It’s a new year – and a new story. There is nothing more important to political discourse than a good story. It shapes our thinking, sets the rules for the debate, and, sometimes, warps reality. Stories matter. We humans think in terms of story. We dream, tell, and remember stories. We live stories.
So what’s Indian Country’s “story” for 2014?
Before I answer that question, let’s look back at recent narratives.
The first story goes like this: Congress broke promises made to Indian country by cutting federal budgets beyond all reason, especially through the sequester. This made reservation life far more difficult, removing children from Head Start, scaling back educational opportunities, severe funding for healthcare delivery, and basic government infrastructure.
The New York Times, in a July editorial, captured this storyline. “It’s an old American story: malign policies hatched in Washington leading to pain and death in Indian country. It was true in the 19th century. It is true now, at a time when Congress, heedless of its solemn treaty obligations to Indian tribes, is allowing the across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester to threaten the health, safety and education of Indians across the nation.”
This is an important story to know. And to tell. But it’s also important to know that the story already has its ending. There are only two ways to change what happens next, vote out Congress or limit the damage. (More about both of those scenarios in future columns.) The second alternative is remote, but possible in 2014, with measures such as Montana Senator Jon Tester’s bill to fund Indian health programs a year in advance.
Another story told this year is about changing the name of the Washington NFL team. This story is important because it’s a success story (I know, the issue isn’t resolved. Yet. But it’s inevitable. The question is how long the team owner will fight on, not the outcome.) Forget the merits of the mascot debate for a minute and just think about the storytelling aspect.
This story is all about the long view. Suzan Shown Harjo, Raymond D. Apodaca, Vine Deloria, Jr.; Norbert S. Hill, Jr.; Mateo Romero; William A. Means; and Manley A. Begay, pressed a case calling for the cancellation of the team’s trademark protections. It’s step-by-step litigation that’s built a through record about “pejorative, derogatory, denigrating, offensive, scandalous, contemptuous, disreputable, disparaging and racist designation for a Native American person.”
The velocity of change picked up in February when the National Museum of the American Indian held a public symposium on the mascot issue. This was a story told in the heart of Washington, challenging and burying status quo.
So much so that Harjo and her allies have already won the tides of history and public opinion. The NFL doesn’t see it that way. Yet. But it will. And if not, the litigation continues in a new form, the case now known as Blackhorse et al v. Pro-Football Inc. This is a story that’s ready for an ending.
A third story – another one about success – is the signing into law the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, including provisions that recognize tribal jurisdiction. This law is a tribute to the power of story. It probably would not have become law until Deborah Parker, Vice Chairman of the Tulalip Tribes, told her story to Sen. Patty Murray and then in a Senate news conference. Parker’s narrative changed the politics. The law’s supporters built a successful coalition that trumped the politics of the ordinary, especially in the House of the Representatives. This Violence Against Women Act story, though, needs an ending. It’s not enough to pass a law, there has to be accounts about how this law has really made a difference in the lives of women who are abused.
One problem with stories, at least in a political context, is there potential for misuse. A story can be told that warps or ignores reality.
Consider the stories told about the failure of the Affordable Care Act. Yes, there are problems with the law, serious issues that should be explored, and, if possible fixed. But at the same time, every cancellation of an insurance policy is not “because” of Obamacare. Stories of millions of cancellations are not possible when only 14 million people have individual health insurance plans. Even before the law, those plans changed often. Cancellations were common. But it didn’t matter as a story because eight-in-ten Americans, before the law and now, get health insurance through their employer. But it’s so easy to use Obamacare as the excuse, covering up problems that existed long before the Affordable Care Act.
So what are Indian country’s stories for 2014? The long view stories will continue to unfold. Two years ago, in 2012, there was a successful effort to turn out Indian country’s voters. Will that narrative come back? Or will history again show that off-year elections are wasted opportunities? Already there’s a projection of a Republican sweep this year from Larry Sabato.
But most of the stories for this year we won’t know until they, using the vernacular of the Internet, “go viral.” A story that’s told that suddenly resonates across Indian country and beyond. It’s those stories that can be effective in shaping the world as we’d like it to be.
Mark Trahant is the 20th Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is a journalist, speaker and Twitter poet and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Comment on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/TrahantReports.