July 8, 2011

Suulutaaq Earns Praise, Battles Flood of Criticism for Work in Napa

Flooding outside St. John's Hall in Napa, California in 2005. (Photo courtesy of NapaFloodControl.com)

An Alaska Native construction company partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a flood-control project in Napa, California has recently taken the hot seat.

Three years ago, Suulutaaq, Inc., the Anchorage-based Alaska Native Corporation, responded to a request by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with a 1,900-page proposal for completing a project aimed at preventing floods that have devastated Napa for more than 100 years. In September 2008, the contract was awarded for $65 million, and in summer 2009, $54 million was provided in stimulus funds.

Napa Mayor Jill Techel calls the project “shovel-ready, green” and a job generator, reported California Watch, a news site founded by the Center for Investigative Reporting. “I am pleased that the Napa Flood Project has received much needed stimulus funds to provide flood protection for our community,” Techel said in a statement. “The completion of the railroad relocation will allow us to construct the critically important Oxbow Bypass Channel and ultimately help us to protect community residents, strengthen our local economy and preserve the Napa River.”

But in December, U.S. Senators John McCain, R-Arizona, and Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, issued a report listing the Napa Valley Flood Control Project—often misleadingly referred to as the Wine Train Project—as number 11 among 100 stimilus projects that they disdained as a “silly” and “frivolous” and a waste of stimulus dollars, reported CNN.

“We were disappointed, obviously, that we were put on the list,” Renee Fredericks, presient of Suulutaaq, a subsidiary of The Kuskokwim Corporation, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “It took away from the true focus of the project: flood control for a city.”

The goal of the project is to halt severe flooding in Napa, such as a 2005 flood that cost the city $115 million in damage repair. The project will protect more than 3,000 properties from flooding, according to NapaFloodControl.com, a site created by the project’s four partners: The City of Napa, Napa County Flood Control & Water Conservation District, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Suulutaaq. “Napa has been devastated by flooding almost every decade,” Fredericks told ICTMN. “It chases businesses and tourists away. There’s a reason for this project, regardless of the names attached to it—and it’s to lessen the impact of flooding on the town.”

Suulutaaq workers poured cement on bridge supports. (Photo courtesy of Suulutaaq)

Fredericks was referring to the abbreviated name for the project, the “Wine Train,” which she calls “a source of contention in the media.” The label refers to one aspect of the flood mitigation efforts: raising the tracks of the Napa Valley Wine Train that takes tourists in luxurious, restored vintage rail cars through the area’s wine country. “Currently, when it rains, the tracks block the water’s flow and flood problems are created, so the tracks must be moved to allow water to run underneath them,” explains the Operating Engineers’ local union No. 3, which represents some workers on the project, in the April 2010 newsletter Engineer News.

Criticism of the flood-control project intensified when California Watch reporter Lance Williams delved into questions about why a company from Alaska “landed” stimulus-funded work in California, and whether Suulutaaq was best suited for the job, reported the Alaska Dispatch. “We’ve had a presence in California doing smaller projects for the Corps of Engineers and the Defense Commissary Agency,” Fredericks told ICTMN, emphasizing the flood-control project is injecting money into the local economy. Suulutaaq estimates the project will spend over $50 million within 60 miles of Napa.

Suulutaaq is also performing 44 percent of the work, “building three bridges for railroad tracks and raising parts of three streets to a higher plane,” Fredericks said. That’s a far greater percentage than is typical for a general contractor and beyond the 15 percent required by federal law, according to NapaFloodControl.com.

To date, Suulutaaq has hired more than 60 subcontractors, service providers and vendors, mostly based near Napa. But some Alaska Native shareholders have picked up work in the sunshine state. “It was a great opportunity for Suulutaaq to have some shareholders come down and work on the project and have employment outside of Alaska,” said Fredericks, adding that many Alaska Natives prefer to continue living in small villages along the Kuskokwim River, practicing a subsistence lifestyle that often involves hunting and fishing. “A lot of construction projects slow down in the summer, so we have had shareholders come work down here, and they have done so very successfully,” Fredericks said.

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December 31, 2011

In Defense of Native 8(a) Programs

Native people have the highest percentage of service in the armed forces of any U.S. ethnic group. In fact, there are nearly 190,000 Native American military veterans, which is about 7 percent of the total Native American population alone. So we should be accustomed to being attacked. But by our own Congress? In 2011? Yes indeed, certain congressional representatives have us in their sights. Their tactic of choice is the legislative sneak attack—just as it was throughout congressional history.

In the fall of 2009, for example, during a Senate-House conference on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a battle got underway before the tribes were even aware they were the target. Senator Claire McCaskill air-dropped an amendment to that year’s defense authorization—Section 811—targeting only Native 8(a) Programs with new restrictions. This immediately and effectively put a damper on all economic development in Indian Country.

