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Editorial: 2002 in review: American Indian nations grow

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In this season of peace and renewal, the country braces for war while a shy economy puts in doubt the way ahead. Yet, even in the face of death, life abounds. We have much for which to be thankful. Perhaps what we have is a moment of calm before a desert storm.

It was quite a year, 2002. Indian country - resilient as always - flexed muscle, but lost ground as well. The ground gained was in the increasing self-recognition among Native peoples that we are growing in political resonance and economic base; that good initiatives - such as a major tribal college and higher education movement and a fast growing employment universe - are seriously forging new opportunities for a new Indian generation.

Ground was gained in the 2002 mid-term elections when Indian voters of South Dakota carried a friendly senator to another term and forged important victorious alliances in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona. When South Dakota's Democratic candidate Tim Johnson retained his seat by a few hundred votes, an ill-conceived right-wing campaign attempted to tarnish as fraudulent the Indian electorate that delivered his victory. It did not work, as even the state's Republican Attorney General disagreed with the assessment, but the whole play evidenced why the Republican Party is often suspect to American Indian and minority voters. The early commentary was plagued with crafty innuendo ("Indians led around by consultants, interpreters ..." "reservation voter registration corruption ..." etc.). Ground was won, however, because the victory was not only Johnson's; Indian country voters elected him, and, beat back a negative public campaign. We note the victorious tribal gaming referenda in Arizona and Idaho.

Ground is lost when things don't improve in fairly equitable proportion for all Native communities. Enemies of Indian country sovereignty gain considerably by poking at some obvious chinks in its armor. Healing the chinks - such as the growing economic disparity across the Indian country - is no easy task. And it should not be one by which Indian country is misjudged as a whole, but it is an issue that needs serious consideration and forthright action. Thus over the past year we have witnessed more concentrated attacks upon Indian country economic movements fueled by gaming in such flagship publications as The Wall Street Journal and TIME Magazine. While this national coverage is certainly slanted and naturally sensationalist, it carries by refocusing attention on issues of fairness within Indian country.

Yet even in defending against the concentrated negative coverage, a vision of unity has surfaced; the perspective and content of the mainstream media barrage suggests potential common causes and strategies. For this newspaper's think-tank of commentators and editorial writers, the challenge of responding with more depth and balance was professionally rewarding. We gain ground in recognizing the shared intelligence and experience of our production and in confronting the relentlessness of the anti-Indian sovereignty front.

Among other signals in 2002:

oThe Wayne Smith debacle forced the resignation of a high BIA official implicated in a case of alleged influence mongering. The case revealed the underbelly syndrome of run-amok would-be tribal lawyers and lobbyists in Indian country. There should be more seminars for Indian leaders on how to assess legal advice and lawyers' ethics and practices. Indian Country Today's New Year's resolution: to scrutinize more closely the range of legal and managerial consultants approaching and working with tribes.

oThe Salmon Kill at Chinook this fall, was a tearful reminder of how negligent human action can wreak havoc on our natural relatives. So was the horrendous damage caused by the fires in White Mountain Apache country, particularly the part played by human disdain and negligence in the long-term mismanagement of habitat and in the actual igniting of some flames. Then the virulent bigoted response against Indians by some local residents was even bigger cause for concern. Lesson: there is ground to cover and recover.

oAnother loss and a shameful chapter in the history of the Bureau of Land Management and tribal nations was the surprise cattle confiscation attack on Carrie and Mary Dann and other Western Shoshone ranchers. The U.S. government action has been judged "illegal" by a commission of the Organization of American States, and the congressional action to distribute monies and quit-claim their land case is stalled, but the Shoshone's cattle, specially bred for the climate and feed of the region, is already auctioned and gone. Indian Country Today's New Year's resolution: to expose the shameful and tragic flaw in a process that seeks legitimacy in the dispossession of Western Shoshone lands and resources.

oIndians gained in congressional influence this year. A maturity of mutual strengthening appears possible among both Democratic and Republican Native professionals. At least one common objective is to support the sovereignty concept of Indian self-government. Alliance building and networking by the tribes has provided strong connections with large numbers of congressional members. Beyond the thin-edged decisive power of the Indian vote in certain states, Indian alliances in Congress deepened again. The Senate core of Indian-involved senators slapped down a policy-altering initiative by U.S. Senators Dodd and Lieberman that called for a freeze on tribal recognitions by the BIA. Only 13 senators supported the self-serving measure, meant to placate the Connecticut senators' home-state anti-Indian extremists. In the House, the Native American Caucus, once a dreaded assignment, now becomes an increasingly chic bipartisan group in which to belong. These are admittedly shifting grounds, but political territory is being gained in Congress nevertheless.

oIn 2002, BIA Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb resigned from the highest post in the Indian bureaucracy. The trust fund case did him in. The inherent weight of over one hundred years of neglectful and corrupt Indian trust policy is intolerably burdensome. The trust case is explosive and has the potential to decapitate the Indian bureaucracy.

oAt the end of 2002, the California tribes are giving Las Vegas a run for its money. Tribal financial bases deepen. Political conflicts always loom in times of great growth, from both the outside and the inside. Leadership requires reliable knowledge, information and common strategies. Across the country, in western New York, the Seneca Nation is poised for solid financial growth with a major casino venture at the legendary Niagara Falls. The Seneca Casino opens on New Year's Eve. It augurs a regional power base of dynamic and substantial proportions for an American Indian nation. The region from Buffalo to Toronto contains a substantial concentration of Indian communities - a good Indian talent base that the Seneca Nation should embrace and employ.

oPerhaps most impressive, in 2002, an enrolled Chickasaw member, Navy Commander and Astronaut John Herrington, walked in space, the highest ranking honorary Indian ironworker in history. Herrington took an eagle feather and an earth-bound tobacco prayer to the high Heavens. We honor the Commander's prayer. His was an achievement and a gesture that honors us all.

Happy holidays, Indian country. May all our relations be blessed with humility, strength, confidence and capacity in the New Year.