How does Indian Country survive the Donald Trump era? The new administration is only a few days old, and already the chaos of the times has upset business as usual—and possibly the very structure of federal Indian law.
And it’s not just Washington. The North Dakota Legislature in Bismarck acts as if it has permission to ignore the Constitution and legal precedent in its relationship with tribes. House Concurrent Resolution 3017 calls on Congress to “modify” the reservation system and put the state in charge.
This resolution will last about 15 minutes if and when legislators put a pencil to what it would actually cost its taxpayers. Right now, for example, the federal government picks up the entire tab for Medicaid for American Indian tribal members. Add to that the operation of the Indian Health Service. For North Dakota, we’re already talking millions of dollars with only one program: health. (It’s $870 million total for all states.)
What’s really driving this is that North Dakota legislators are angry about Standing Rock and greedy for more oil and gas money from the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation and its oil production at Fort Berthold. So North Dakota is ready to assume government expenses for Indian Country across the state? Silly rabbits.
But Indian Country is now a target, and too many Trump supporters are emboldened by an administration that does not know how to say no to those who would trample on constitutional rights. This will be true for many who run federal agencies, state governments, oil, gas, and coal producers, and the Congress. In their mind: Indian Country has had it too good for too long. Imagine that.
So what’s Indian Country’s response to the nonsense? Consider these five ideas:
First. Don’t count out the bureaucracy.
I first started covering federal Indian policy during the late 1970s. I was in Washington, D.C., and was interviewing someone about a reform project at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a plan that I thought made a lot of sense. But my source smiled and responded, “I have seen them come. I have seen them go.” There are ways to tie up initiatives — even good ones — through the process of government. President Donald J. Trump’s memoranda might fit into this category. Usually an executive order or a memorandum has a legal framework as part of the document, including citing the statutory authority for the presidential action. On Dakota Access and Keystone, that reference has been replaced by the logic of “because I said so.” We shall see.
Second. Find new allies.
Ronald Reagan famously said government is not the solution, but the problem. This era might flip that idea around because the federal government’s inaction on such issues as global warming will make it less relevant. The rest of the world, even conservative allies of the Trump White House, are moving ahead on climate action. To pretend that oil, gas, and coal are the future is only a fantasy. There may be a temporary uptick in fossil fuels, but that cannot last. This is an opportunity for tribes to look for new allies outside of the federal government, even globally. The America First policy signals uncertainty in global governance so perhaps the counter should be, First Americans First.
Tribes should work closer with cities, states, private companies, and any global government that’s open to help. The federal government is going to be close to useless for the next four years (unless the Trump infrastructure program happens and happens to include Indian Country, but there is no evidence of that yet). The modern city state—think a Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, or a Phoenix—is the real engine of growth in this country. What’s the best way for tribes to become partners?
Third: Trust that young people aren’t playing by the old rules, either.
If the president wants change he should look at what young people are already doing — and that direction is very different than his. Take driving: The data shows that both Millennials and Gen-Xers have less interest in driving than any generation in modern history. A recent report published by Time found a “huge drop of 47 percentage points in 16-year-olds with drivers’ licenses from 1983 to 2014. For people ages 20 to 24, there’s been a 16-percentage-point decrease over the same time span. And for those ages 30 to 34, the decrease has been about 10 percentage points.” Young people say they are too busy. Driving is too expensive. And it’s easy to catch a ride.
Since Millennials are now the largest generation in America, that disinterest in driving — and fossil fuel consumption — is a powerful trend. Of course this is not always the case in rural areas, including reservations. But it’s key to less fossil fuel consumption—and a shrinking demand for pipelines.
Indian Country’s greatest advantage right now is its young people, more than 40 percent of our total population (compared to about a third for the country as a whole.) We have numbers working in our favor and should look for more ways to leverage that.
Fourth. Don’t count out Republican vs. Republican.
Right now Republicans in Congress are giving President Trump the benefit of the doubt. They are willing to reverse long-held positions (such as free trade) because he’s the leader of their party and claims to lead a populist movement. But as the decisions get harder and the act of governing becomes more complex, this support will evaporate.
There is already evidence of this in the debate about repealing the Affordable Care Act. While the idea of getting rid of Obamacare was a unifying force, there is no consensus about what’s next. Republican governors fear that their state budgets will collapse if Medicaid becomes a block grant with less funding. Insurance CEOs fear their future if the mandate to buy insurance goes away while they are still forced to cover pre-existing conditions. And many Republicans in Congress cling to the idea that health care should be left up to families, and government should not be involved in funding it. And Republicans who want to win the election know that stripping heath insurance from millions of people is not a winning hand.
Fifth. Document everything and be transparent.
The Trump era is already being defined by the wacky claim of “alternative facts.” The antidote is to respond with hard evidence. We know that zealots are eager to reshape the federal government by shrinking it, so let’s document what that really means. What jobs will be lost and how will those be replaced? I’ve started a spreadsheet and will update it regularly. This president has promised a new era of jobs, so lost work in Indian Country ought not be acceptable.
There are many ways for tribes to survive the Trump era, but we need to think differently now. Usually a new presidential term starts with a president trying to bridge gaps and bring the country together. That’s not been the case with President Trump, so we should expect more of the same in the years ahead. It’s more important than ever to have a strategy for eventually winning. What will it take? Who are potential allies? And what are alternatives that might work?
And, of course, we must start getting ready for the next election.