WASHINGTON - Resentment of Indian success, and particularly of the wealth
generated by a few tribal casinos, has fueled the rise of a number of
grass-roots anti-sovereignty groups across the country. But so far none of
these groups, from Washington state to Oklahoma to Upstate New York and
Connecticut, has achieved much success at the ballot box.
Candidates from their own ranks have failed, often by a large margin, and
for the most part established politicians have avoided close ties with
"I think Americans have generally rejected efforts to divide us," said U.S.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. He also pointed to the "great increase in political
sensitivity and political sophistication of the tribes."
Cole, an enrolled Chickasaw and a professional political analyst before his
election to Congress in 2002, observed that politicians in his state had
shied away from the One Nation group, which actively campaigns against
sovereign tribal tax policies.
In Washington state, resistance to the campaign for tribal treaty fishing
rights generated a counter-backlash. Energized Indian voters helped defeat
the incumbent U.S. Senator, Slade Gorton in the 2000 election.
In Connecticut, author Jeff Benedict gained national notoriety by writing a
debunking attack on the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. When he tried to
follow up with a campaign for Congress in their southeastern district in
2002, however, he attracted such little support that he was unable to get
the minimum number of delegates to the district Democratic nominating
convention needed to trigger a primary.
Benedict has since organized a grass-roots group called Connecticut
Alliance Against Casino Expansion, which has held a series of "town
meetings" in localities fearing that the preliminary and potential federal
recognition of several state-recognized tribes could lead to Indian casinos
in their backyards. In a break with the national pattern, his group has
strong support from several elected officials. State Attorney General
Richard Blumenthal, a liberal Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays,
R-4th District, have spoken at several of his meetings. U.S. Rep. Nancy
Johnson, R-6th District, has sponsored sympathetic legislation, and the
entire Connecticut delegation to Congress has signed letters opposing the
Jan. 29 federal recognition of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation.
Although these incumbents all appear to have strong positions, however,
some of them could face unpredictable election contests. Shays currently
faces one of the strongest opponents of his career, the popular First
Selectwoman Diane Farrell of celebrity-ridden Westport, who is close to
Bill and Hillary Clinton. Johnson has survived narrow re-elections in the
past, and a recent redistricting put strong Democratic areas into her
The anti-Indian movement in the state has proved fickle in the past.
Although it helped Republican challenger Robert Simmons unseat a long-term
Democratic incumbent Sam Gejdensen in 2000 in the 2nd District encompassing
the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegan Tribe, Simmons was the candidate
Benedict sought to run against in 2002.
In New York state, the Upstate Citizens for Equality in the Oneida and
Seneca-Cayuga territories has protested land claims by Nations of the
Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy, and has picketed a chain of gas
stations and convenience stores owned by the Oneida Indian Nation. A
candidate backed by the group gave a scare to incumbent U.S. Rep. Sherwood
L. Boehlert, R-23rd District, in the 2000 Republican primary, but his
independent campaign fizzled in the general election. In 2002, another
candidate sympathetic to the group withdrew before the voting for lack of
support, and Boehlert was re-elected with 74 percent of the vote.
The recent experience of the Upstate Citizens for Equality (UCE)
illustrates some of the problems these groups have in winning broader
political support. Its Congressional challenger Roger Potocki chose a
meeting of the UCE to make the first speech of his campaign to unseat
Boehlert. Potocki devoted much of his talk to bemoaning the economic
decline of the region and the lack of jobs that led many young people to
leave. Yet he completely ignored the employment created by the Oneida
Nation's Turning Stone Casino and its other enterprises.
The top leadership of UCE recently resigned. Founding President Scott
Peterman and Vice-President Bernie Conklin expressed frustration with their
lack of impact on the policies of New York state Gov. George Pataki. Both
told local reporters they were contemplating moving out of state. Conklin
was quoted as saying, "We've tried and tried to get our message across to
the people of this area on how crucial the land claim settlement is, how
crucial the issue of taxation is, and it just doesn't seem to matter."
The new UCE president is David Vickers, the past challenger to Boehlert in
the Republican primary. Vickers is now circulating petitions for the
impeachment of Gov. Pataki, complaining that Pataki has refused to impose
the state sales tax on Indian reservations.
Even sympathetic local newspapers note that the group has been criticized
as shrill and extreme. It has been labeled a hate group in resolutions of
the United South and Eastern Tribes and the National Congress of American
Indians. But its leaders reject the criticism.
According to the Oneida Daily Dispatch, Conklin replied, "We've been
labeled a hate group and racist right from the start. Nothing could be
further from the truth. We've been right on every issue right from the
beginning, but nobody wanted to listen."
In the analysis of Oklahoma's Cole, however, voters have been more
impressed by the jobs and economic growth produced by tribal governments, a
prosperity, he emphasizes, that coincided with their exercise of their
"These jobs aren't going to be exported to China," he said. "These profits
aren't going to be sent out of the area. This is where our headquarters