#NATIVEVOTE16 – A Community’s Call to Fix Democracy

Fix Democracy
Guest Commentary

The people have a voice when politicians listen

Published March 14, 2016

Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

There is so much about this presidential election that appeals to voters’ base instincts: Ugly threats involving immigrants or Muslims; the school-yard shouting matches that replaced Republican debates and, especially concerning, the threats and violence found at Donald Trump’s campaign rallies.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The alternative presented itself on a beautiful pre-Spring day in the northern woods of Wisconsin. Instead of enjoying that first sunny break from winter, citizens, activists and politicians, spent the day inside the Lac Courte Oreilles Bingo Hall for “You Talk, We Listen!” This was a classic exchange of ideas, democracy in action, except for one important twist. Politicians, campaign representatives, and this blogger were on a panel charged with listening. We could ask questions, but we were not there to comment or counter. Sit. Be quiet. Absorb.

So what did I learn?

The first thing lesson was about the extraordinary mix that makes up a larger community. The event was on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Reservation and the tribe was clearly the host. A welcome by Tribal Chairman Mic Isham, and a drum and a flag song, made it clear that that this event was in Indian Country. The event was organized by Paul DeMain, chief executive of Indian Country Communications.

Mark Trahant

Mark Trahant

But the discussion was about the whole neighborhood: Rural Wisconsin, the health of the lakes, the water, schools, state government, and even the presidency. The day was long and punctuated by respect. Some 40-plus people signed up to speak for a few minutes each. A few brought supporting documents. Others  presented slide shows. Even more people came just to hear ideas.  On any other day the “listeners” would be huge draws: tribal leaders, elected representatives, and Tara Houska, an adviser to Bernie Sanders. Perhaps another time.

As the Rev. John Stanley put it when he had his chance to talk: “Where ever there is a venom, there is a serum. People are the remedy for the sickness. We can work together and take back the state.” Or as Rita Pachal said, “We need to fix our democracy first.”

Fixing democracy is a call to action. A call to organize. And a repeated call to vote.

Several themes that emerged through the day, and “taking back the state” was high on the agenda. Two common complaints Saturday: The way campaigns are financed by unlimited corporate spending and mean-spirited attacks on voting rights.

Most of the people who showed up were Democrats, as were those who came to listen. Republicans were invited, but either declined or ignored the invitation. Since the election of Gov. Scott Walker in 2010 folks described an atmosphere of antagonism toward citizen involvement.

“Our defense of democracy hinges on our engagement,” said Nate Timm from the Wisconsin Grassroots Network. He said more effort needs to focus on re-building the structure of community. “We can go out and talk to our friends in our community. The most impact you can have is talking to the people.”

Several speakers said they were concerned about the increasing child poverty in Sawyer Country and the state. Susan Bower said the rural county reports the second highest rates of poverty in the state, 30 percent, compared to 18 percent for Wisconsin.

And the state is going backwards, spending about a third of the national average on public health programs. One person cited the example of the increasing number of children showing up in emergency rooms with asthma. Of course, she said, all children have asthma. But they are unable to afford a visit to a primary care physician, so it’s the emergency room (and the most expensive form of treatment).

Pamela Goodman directs a communication action agency and is a public health nurse. “I feel like a hypocrite,” she said, because of government rules and programs limits what she’s allowed to pay people for home health care. The end result is that “too many workers have to rely on the food pantry to get by.”

Another theme was support for public education. “Education is strong in Wisconsin,” said Mary Jarvis, “but it is being transferred to private, parochial schools.” She said if the goal is to empower our children, “the way to make that happen is to support public schools.”

Tribal education systems should be included as well. Chris Munson, Oneida, said “educational opportunity” must include tribal colleges, tribal charters, and language revitalization.
Several people also testified that they were worried about their water, lakes, and their land.

Wisconsin is the new battleground over piping Canada’s Tar Sands oil to markets. “We fought the Keystone (XL pipeline) and we won,” said Carl Whiting, co-founder of Wisconsin Safe Energy Alliance. But now Enbridge is set to build a pipeline across Wisconsin that will carry the millions of barrels of the “dirtiest oil.” He said the pipeline company plans on expanding a current line and is looking for the least costly way to do that. He described a farmer whose house is near the current line and his foundation rumbles from the a pipeline only a few hundred feet away. He’d like to sell out, but the company doesn’t want to spend that much money.
That is the common ground in the pipeline issue, the idea that private property rights are being trampled as fast as the environment. Wisconsin recently changed its laws to limit oversight by cities and counties along the pipeline route, including insurance requirements. The company can also use eminent domain laws that require landowners to sell a strip of their land for the pipeline.

Korey Northrup said these pipelines will have an impact on traditional activists such as tapping trees for syrup. “We shouldn’t have to worry that a pipeline will ‘rain’ oil,” she said.
Any community forum, of course, is just the beginning of a conversation. Here in Wisconsin, there were many voices missing. We need to hear from people who did not or could not make the even. We need to hear more from young people. And there needs to be a conversation with conservatives.
One of the great stories from American history is the feud between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. These two men did not like each other or their politics. They were as far apart as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Yet late in life, Adams wrote to Jefferson, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.”

There remains a lot of explaining required in this country.

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


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  1. Bill Brown 4 years ago
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