Indian country is much more than the dealings of Jack Abramoff and the six
tribes he enveloped in his web of dishonest power-mongering. And while the
issue of appropriating Indian names and identities -- the mascot
controversy -- is important, it, too, is a minor focus in the fundamental
issue of tribal sovereignty survival and the preservation of tribal
Indian country's history, relative to and within the United States, is long
and deep. There is excellent research about this complex history, but it is
mostly unreported and often confused in media. Thus, it is widely ignored
by the general public.
The American Indian tribal population is a small minority, but it is
indigenous to the Americas and has maintained the right to be
self-governing as specific tribal nations that still hold territories
within the United States.
The justification used to legalize the forced taking of Indian lands and
resources -- the "discovery" by Christian nations of "heathen" peoples,
cited again in a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision -- might be seen to be
severely ethnocentric, a justification for the illegal taking of the
property of others.
In its own quest to develop as a just society, the United States adopted
important doctrines designed to remedy this fundamental injustice by
accepting that Native nations were and are still organized as large kinship
entities that hold lands and sustain cultures in common. Myriad wars,
treaties, court cases and public campaigns testify to the continuous
existence of Native nations. Decade by decade since the 1600s, townships,
states and the federal government have been required to recognize this
How it treats its first and most dispossessed of citizens -- the Native
peoples who still reside and exist within its territories -- is hugely
important for America as the rest of the world watches its intentions. The
Native nations, with whom the United States transacted its claim to reside
and to impose its supra-sovereignty over the land, have a resonant place in
U.S. history and in world cultural history. At a time when tribal nations
throughout the world wonder if there is still a place for them in their
regions of origin and when small and big nations ponder the misery and war
facing their future generations, the actions and intents of the United
States relative to its Native nations are closely watched.
"Great nations, like great men, should keep their word," wrote Supreme
Court Justice Hugo Black, in his dissent on the Federal Power Commission v.
Tuscarora Indian Nation case in 1960. Dominated but not defeated or
destroyed, the distinct Native nations exist, even after giving and
relinquishing to the United States great land holdings of their nations.
There is no denying that the lands and resources of Native nations provided
the wealth upon which the United States is built.
The tribal gaming era is relatively young and touches just over a third of
Native nations. Of those, maybe two dozen have experienced super-windfalls.
All support tribal services in education, health, governance, energy and
environmental quality. The rest of Indian country is still in serious
poverty, facing the bigotry of ignorance in reservation border towns and
the most incompetent and recalcitrant federal bureaucracy ever assembled.
In the Abramoff scandal, of the six tribes involved, some were duplicitous
while others were certainly duped by the Republican operative and
associates. These, "the tribes in question," are but a small sliver in the
universe of the 562 American Indian and Alaska Native tribes, of which 220
tribes run gaming houses, and hardly represent the more than 500,000 Native
families in reservations and urban areas throughout the country.
Is it too much to ask that perhaps one or another of the hundred or so
talking heads that get regular national television time could just once
say: "A handful of Indian tribes, six out of nearly 600 Native nations and
tribes in the country, are involved in the Abramoff case"? Is it too much
to hope that just one of the major news channels would profile Indian
country issues with more depth? That something could be done to get the
media beyond the superficiality and distortion of Indian country?
The tribes involved with Abramoff relied on a lobbyist who was extremely
well-connected, and let him direct a good chunk of their charitable and
political contributions. The tribes in question naively connived with a
master conniver and, like a run-over skunk on a lonesome highway, now
permeate the universe of Indian community- and nation-building endeavors.
Yet the reality, even for these tribes, is that the proximity to Abramoff
over a period of two to four years involved just a few tribal officials and
usually was contested by other groups within the tribes. At best, it is but
a temporary if embarrassing blip in historical time. These are correctable
mistakes -- honest or dishonest -- and should not tarnish ongoing
governmental process as long as measures are taken to clean up the poor
decision-making and accountability that produced the costly mistakes. This
is best done and/or suggested by the tribes' own legal initiatives.
Some pundits have come quickly to the arena armed for combat with "the
Indians." With the Abramoff affair brewing, the attack is on the general
intent of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which is consistently
misinterpreted for the general public. No matter that the tribes in
question, while skirting ethical standards, have not been indicted for
illegal acts, from The Wall Street Journal to the National Review the
knives are flying about the supposed rampant corruption among the gaming
When it comes to American Indians, all manner of cheap shots are tolerated
-- and not just from the right. From the left, liberal publications seem to
strive to prove their conservative balance by beating up on the concept of
Indian tribal sovereignty and self-government, without examining that this
policy is precisely what has allowed some measure of justice to the
American Indian populations.
The normally balanced New York Times weighed in Feb. 19 with a sensational
and horribly directed front-page article that pretends to indict a whole
Mohawk community for the actions of a particular criminal sector. The
unfairly focused article by Sarah Kershaw, "Drug Traffickers Find Haven in
Shadows of Indian Country," is an invitation to media gang-banging on
Indian sovereignty and may ultimately prove more destructive than the
That criminal activity Kershaw described involves the type of border
smuggling operations that are replicated throughout the length of both
Canadian and Mexican borders, as well as through the huge gaps in coastal
security. It is real enough, but Kershaw breathlessly hyped its cause as
tribal sovereignty and the Indian people generally, completely ignoring how
severely despised this criminal element is by the large majority of
reservation families, the Mohawk tribal government and the traditional
The language of termination is heard by the ideologically driven critics.
In these pages recently, we analyzed the consistent language of termination
introduced by prominent writers such as Holman Jenkins Jr., a member of the
editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, who railed against those
"defunct tribes" and their "enduring nonsense of Indian 'sovereignty.'"
Jenkins bemoaned the surprising resilience of any "Indian sovereignty,"
pining for an illusive termination from Indian friend, Sen. John McCain,
R-Ariz., an unlikely prospect. "[B]ut even that may come," Jenkins hopes,
because the "backlash" against tribal sovereignty "[is] already on the
way." This is intense anti-Indian tribal rights argumentation. It is being
heard across the country and the chorus will continue to croak in the
lineup -- a dangerous mantra that the media herd too willingly now carries
We welcome the participation of Indian journalists and all journalists in
the debate surrounding the Abramoff case and other easy "beat up on
Indians" stories. As easy and erroneous references and skewed angles are
used when Indian country sectors are covered, it is crucial that all Indian
country pens be ready to answer the intent of the coverage and the terms of
analysis employed on all Indian-related issues. We welcome all emergent
opinion leaders into the active defense of the legal and historical bases
for tribal distinctiveness and self-government.
American Indian peoples are in a serious fight again this time. A media
stampede in the wrong direction can set the conditions that will trample
our rights and our realities. The left flank normally represented by The
New York Times just bolted Feb. 19, following the path of using a story on
a negative situation about drugs and smuggling into an attack on the right
of tribal government and even on the very character of the whole population
of a tribal nation.
No doubt, media hype can usher an ugly, bigoted time for Indians. Solid
strategies and a great deal of creativity -- and a strong campaign kitty --
are required to make our better cases to the media, and directly to the