Once Native communities became aware of the problem, battle lines were drawn and Lower-48 tribes, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians joined forces. Then, the Republican senator from Arizona, John McCain, joined up with Democratic McCaskill. Working together, the two senators introduced numerous amendments and bills in an attempt to further cripple Native 8(a) Programs. Tribes, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians responded with telephone calls, faxes, emails and letters to their own senators, expressing opposition to such legislation.

At stake was every Native 8(a) Program in the country, along with the economic activity they represented. Tribes, Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs), and Native Hawaiian Organizations (NHOs) represent entire communities of disadvantaged individuals and are responsible for providing benefits to their members in perpetuity. Native 8(a)s create jobs in all 50 states, hiring locally and stimulating locally economies, in a time of high unemployment through innovation and quality past performance. Despite this, there have been numerous attempts to modify or all together do away with the Native 8(a) program. Because we stood united in our message, these bills and amendments did not get through. All of this occurred out of the sight of most Americans, as there was little media coverage.

The fight isn’t over though. McCaskill and McCain tried again this year, via the 2012 NDAA currently in Congress. Fortunately, through efforts of tribal leaders nationwide and Congressional allies, we eliminated the two senators’ damaging amendments. We can all appreciate the hard work of our brothers and sisters who lead Native communities around the country and of our friends in Congress; they have once again deflected a serious attack on our economic future.

What is most amazing is that 8a Native Programs truly work to build self-sufficiency for our Native peoples. Yet this is what they want to take away. Why? I’d say it’s because our Native companies have started to see success through this program, and we are now a real threat to some non-Native government contracting businesses.  These businesses are under the protection of some very powerful politicians, to whom they make contributions.

How did I come to this conclusion? It is a fact; the non-Native government-contracting program doing business with the federal government is, and long has been, rife with fraud, waste and abuse, as documented by a host of reports, lawsuits and criminal proceedings. Big contractors have even been fined—but that’s all—for giving away our military secrets! Politicians are obviously bent on not just ignoring wrongdoing, but on helping out these favored non-Native contractors/contributors.

There has been significant scrutiny of the entire Native 8(a) Program over the last few years, and many attacks have been waged to severely restrict or even end the program. It is critical that we Native people actively support the Native 8(a) Program and continue our fight for justice and the equal opportunity to pursue economic development in government contracting and other areas of commerce.  We cannot afford to allow special-interest groups and a few politicians eager for campaign contributions to push us back down the economic ladder we have struggled so hard to climb.

We must remain vigilant and be alert for any legislation that would adversely affect our sovereignty and treaty rights, if enacted. We must oppose each and every damaging legislative action, whether it affects all tribes or even just one Native community.

Oliver J. Semans is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe

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October 2, 2012

Elections 2012: My Sovereign Debate, Recalling George W. Bush’s Sovereignty Speech

What would a presidential debate look like if it were held in Indian country? It could happen.

A dozen years ago the Unity Journalists of Color convention was held in Seattle. There were some 6,000 journalists in town, the Native American Journalists Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Hispanic Journalists Association and the Asian American Journalists Association.

Two Republican presidential candidates – George W. Bush and John McCain – both declined an invitation to speak. But at the last moment they showed up anyway. Bush spent about 15 minutes walking around, shaking hands with what he said were “old friends.”

McCain cancelled an event in Ohio and flew to Seattle and to the meeting as well. He said in The Washington Post: “I picked up the L.A. Times and saw that GOP candidates … had decided not be here. So I rearranged my schedule.”

Meanwhile then Vice President Al Gore had a town hall on technology. I was asked to represent the NAJA and ask him a question. I think it was about access on reservations, but I can’t be sure. It went by quick.

But the encounter with presidential candidates, both Republicans and Democrats, stuck. Five years later the same Unity convention was held in Washington, D.C. And both major presidential candidates – then President George W. Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry agreed to speak.

Once again I was honored to be asked to represent NAJA and ask a question of Bush, a rare opportunity to explore American Indian policy with a president in a public forum. I thought and thought about what I should ask. How do I tap into the president’s thinking? I wanted an answer from him, not some carefully drafted statement from a policy intern at the White House. What can I do to make my query personal? Will that help make the answer specific?

This is what I said:

“Most school kids learn about government in the context of city, county, state and federal, and of course, tribal governments are not part of that at all. Mr. President, you have been a governor and a president, so you have unique experience looking at it from two directions. What do you think tribal sovereignty means in the twenty-first century and how do we resolve conflicts between tribes and the federal and state governments?”

President Bush stared. I could see his eyes, searching for the right words to answer what must have seemed incomprehensible.

“Yeah, tribal sovereignty means that, it’s sovereign. You’re a – you’re a – you have been given sovereignty and you’re viewed as a sovereign entity. And therefore, the relationship between the federal government and tribes is one between sovereign entities,” he answered.

