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Contemplating a Fair Share for Indian Country

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In mainstream America, as always, the rich get richer and the poor get
poorer. Indian country can be different. Indian country could just be the
swath of America where, beyond the rigors of business efficiency, the
common good can be recognized and upheld. But it remains to be seen whether
tribal leadership has the temerity to act responsibly in accordance with
its most noble traditions.

First question: Will the states take (or be allowed to take) all the Indian
gains from the new Indian economy before Indian wealth can be used to help
other tribes? We would love to enlist in the fight that simply says no -
the fight that says why don't we figure out how to help all of Indian
country first?

But, here is the equally important second question: Just as the internal
resources of Indian country begin to multiply - are today's tribes
forward-thinking enough to encompass the idea of tribes helping other
tribes first - and endeavor to put it into practice? Will political
volition follow the capability of growing resources? We sure hope so.
Otherwise we relegate ourselves to repeating a practice inconsistent with
most every social value American Indian cultures hold dear.

The best news out of California's recent compacts with five tribes was to
be reminded of the current ability of successful gaming tribes to float
huge bonds - a cool billion dollars - essentially to alleviate the
financial crisis of the state. The news seemed horrible to many people -
and it does seem excessive to us too. We continue to be of the opinion that
California Indian peoples gave more than their fair share already. Consider
that California, with the world's sixth largest economy, is hugely powerful
and should be capable of addressing a fiscal crisis of its own making
without tithing more from the American Indian nations within. The state
will take what it can out of the Indians and the question of what is "fair"
in "fair share" will be hardly discussed. What about a fair share for
Indian country, we say.

Indian country as a whole must see good benefits and enjoy the common hope
of self-respect, self-sufficiency and economic empowerment if tribal
America is to achieve sufficiently serious national unity and advancement.
The economically poor, large land-based northern Great Plains and
midwestern tribes, for example, and the big gaming tribes of the Northeast
and of California must benefit from mutual engagement, understanding and
economic relations. Such a unity, formed around a common benefit surfacing
from a commonly held and defended set of rights under law and custom, we
suggest, is entirely required if Indian country will survive the major
onslaughts starting to hit now and again from anti-Indian forces. Let us
not allow our greatest adversaries to be ourselves.

Now we witness a billion-dollar dowry floated in a bond to reaffirm tribal
economic vows with California. It makes us realize that Indian country's
problems are not so imposing or insurmountable that they cannot be solved -
given the current tribal benevolence and resources obviously available. A
billion dollars set up in a well-planned investment would do a world of
good in Indian country. A billion dollars addressing the poverty and other
needs, for instance, of the 200 poorest and most destitute Indian
communities in North America could go a long way toward stimulating
sweepingly positive change. A billion dollars is quite doable, perhaps even
two or four billion is possible for such an endeavor, from, say, the top 20
money-making tribes in America.

One can almost hear the collective audible gasp that just now escaped from
the lungs of tribal leadership reading this column - acting as they often
do first and foremost out of immediate, yet admittedly, sovereign
self-interest. But let's seriously consider the proposition. Some earnest
students of history are already calling for an American Indian "Marshall
Plan" - harking back to the reconstruction era of Europe after World War
II, when the U.S. financed the jump-start of the global postwar economy
that expands to this day. We agree with the concept knowing that it can be
made practical in Indian communities.

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Indian country now has substantial experience with creative and successful
investment in numerous fields of endeavor. Capital lending institutions
have been effective even in the most historically beleaguered regions. The
brainstorming sessions around the real potentials for reconstituting
impoverished Indian nations are formidable. Implementation is much more
difficult, but also doable, with the right people and practical approaches.
In the past decade new knowledge and educational assets have also exploded
the potentials for the growth of American Indian enterprise. Combining
forces with innovative applications like Community Development Financial
Institutions (CDFIs), some tribes today are in a position to make
profitable investments that would offer real hope that the forces of
poverty in much of Indian country can be defeated. And these would
constitute real investments earning interest, rather than wholesale
giveaways to a state government.

The grim statistics and litany of broken lives continue in way too many
reservations. In those places, too easily identified, proper resources and
experience can make a huge difference. The most remote and downtrodden
community in Indian country is usually ready in some way through some
caring local people to properly use resources to improve their own peoples'
lives.

The important thing is to treasure the opportunity to formulate a truly
positive and substantial strategy to reverse poverty and destitution in
Indian country. The serious recent growth in resources can be strategically
used to stimulate good social projects and sound enterprise wherever
possible in Indian country. The volition to help other Indian people in
need of a boost must be a banner for the already successful tribes and, in
many cases, their millionaire per capita recipients. It is probably their
best line of defense against the unrelenting attacks that paint such tribes
as greedy and callous. Without ignoring friends and neighbors, Indian
country's best public relations campaign should be helping other tribal
communities in need.

Seventeen billion dollars is a figure larger than the economies of many
countries, and of course, it represents a jarring amount for any community
to even envision. But consider that even such a large figure represents
just a small percentage of what middle and upper class Americans spend on
entertainment in any given year.

There is a lot of wealth in mainstream America not available on most Indian
reservations. Throughout Indian country, a bird's-eye-view of most casino
parking lots reveals huge capital in itself. That vast American sea of
SUV's and shiny new cars - granted, alongside a few rusty old pick-ups -
reveals most tellingly the fat underbelly of American wealth. Need we
remind anyone that this is a wealth built upon two hundred years of
feasting on the wonderfully abundant resources heretofore owned by American
Indian nations?

Such is the growing depth of wealth in California, Connecticut, Minnesota,
Wisconsin, New York, Florida, Connecticut and elsewhere. Why do these
states deserve Indian money? Why is it all right for states to tap into
tribal monies that could be and should be better applied toward uplifting
the economically depressed bottom third of Indian country? Why can't tribal
investment and philanthropy point more toward helping other Indian
communities across state boundaries?

Again, we are not particularly partial to the idea that economically
successful Indian nations have the obligation to give away their money to
states and the various municipalities that surround them. We know the
feasting on Indians by states is not easy to stop, as it is a lingering
social pathology to dispossess Indian people of their assets. But, if the
beast must necessarily be fed, still, in the best way possible, let's not
forget Indian country.

A fair share is deserved for Indian country, we say. No tribe left behind
is our refrain. If there is $1 billion available to bail out one of the
world's largest economies in California, certainly there are billion's more
available for Indian country communities in need. The money is there, even
if only $10 million at a time. This much we now know. But where are Indian
America's values to be found?