers of women are de facto guardians of and primary caregivers for their grandchildren. None of this is particularly surprising, given that the average household income is less than $3,800 a year.
Yes, you read that right: The average household income on the Pine Ridge Reservation is less than three thousand, eight hundred dollars annually.
Further complicating the situation are the inhumane living conditions on many reservations. I've seen statistics estimating the life expectancy of the average man at Pine Ridge between age 43 and age 48 - equivalent to that of the average Somali male. At a life expectancy of 52, Pine Ridge women don't fare much better. The reservation's unemployment rate exceeds 80%; its poverty rate is one of the worst in the nation; both chronic illness, such as diabetes, and acute illnesses, such as certain forms of cancer, appear at rates between 100% and 800% higher than in the nation as a whole; and the adolescent suicide rate is 150% higher than in the general U.S. population. Alcoholism and methamphetamine addiction long ago reached epidemic proportions.
With health and economic conditions like these, it's no wonder our children are also facing a suicide epidemic. Suffice to say that concrete initiatives aimed at involving our young people in healthy activities are welcome for any number of reasons, including basic survival.
With all the loved ones I've watched battle serious health problems resulting from obesity and diabetes in our communities, this Democratic initiative is a more than sufficient reminder of why I vote for Democrats.
THE TRIBAL LAW AND ORDER ACT
On July 30, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Tribal Law and Order Act, one of the most significant pieces of criminal justice legislation ever to affect our communities. It's particularly notable for finally taking steps to combat the epidemic of physical and sexual violence that targets Native women in this country - and makes honest attempts to preserve sovereignty in the process. I've written about this at length, too. You can read about it in detail here [source links in original], but here's quick and dirty summary:
One in every three Native American women will be raped at least once during her lifetime.
One in three.
At least once.
That's more than twice the rate for any other ethnic group in the U.S.
I've sat with some of these women, heard their stories, shared their pain and grief and fear. And I've shared their frustration with the knowledge that, some 86% of the time, their rapists were virtually untouchable.
Because with very few exceptions, tribal authorities have had no jurisdiction over non-Indian criminal offenders - and 86% of rapes of Native women are committed by non-Indian rapists (70% are white).
And that last statistic is especially relevant because it means that until now, the vast majority of rapists have been able to elude tribal jurisdiction entirely (and too often, all non-tribal jurisdiction, as well).
Oh, but there's more. Much, much more.
There's a significant and deadly difference in rape statistics as they relate to Native women:
*) Among rape victims in the general population, 74% report being physically battered in additional ways during the commission of the rape. For Native women, that number jumps to 90%.
*) Among the general population, 30% of rape victims report sustaining other physical injuries, in addition to the rape itself. Among Native women, that number is 50%.
*) Roughly 11% of rape victims as a whole report that their rapist used a weapon. For Native women, that number more than triples, to 34%.
As I wrote at the time:
This is why the Tribal Law and Order Act is so monumental. It provides significant funding for resources to help tribal authorities battle the rape crisis that has swept so many reservations. More importantly, however, it removes certain limitations on tribal sovereignty, giving the tribes jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit violent crimes on tribal lands. It's not perfect - not by a long shot. But among other important first steps, it provides the following:
*) $1.1 billion to tribal authorities to investigate and prosecute sexual assault cases;
*) Deputizes tribal police to arrest and prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on tribal land;
*) Provides access to criminal records and other information through the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and other federal databases;
*) Mandates that the Department of Justice to maintain and share records of federal declinations (refusals to prosecute), and to share evidence;
*) Forces federal officials to turn over information that may aid prosecutions in tribal court, including documentary and and testimonial evidence;
*) Permits tribal courts to imposes sentences of up to three years (up from the previous one-year maximum);
*) Provides training for tribal police in evidence collection and interviewing methods in cases involving sexual and domestic violence;
*) Mandates that all Indian Health Service (IHS) facilities implement consistent treatment protocols for survivors of rape and sexual assault;
*) Enhances general support programs for tribal police, courts, and corrections entities; and
*) Funds programs for at-risk youth on reservations.
With all the work I've done over the years on sexual and domestic violence issues and the fallout for survivors, this Democratic legislation is a more than sufficient reminder of why I vote for Democrats.
"SCARS UPON SACRED LAND"
As many of you know, Scars Upon Sacred Land is a series of diaries I've written on environmental issues that affect our various nations, from uranium mining at the Grand Canyon to foreign multinationals attempting to appropriate Apache Leap to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. If you want just a tiny glimpse of the environmental destruction wrought upon our peoples, read all four, but they don't constitute so much as even the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Environmental racism (along with corporate expropriation, cultural exploitation, and plain old theft) has a long and storied history in our communities, and it's a very ugly history - one that, frankly, I hadn't really hoped to see improve in my lifetime.
But changes there have been. Here are just a few examples - not one of which would even have been contemplated during the Bush years:
) Millions of dollars in funding through the EPA, USDA, and other agencies, specifically for tribal environmental initiatives, including cleanup, reclamation and recovery, and new projects;
*) Millions of dollars in DOE funding for investment in renewal energy sources;
*) Millions of dollars in tribal environmental programmatic support funds;
*) Expansion of official recognition of and respect for tribal sovereignty and cultural traditions in developing environmental projects, and taking them sovereignty and cultural appropriateness into account when approving non-tribal projects that can affect tribal lands and nations;
*) Halting uranium mining operations at the Grand Canyon; and
*) Halting the current fast-track approvals demanded by Republican for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
With all the lands and resources our peoples have lost (my own family included), these Democratic initiatives are a more than sufficient reminder of why I vote for Democrats.
UNITED NATIONS DECLARATION ON THE RIGHTS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES [UNDRIP]
In July, 2010, the State Department solicited public comment on whether the U.S. should become a signatory to UNDRIP. [Yes, I wrote about this, too - and wrote to the State Department and the Obama Administration as a whole.] To us, this was a no-brainer, but it clearly was not so for the feds, nor for the rest of America, it seems. It's one of those issues that, while almost entirely symbolic, makes Republicans' hair stand on end: the notion that American exceptionalism might not always be the default, or that the U.S. might occasionally have screwed up royally, or [gasp!] admitting that people who don't look like them (but were here long before they were) might have some rights and interests worthy of recognition and respect, too. And so, year after year, the U.S. government not only declined to sign UNDRIP, but actively fought against it.
On December 16, 2010, the day after the 2010 White House Tribal Nations Conference, President Obama announced that the U.S. would become a signatory to UNDRIP. Are their caveats? Of course. There always are. But as a first step, it's a big one. And, yes, it's still mostly symbolic, but it's symbolic of an absolute sea change in the way our nations are viewed by the federal government. It's a view that allows for the appointment of Indian officials and advisers, for an expanded view of tribal sovereignty, for an increased cultural awareness, and for the possibility of our inclusion at all levels of the American political structure.
It allows for the recognition that we are entitled to a seat in the circle.
And with all that our peoples have survived over the last 500+ years, and with all the challenges that we still face, this Democratic decision is a more than sufficient reminder of why I vote for Democrats.
Because when Democrats vote, Indians win.
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