The audience first gasped and then laughed while the president continued, finding the right words to say. “Now, the federal government has got a responsibility on matters like education and security to help, and health care. And it’s a solemn duty. And from this perspective, we must continue to uphold that duty,” Bush continued to polite applause. But few were listening because the impression had already been struck.

Click here to view the embedded video.

This episode was instantly transmitted on the Internet. “The Sovereignty clip” was found on YouTube, e-mailed to friends, and sent around cyberspace. Even to this day it remains popular.

Four years later, again at Unity, Barack Obama was there and made news. His challenger John McCain this time didn’t show up. And this election season none of the candidates appeared at Unity.

But Obama passed on another event that same year, one that could have opened a window into his thinking about Indian country. I moderated Prez On The Rez on the Morongo Reservation in California. This event wasn’t considered a big deal because neither Obama nor Hillary Clinton participated. But then New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson did. He said when he was asked, it took him all of 20 seconds to say “yes.”

None of these forums are true debates. But there are two points to consider when watching the “real” debates Wednesday night.

First, and most important, the issues facing American Indians and Alaska Natives in this country deserve a broader forum in the national discussion. Over a shared history of two centuries, there is so much that remains unsaid. How can a nation make promises in treaties, and then fail to fund them? How can Native Americans be invited to participate in the political and judicial process – and then have no representation? What would America be without Indian country?

And, second, I cringe when I hear from the presidential debate commission that it could not find any qualified African American or Latino journalists to moderate the debate.

Frank Fahrenkopf, President and CEO of the American Gaming Association, as well as the Republican co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, told the Poynter Institute that TV was to blame. “The television industry has not done a very good job with diversity with regard to really having women, or blacks or Hispanics in leading situations,” Fahrenkopf told Poynter via telephone. He said the presidential debates have included women as moderators, and Gwen IIfill as an African American and a woman. “We have not had a Hispanic yet; we looked very hard to try to find a Hispanic that met the qualifications. I know that we disappointed the Hispanic community, but you can only do so much of this. I mean, should there be a Jewish moderator? Should there be an Arabic moderator? You can only do so much of this, and so we just do our best.”

Our best? Give me a break. Although I suspect George W. Bush would have liked Unity a lot more if I didn’t ask him a question about tribal sovereignty.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.

Read more @ Indian Country Today Media Network.com'Lone Ranger': New Images and Official Poster Released - ICTMN.com.

Elections 2012: So Goes the Debate, Goes Colorado

Both presidential candidates would like to win Colorado. It’s a state that is up for grabs.

Four years ago Obama was ahead at this point, he had reached the 50 percent mark over John McCain’s 45 percent. This time around, the race is much closer. The Real Clear Politics average of Colorado polls show Barack Obama ahead with 48.8 percent to Mitt Romney’s 45.7 percent.

That means Obama is not doing as well as last time – and Romney is doing better than McCain.

Native Americans are a small part of the Colorado voting landscape, roughly 2 percent of the population and almost 2 percent of the eligible voting pool. More than half of that population lives in urban areas, including Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs. About 40 percent is rural and that would include the two reservations in the state, the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute.

The Denver Post last week asked Native Coloradans about the Elizabeth Warren identity issue in Massachusetts.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who was first elected to the U.S. House from Colorado as a Democrat, said, “I think if she used it just to get some kind of advantage – whatever it was – like a job application or something, then that’s probably not appropriate. … If you have nothing to do with Indians at all – never – except to try to get some unfair advantage, then I think there’s an ethical question in that. … I don’t know if Mrs. Warren did that or not. Maybe not.” Campbell after winning election to the U.S. Senate became a Republican.

The newspaper also quoted Wenona Benally Baldenegro, who recently lost an Arizona primary race for the House on the Democratic side. “Instead of perpetuating stereotypes of American Indians, Americans would be much better served with commentary discussing tribal sovereignty, tribal rights and the very serious issues that our tribal communities face, today. The focus should be placed on how our members of Congress intend to uphold tribal sovereignty and enact legislation consistent with the federal trust responsibility.”

One Colorado issue that is not getting a lot of national attention concerns tuition waivers for Native American students at Fort Lewis College.

The original deal was that any student who was a member of a tribe would receive a tuition waiver. This waiver “has changed the lives of thousands of Native American students and, in many ways, come to define the college perched above downtown Durango,” said a recent story in The Durango Herald. “The tuition waiver’s roots date back to 1911, when Colorado accepted a 6,279-acre land grant from the federal government. In exchange for the sprawling property located five miles south of Hesperus, Colorado agreed to maintain the land and buildings there as an institution of learning and admit Native American students tuition free.”

But the Colorado legislature has been looking for a new deal – and revenue stream. The latest idea is to have the federal government pick up the tab for those Native American students who are not residents of Colorado.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.

Read more @ Indian Country Today Media Network.com'Lone Ranger': New Images and Official Poster Released - ICTMN.com.

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