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Campaign finance system, not tribes, to blame for scandal

Editors' note: We are always glad to see leaders in Indian country respond
to media misinformation. The recent rash of anti-Indian opinion pieces
requires the serious attention of all tribal columnists, journalists,
researchers and letter-writers. The following was submitted by John
McCarthy, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, as
a response to a column by Jan Golab, "Indian Gaming Woes," published in the
Los Angeles Daily News.

Those of us who live in the real world frequently marvel that many of your
guest columnists seem to live in another galaxy. Today's column by Jan
Golab ["Indian gaming woes," Jan. 22] is a stellar example. Golab, a former
Playboy editor, has published numerous other attacks on tribes and
sovereignty, which he says is "a festering problem." This column, like his
other work, is crammed with outright factual errors, incorrect conclusions
and undisguised racial hatred. It is surprising and disappointing that the
Los Angeles Daily News chose to publish it.

First, the factual errors. Golab is wrong about tribal sovereignty and [the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act]. Tribal sovereignty was not "codified" by
[IGRA]. It was established as a fundamental principle under the U.S.
Constitution, which recognizes tribes in the same way it recognizes the
states. More than a century of legal precedents from the U.S. Supreme Court
and other federal courts has confirmed that tribes are, indeed,
self-governing nations within the United States. They exist in this fashion
because their existence as governments pre-dates the establishment of the
U.S. government itself. When tribes ceded lands to the United States, they
did so in exchange for a promise that they would have the right to govern
themselves in perpetuity. Even Mr. Golab presumably understands that "in
perpetuity" means forever, not just until it becomes inconvenient for
others.

Golab was also 100 percent wrong in his review of IGRA's origin and impact.
The passage of IGRA in 1988 followed the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the
1987 California v. Cabazon [Band of Mission Indians] case. That decision
did not give tribes the right to gamble in "states that do not otherwise
allow gambling." In fact, it held the opposite -- that sovereign Indian
tribes could conduct gaming operations on tribal lands without state
interference as long as gaming was otherwise legal in the state. Many
states had authorized lotteries, pari-mutuel wagering, and/or some forms of
casino gambling for charity purposes. The court held that tribes could not
be denied the right to gamble on tribal lands if others in the state were
allowed to gamble under existing state law.

Then came IGRA. Congress was not, as Golab claims, "eager to show
'simpatico'" (that's so Hollywood) with Indian tribes. In fact, IGRA was
the result of pressure on Congress from state governors and attorneys
general who, concerned about the Supreme Court decision, demanded that
Congress give them some measure of control over tribal gaming activities.
So Congress passed IGRA, which actually limited tribal sovereignty by
requiring that tribes negotiate agreements with states in order to conduct
Class III casino-style gaming. Many tribes opposed IGRA because they
believed it gave states too much power over them.

Golab's fourth egregious error was in characterizing Indian gaming as "our
nation's largest special-interest group." Tribal contributions to
congressional campaigns are small compared with those from other groups. In
2004, tribal contributions to congressional campaigns comprised one-third
of one percent of the total contributions made, about $7.2 million out of a
total $2.05 billion. During the same 2004 election cycle, the defense
industry spent $15.6 million, the commercial banking industry $31 million,
the health care industry $73.9 million, and the retirement industry $184
million. Where is the outcry about these big spenders?

Back to the factual errors. Golab declares that "reservation shopping" has
resulted in "many new gambling resorts" and is "truly scandalous." Again,
he is wrong. For the record, only three off-reservation land-into-trust
transactions have been approved since IGRA was passed in 1988. Only 15
tribes have received federal recognition since 1978, and only one of those
tribes has gaming. Most of those recognition claims had been pending for
years, having been initiated long before Indian gaming was a glimmer in
anyone's eye. Sixteen petitions for recognition have been denied since
1978. These facts can be verified by the National Indian Gaming
Association, which keeps such records.

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If one examines today's headlines, it becomes clear that there is not so
much "reservation shopping" as "Indian shopping." Many of the high-profile
proposals for off-reservation gaming expansion have been initiated not by
tribes but by non-Indian communities, state governments or private
companies that would partner with tribes to solve their own economic
problems.

The "litany of woes" attributed to tribal gaming is stunningly off the
mark, and again presented without a shred of evidence. The actual facts
show that where tribal gaming operates, property values have substantially
increased, business start-ups have increased, average wages have improved,
the tax base has expanded, and welfare costs have dropped. Since most
casino workers make substantially more than the minimum wage, they are a
positive economic force in their local communities.

Especially disturbing is Golab's comment about "flooding local schools with
the children of low-income casino workers." The racist overtones of such a
statement cannot be ignored. Does he object to the schools serving the
children of other low-income workers? Or is it just that some of these
children might be Indian? Since the federal government pays school
districts to serve Indian children, not a nickel of their education comes
out of the pocket of local taxpayers. In most cases, school districts
receive more in federal Indian education aids than they actually spend on
the children.

Only about six of the 224 gaming tribes in the United States dealt with
[Jack] Abramoff. The tribes that hired him committed no crime, other than
trusting someone who shouldn't have been trusted. No court has suggested
that the tribes are in any way culpable for Abramoff's appallingly
unethical conduct. By ordering Abramoff to pay restitution to his tribal
clients, the courts have recognized these governments as the victims, not
the villains.

Even so, because of the Abramoff scandal, Indian tribes have become the
scapegoats in a cynical game of political spin. Congress did create a mess,
but not by passing IGRA. It made a mess by creating a campaign finance
system that promotes the kind of large-scale abuse we're seeing now.
Indians didn't create the rules, they just play by them.

It isn't Indian gaming that's at fault here, nor is it individual Indian
tribes. It's the failed campaign finance system. To fault Indian tribes for
that failure is nothing but racist demagoguery. But that is apparently Mr.
Golab's specialty. Shame on the Los Angeles Daily News for giving him a
forum to air his ignorance and bigotry.

John McCarthy is executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming
Association, which represents nine of the 11 gaming tribes in Minnesota.