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Beware the anti-Indian media message: A twisted story can become legend

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For the American Indian economic recovery to succeed over the next generation, Indian people must tell their story and tell it well. The ignorance about contemporary Native existence by the American public can be appalling. Are we even approaching an informed understanding of the historical and legal bases of Indian sovereignty in the mainstream population? It doesn't appear so.

The ability of media personalities to piggy-back on anti-tribal positions can harden the public to a particular point of view. This holds great danger for tribal rights. The current Indian recovery is fraught with pitfalls in this regard. California tribes are now "it;" suddenly its open season on Indians, who are getting accused of getting more than their "fair share." Reality: state governments' budget deficits point to a national short-fall of $22 billion in this budget year and $54 billion in the next. Legislators are salivating over Indian money. Both nationally and state by state (California leads in this), voters and legislators have been excusing their own tax bases. Now, they want the Indian tribes, who are just beginning to grow and prosper under their inherent right of self-government, to pay the penalty for their state's poor choices and often times, poor management.

Never mind that the tribal recovery currently under way has been painstakingly built out of the ashes of conquest and colonization, the devastation of the early tribal productive environments, the outright attack on Native life and culture, the legalized theft of land base. Never mind that in California just seven generations ago Indians were hunted for their scalps; never mind that they were reduced, destroyed in many cases, yet survived, retained and regained lands and even secured, over time, a place in the body politic. Never mind that overwhelmingly communities and business climates around Indian casinos bloom, that relations with neighbors are generally good, that the some 40,000 team-member employees of tribal enterprises can with certainty count that their local Indian employers will not export their jobs to Mexico or China. Never mind that the tribal bases of self-government under federal Indian law and practice have a broad and deep position and are an undeniable part and parcel of American history and society.

This is a tremendous story, but it is not being told. Instead, the "greedy Indian getting something for nothing" concept is the mixture being poured and molded. Tribes will allow that mold to harden and cement itself at great peril.

Of course, this is happening all over, not just in California. This is a growing national movement, fueled by state government fiscal incompetence and the age-old American approach of assuming ownership to anything Native tribes have ever had or hope to achieve. Here and there, it is checked in the courts, but surely and perhaps not so slowly anymore, the door is opening. The California recall race and its consequences, for better or worse, make this clear.

This anti-tribal argument needs to be confronted and, more importantly, overwhelmed, with clear, cogent and positive message. Indian leadership must understand the great and increasing pressure they are going to encounter as they face publics throughout a whole country all too easily mobilized to negative opinion. Everybody wants to grab the Indian nickel now. The voices of opposition to Native prosperity are growing. Those of us who monitor the media can see how stories, even bogus and fraudulent stories, if repeated often enough, will dominate media perception. And the anti-Indian story, even when proffered by a discredited Rush Limbaugh, is being repeated.

Now comes Allan Murray, normally among the more thoughtful of the conservative commentators, taking his shot at the Indian story. Darn if it doesn't replicate the hardening mold. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Murray dismisses all of Arnold's ideas for reducing California's deficit, "undefinedut one, [it] is step four: Get our fair share of Indian gaming revenue." (WSJ, October 14, "Schwarzenegger Has One Useful Idea: Tap Casino Money"). Every other Arnold idea turns out to be "vague," "fuzzy," "meaningless," except taxing the Indian revenues from tribal gaming. "The Villain," behind the tree," writes Murray, playing on the title of an early Arnold movie, "turns out to be an Indian."

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Why must it be so?

Because, "American Indians don't pay taxes. They live in autonomous regions."

(Actually, Indian governments don't pay taxes. Indian individual workers certainly do. So do those who receive per capita payments derived from gaming revenues. And, they happen to live all over the country.)

The effort by tribes to defend the Indian position on the issues, after a relentless attack by the Schwarzenegger machine, Murray refers to as the "Blah, blah of the Indian ads." So much then, from this attitude about anything any Indian leader may say. Over and out. Blah, blah. How is this fair and balanced?

Murray rounds out the article with a continued attack on the tribes' relationship with ousted Governor Davis, accusing the tribes of buying Davis with a $1 million campaign contribution. Again, the bogus assertion is of something dishonest being done by the tribes, who in contributing to politicians are in fact working within the system as well as they can, just like everyone else in the country. They get labeled as an interest group but in fact the "so-called" interest group syndrome is basically the country's political system. What Murray calls a "sweet deal" compacts for the tribes were the result of pretty tough bargaining, from a governor who understood that the tribes come backed up with a federally-recognized jurisdiction and governmental sovereignty based on 200 years of agreements, litigation, legislation and continuous case law. Which is entirely proper, because this is the actual history and the only logical positions of Indian tribal nations in this country.

As with other commentators addressing the Indian economic movement and its freedom from states, Murray appears to have constructed a derivative description of Indian nations taken mostly from other media assumptions and misrepresented accounts. While the depth of the American Indian tribal government construct in American legality is sound, this reality is out of sight and out of mind in the Murray prescription for Indian self-government.

Perhaps the smell of an organized campaign to argue down and limit American Indian tribal rights is not quite pungent, but there is a whiff. For now, media herding instincts or pack mentality does a pretty good job of it. Respected journalists like Murray owe it to themselves to delve deeper into the vision and mission of Indian tribal government, across the northern hemisphere. We encourage such journalists not to gloss over on this one, so to better understand realities often all too quickly assumed to be mastered.