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Era of Contraction (Like Termination) Begins Slowly; Tribes Have Time to Find New Resources

Mark Trahant examines the "Era of Contraction" and its likely effects on Indian country.
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It’s nearly impossible to know when a new political era has begun for certain.

Congress enacted House Resolution 108 on August 1, 1953, officially beginning the era of tribal termination. This dreadful policy was supposed to abolish federal supervision over American Indian tribes and to subject tribal members to state and county authority.

Yet termination didn’t really take off as policy until the late 1950s and 1960s. It was a terrible idea that slowly evolved into a disastrous policy.

It was a similar shift when President Richard Nixon announced the new policy of self-determination without termination on July 8, 1970. “It is long past time that the Indian policies of the federal government began to recognize and build upon the capacities and insights of the Indian people,” the president said. “[W]e must begin to act on the basis of what the Indians themselves have long been telling us. The time has come to break decisively with the past and to create the conditions for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions.”

Five years later Congress enacted the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

And so it goes again. The new U.S. policy of contraction—one that will impact all Americans, including American Indians, for years to come—probably started after the November 2010 elections. But the actual policy implications remain distant, more threat than actual destructive force. But make no mistake: This policy route is set and based on a terrible idea that will slowly evolve into a disastrous policy.

This policy of contraction is certain because both Republicans and Democrats have bought into the premise. As President Barack Obama said Monday, “Washington has to live within its means. The government has to do what families across this country have been doing for years. We have to cut what we can’t afford to pay for what really matters.”

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The president, at least, understands that the Bush-era tax cuts and two wars did as much as anything to bury the country in deficits. He also appreciates that domestic spending isn’t the long term problem; it’s a demographic issue. But in the end that back and forth is nearly irrelevent.

What matters is that tribal governments are soon going to have to completely change what they do, how they operate and how they pay for government services because of these larger policy shifts.

Last week the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced $10 million in planning grants for 129 organizations to become community health centers, including here in my community, Fort Hall, Idaho, for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. In the past it’s been easy for tribes to count on the Indian Health Service, underfunded though it may have been, for basic services. But that is no longer the case. The Indian Health Service will likely see a steady decline of resources during this era of contraction. This year it might be a 2.5 percent cut (while populations continue to grow) but that is only the beginning.

So as the policy of contraction unfolds, I think it’s essential for tribes to seek out multiple revenue streams, finding money both from government and from private sources. Wherever and whenever possible. Converting a tribal, or federal IHS clinic, into a Community Health Center is one way to do that.

I also think every tribe should create a community foundation, building up assets now (before the cuts come) that can be used to support and fund tribal priorities. How do you raise money for such a venture? Every tribe spends money with vendors, whether a government program, business or casino. So any company or individual who does business wth a tribe should be given “the opportunity” (as they say in fundraising circles) to help launch a community foundation. Some tribes might focus their nonprofit organizations on health care or scholarships for young people—all worthwhile enterprises. The key, to me, at least, is to engage new revenue streams that could continue to build community while the United States is busy shrinking its economy.

It may be impossible to know when the era of contraction began, but I do know for certain it’s here and Indian country must once again adapt. Quickly.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars, is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.