Elections 2012: Making a Difference in the Polls

I remember my first election as a journalist. The year was 1976 and I was working at a small radio station in Pocatello, Idaho, producing The Sho-Ban Radio hour. (It was the typical Sunday morning slot for tribal radio shows: Mostly music, some news and long lists of upcoming local events.)

Back then the world of Indian news was quite different. I read stories from a variety of tribal newspapers, most accounts were weeks and even days late. News was slow. And on top of that there was very little context: Presidential candidates would fly through a state where Indian reservations were located and never land in tribal nations. There were no campaign discussions about tribal reserved water rights, the “backlash” movement of the 1970s or even the basic direction of the next administration.

But just below the surface of the campaigns there was substantial activity. Most of that action went unreported by journalists. The campaigns of Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford both had numerous policy discussions and positions.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Muscogee, and Indian Country Today Media Network columnist, was working with the Carter campaign. She once told me about the candidate “going off-script” at a meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Carter was asked if he would sign the American Indian Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law. “Yes and here's why,” Carter said. “I will sign it because my Bible tells me so.” That promise was indeed signed into law two years later.

In many ways, the Ford version of the campaign was a carry-over from the flurry of activity during the Nixon administration. Before the election there was an internal White House debate on a major Indian issue. The Office of Management and Budget had recommended a veto of the American Indian Health Care Improvement Act, saying the law was too expensive and unnecessary. However President Ford listened to Indian country’s supporters within the administration and signed the act into law on September 30, 1976. That bill had political implications. (Then and now.) In 1976, for example, a White House official wrote that a public signing ceremony might help Harrison Schmitt, a Republican Senate candidate in New Mexico. “If Schmitt was given some advance notice on a signing ceremony,” he wrote, “it could make some difference in the polls.”

That is the key for the next couple of months: How do American Indians and Alaska Natives make a difference? What’s the political landscape look like? Who’s doing what to organize voters? And, finally, what are the policy implications of those efforts? What and who will make a difference in 2012?

The answers will be interesting. And this election is already different from previous ones for two reasons.

First, there is a clarity of issues. Both sides are narrowly focused on the role of government. That very debate has huge implications for Indian country. More about that between now and November.

And, second, this column will actually be news. Not just reports about a candidate who flew over a reservation somewhere a few weeks ago, but what the candidates are promising and the implications of those promises on Indian country. I’ll also be exploring who in Indian country is trying to stir up the Native vote and what the prospects are for success. Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing several posts a day on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays (except this week). So to twist an old election phrase, check these posts early and often.

I’ll also be looking for reader contributions and suggestions. Just drop me an e-mail note or send via Twitter, @trahantreports.

Trahant’s Biography:

Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, has been writing about Indian country since the 1970s. He’s been an editor, reporter, columnist, TV correspondent and author of several books. The former president of the Native American Journalists Association is also a Twitter poet, writing a daily news poem under the handle @newsrimes4lines.

He was recently awarded a fellowship to the Rockefeller Bellagio Center on Italy’s Lake Como. For the past three years, Trahant has been an editor in residence at the University of Idaho’s School of Journalism and Mass Media. He was a 2009 Kaiser Media Fellow, writing about health-care reform, focusing on its impact on Indian country. He’s also been a reporter for PBS’s Frontline series. The show’s piece, “The Silence,” was about sexual abuse by priests in an Alaska Native village.

Trahant’s most recent book is titled, The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars, about Sen. Henry M. Jackson. “Scoop” Jackson was well known for his work on the environment and in the international arena. Less well known is his legacy on American Indian policy. He was the sponsor of a series of major reforms ranging from the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act to the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

Trahant is the former editor of the editorial page for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where he chaired the daily editorial board, directed a staff of writers, editors and a cartoonist.

He has been chairman and chief executive officer at the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and a former columnist at The Seattle Times. He has been publisher of the Moscow-Pullman Daily News in Moscow, Idaho; executive news editor of The Salt Lake Tribune; a reporter at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix; and has worked at several tribal newspapers.

He has won numerous journalism awards and was a finalist for the 1989 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting as co-author of a series on federal-Indian policy. In 1995 Trahant was a visiting professional scholar at The Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of “Pictures of Our Nobler Selves,” a history of American Indian contributions to journalism published by The Freedom Forum. He is also the author of a commissioned work, The Whole Salmon, published by Idaho’s Sun Valley Center for the Arts. Another recent book is Lewis & Clark Through Indian Eyes, an anthology edited by the late Alvin Josephy Jr.

Trahant was a juror for the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 and 2005. Trahant is married to LeNora Begay Trahant and they have two boys, Marvin and Elias. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho.

Visit his website at MarkTrahant.com.