Opinion | Politics

Mark Trahant: Self-determination should be on the table for presidential campaign

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders campaigned at the Meskwaki Tribal Center on the Meskwaki Settlement on September 4, 2015. Photo from Bernie Sanders

Iowa issue that should be on the table: Self-determination
Iowa is 92 percent white; state’s American Indian population is 0.5 percent, but that's not the whole story
By Mark Trahant

The media surrounding the Iowa caucuses reduces the story to one basic theme: Who’s winning and what does that win (or loss) mean for the New Hampshire primary? Lost in that coverage is a thoughtful discussion about issues and policies. So we get political promises that might fit better in cartoons than in governing papers.

My ideal? Presidential campaigns would focus on policy, not the politicians, and the first votes would be cast in states like Arizona, New Mexico, or even Montana, where issues that impact First Americans would get a full airing by all the campaigns. Indeed, we know so many reasons why Iowa should not vote first. The state is 92 percent white, the caucus system favors rural voters and the population of American Indians is roughly one-half of one percent.

But that’s not the whole story.

There are 1,400 enrolled members of the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa/Meskwaki Nation located in central Iowa. And in Tama County, the population of American Indians exceeds 6 percent of the population. Democrats hold their precinct caucus at the Meskwaki Tribal Center. (The Republican caucus is at the Tama Civic Center.)

A campaign staffer for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to members of the Meskwaki Tribe at the Meskwaki Tribal Center on January 28, 2016. Photo by Melody Alemansou / Twitter

There are even hot issues that ought to surface in a presidential campaign. The Iowa Senate last week enacted a resolution to end state criminal jurisdiction over Meskwaki tribal members, Public Law 280. The bill has been sent to the Iowa House. Tribal members have been supported such a bill for several sessions with the goal of tribal jurisdiction.

This would be a great presidential campaign discussion. We all know the United States goes through dramatic swings when it comes to federal-Indian policy. Congress enacted Public Law 280 when the idea was to break up reservations and assimilate tribal people into the states. That policy, of course, was nonsense. And eventually rejected in favor of the self-determination policies of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. But here’s the thing: The underlying legislation that promoted assimilation remains the law.

Congress never repealed its termination resolution, nor PL 280, but left them on the books as a legal layer that only causes confusion. That’s why the Iowa legislature is enacting a repeal; It’s ahead of the Congress on getting rid of a failed policy.

This is not the first attempt by Iowa. A similar resolution passed in 2015, but without the force of law. The Tama News-Herald says U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told Iowa to act first “before the federal government can act.” And, he told the paper, “A mere resolution that doesn’t have the force of law isn’t enough to allow Congress to move forward on any possible changes.”

The Hillary Clinton campaign attended the Meskwaki veteran's powwow at the Meskwaki Tribal Center on November 11, 2015. Photo by Kevin B Morrison / Twitter

The Iowa House will take up the legislation next. And then Congress? We shall see. But it would have been a great topic for the Iowa presidential campaign.

The only candidate to campaign on the Sac and Fox settlement was Bernie Sanders. In September he held a rally and answered a few questions about federal-Indian policy. The Des Moines Register quoted him: “The federal government, the U.S government’s relationship to Native Americans has been a disaster from day one. … Everything else being equal, we want decisions being made by the peoples themselves, not dictated by the government. There has to be a relationship, but at the end of the day I would like to see local decisions being made by local people themselves.”

The Register said Sander’s rally “won an enthusiastic response” and reported a tribal member who said his presence could translate into support on caucus night.

And for the Republicans? I mentioned that the Democrats met Monday at the tribal center. The GOP is at the Tama Civic Center. One reason for that might be in 2012 not a single person attended the Republican caucus at the precinct representing the tribal community.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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