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Two Books Add Perspective to Current Debates Over Indian Country's Future

Mark Trahant discusses two books that relate to the current challenges facing Indian country as a whole.

This morning President Barack Obama will make yet another pitch, calling on Congress to stop the sequester with a balanced approach. Of course nothing will happen today. Congress is not even in town. Congress being Congress took the week before the sequester off.

But before I get back to writing about the politics of the sequester, and, more important, the longer impact of austerity on Native American programs, I wanted to add my view of two recent books: Iveska, by Charles Trimble, and This Indian Country, by Frederick E. Hoxie. I read both of these books through the filter of Indian country’s current challenges.

A little background. A couple of years ago I wrote, The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars. In that book I made the case that the self-determination era was different because it ended the debate about whether tribal governments should even exist in this century. (It’s about Forrest Gerard and how Sen. Henry Jackson went from championing termination to sponsoring the self-determination act in Congress.)

My title was too optimistic and wrong; there are many battles left to fight.

Indian country has had a run of some 40 years where Democrats and Republicans have pledged their support to the idea that tribal governments are best equipped to solve the problems of Indian country. But over the last couple of years that has started to change. There is growing number of politicians, who, in the name of austerity, are proposing radical ideas that are essentially a reprise of the termination policy of the 1950s. Want proof? Look no further than Sen. Rand Paul’s plan to balance the budget in five years. The Kentucky Republican’s proposes economic termination.

That’s why Trimble’s book is worth reading now. The former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians looks back at several challenges that Indian country faced during this modern era, including termination and the 1970s backlash. I am always inspired after reading accounts of the Colville Tribe’s rejection of termination and the leadership of Lucy Covington. Trimble was recruited by Covington to start a newspaper, Our Heritage, as part of that effort.

A few years later, in the 95th Congress, Trimble writes about another challenge to Indian country, the backlash. There were 14 pieces of legislation that would have reversed tribal hunting and fishing rights, court victories, terminating federal-tribal relations, and abrogating Indian treaties.

The way forward was for a grand coalition, an action coalition, that worked together to limit and then reverse the dangerous ideas that were coming from Congress. “NCAI pulled Indian country together and the backlash was defeated, including every piece of anti-Indian legislation that came out of the movement,” Trimble writes. “It was interesting to note that the principal sponsors of those pieces of legislation were also defeated in their bids for re-election.”

Mark Trahant

The challenge of sequester is the beginning of a new and dangerous era. The best hope for Indian country is to create, on a grander scale, a coalition that can once again limit and reverse those dangerous ideas coming from Congress.

Hoxie’s This Indian Country is the story of several activists whose work improved the lives of the people. The chapter on Sarah Winnemucca is a brilliant context for today's debate about the Violence Against Women Act. Winnemucca “charged that sexual violence was a fundamental aspect of expansion. Her speeches and writings were peppered with descriptions of rape and threats of rape.” In Truckee, she wrote, “The men whom my grandpa called his brothers would come into our camp and ask my mother to give our sister to them. They would come in at night and we would all scream and cry; but that would not stop them.”

Both authors capture how the American experience – or Manifest Destiny – surface in so many different forms. But because of that history there remains reason to be optimistic. As the challenges arise, so do leaders who bring people together.

“Today’s activists continue to animate discussions of the Indian future, but the cast of characters has expanded to include environmentalists, corporate leaders, physicians, bankers, actors, and astronauts. The community of activists is large and diverse, with Native women forming an ever-growing portion of the whole, but it continues to be united in its support for treaty rights, tribal autonomy, and the rights of American Indian citizens to live the rights as they choose,” Hoxie writes.

The complexity of the debate over austerity is far more difficult as a political problem. It’s stealth termination, budget line by budget line. And it’s harder to resolve because the Congress, indeed, the body politic, is unable to negotiate. Indian country is a bit player in a much larger show. But the results of what happens will matter. Austerity requires a deconstruction of so many institutions that have been built on reservations, villages, and in urban areas, over the last 40-plus years. To limit the damage, to reverse course, Indian country needs to draw on every lesson from the past to win again.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A new Facebook page has been set up at: