The Federal Communication Commission has a novel idea: Redrawing “Indian Country” boundaries in Oklahoma by using a map from another century. This is Trahant Reports.
So where did this idea come from? The Federal Communication Commission has been rethinking the rules for its Lifeline program. This 1985 program is supposed give poor people have access to telephones, essential tools for finding and keeping jobs, connecting with family, or calling a clinic to make a doctor’s appointment.
The nature of life in this digital age means that American Indians and Alaska Natives need to find a way to be connected. But even simple ideas run up against the complexity of history and the challenges of defining tribal lands and sovereignty.
The Lifeline program became a pipeline for fraud because it was phone companies that determined eligibility, even filling out paperwork for clients. So a couple of years ago the FCC scaled back the number of eligible consumers.
The FCC says Oklahoma is a particularly thorny problem because some two-thirds of the state was considered on “Indian land” and so people were eligible whether or not there they had ties to a tribe.
The FCC’s solution is to invent a new definition of tribal lands in Oklahoma.
Defining tribal lands is easy in a reservation setting. (Or at least it should be.) But it is far more complex in Oklahoma, Alaska, Nevada, and other regions where the history is different. The FCC proposal uses a map from 1870 to 1890 to identify “former” reservation lands. Only tribal citizens within those century-old boundaries will be considered eligible for the subsidy.
Brian Howard, a legislative analyst for the National Congress of American Indians, says that the use of these maps are problematic because they’re not real boundaries. There is not even a map that can be plotted with Geographic Information Service data.
What’s more: This Oklahoma map has no statutory authority. It’s an invention of the FCC. A second proposal would eliminate “urban” areas, even in tribal lands, could impact other Native communities in Arizona, Nevada and Alaska. The FCC is especially interested in eliminating residents of Tulsa from their tribal lands’ definition.
The important thing to remember is that tribes were not involved with fraudulent subsidies for Lifeline. Those crimes came about because private telephone companies were helping people enroll as well as producing the supporting documents. Yet instead of working with tribes to come up with a solution to the problem, the FCC has set in motion a new rule that weakens both tribal authority and control over boundaries.
At its most recent meeting, the National Congress of American Indians asked the FCC to work with tribes — Instead the FCC is stuck on inventing new law.
I am Mark Trahant reporting. This story is a partnership with Native Public Media.