President Nixon and John Ehrlichman at the Western White House in California.
Published July 3, 2016
Mark Trahant / TrahantReports
A couple of decades ago I had a chance to interview John Ehrlichman. He had been recently released from prison for perjury and other Watergate-related crimes. We were talking about President Nixon’s American Indian and Alaska Native policies. He talked about some of the successes, some of the challenges, and then I asked him “why?”
Why was Richard Nixon interested in Indian affairs? Ehrlichman said the usual story was because of Nixon’s coach, Wallace Newman. Then he smiled. He said another reason was the number of Native Americans was so small. He said the federal government ought to be able to use its resources to bring about real change. (He added that he also liked the idea that it would drive Democrats crazy.)
I was thinking of this moment after listening to Bernie Sanders speak to the National Congress of American Indians via YouTube. The politics of the Nixon administration and Sanders could not be more different. Yet both hit on what ought to be an absolute truth in Washington: You can spend a lot of money on Indian Country and it’s still a tiny slice of the federal pie.
“We need to commit to fully funding the Indian Health Service,” Sanders said. “As I have said in every one of our tribal meetings, the tribal population is not massive. It does not take an incredible amount of resources to meet this obligation. It only takes a president who is prepared to make it a priority.”
This might be one of the most important statements made during the 2016 campaign. And it’s not only presidents that could benefit Sanders’ thinking.
Republicans in the House and Senate have discovered the Indian Health Service crisis in the Great Plains region. Yet not one solution has called for spending more money (although there are proposals to reform third-party billing which could add resources). The Indian Health Service budget looks huge on paper, next year’s request is for $5.7 billion. But when you break it down per person it’s less than $2,500 (a little more for those with insurance or Medicaid). And the national average for health care spending is $8,402 per person.
In other words: If the United States “fully funded” Indian health the cost would be roughly $8.8 billion. That’s a big number, unless you consider, the federal government spends about $1 trillion a year on health care.
Bernie Sanders is right. The country should redefine its relationship with its first people. And fully-funding the promise of health care is an excellent place to start.
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