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Editorial: TIME keeps strafing Indian country

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The tone is fast and breathy, like someone who is making discoveries and is amazed by revelation. Look what we are finding out, they exclaim. There is this; then there is that. And we discovered it. We discovered it.

TIME magazine is devoting itself fairly big time to a breathless would-be expos? of Indian gaming, which it presents as riddled with conflict, corruption and unfair income distribution. For yet another week in TIME ("Special Report Indian Casinos," Dec. 23) and again on national television (Nachman, MSNBC, Dec. 17), the writing team of Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele continued their exposition with another feature article fashioned from recycled journalism, aimed in very opinionated fashion to negate any positive logic about the economic results of sovereignty-based gaming developments in Indian country.

The writers' and TIME's sense of discovery in the presentation of these stories is pitiful. There is remarkably little original research in this so-called investigative report. In fact, their topics are the gristmill of weekly attention by this newspaper, which factually has reported on virtually every situation cited in the TIME series. What there is plenty of in TIME is the willingness by a couple of reporters to expound loudly a wide array of negative suppositions based on their own generalized and negative premises about the contemporary Indian world.

The number two article in the TIME series focuses on what the authors term the "out of control world of Indian gaming." It abounds in derivative journalism, repeating without new evidence, unproven assertions by earlier reports. The writers brazenly paint Indian governments and congressional allies and financial allies as corrupt. They bemoan the fact that some tribes are doing very well and some are not; that tribes who can are using their newly gained resources to lobby legislators; that the federal government has formally recognized some 80 tribes in 23 years, to a present total of 337 in the lower 48. The extensive Indian world, full of variety, many problems but great possibilities, TIME reduces by an analysis that focuses on negativity even as the facts force it to report positive situations.

We report often on the myriad political, economic and social problems of Indian country. We don't take issue with that reality and welcome balanced coverage by any publication of such problems. But we do question TIME's motivations in presenting such a consistently slanted perspective on the advent of financially strong tribes, particularly as they begin to exercise political clout. It is as if such wealth in the hands of Indians must be challenged at any cost. The assumption of corruption, even when unproven, is irksome. Generalizing incidental situations, this national magazine paints a picture of the economic moment in Indian country that is unfair and off the mark. The attitude should not be left unchallenged.

The big point this round is that casino-rich tribes exercise undue political influence. But the charge is really that strategic political contributions are used to succeed at gaining concessions and positive legislation from Congress - something that is done in America every day by thousands of entities. The TIME pieces besmirch the California tribal gaming initiatives that have won resounding successes at the polls. It is true, as TIME reports that a lot of money ($100 million) was spent by the California coalition of tribes that launched and managed that completely legal initiative. But where is the crime in that? What matters, that the initiatives were successful? Tribes lobby to protect their rights bases, as any public sector or corporate entity does. Why is a right enjoyed by every entity in America not so for tribes?

Would TIME magazine, in its wisdom, deny tribes this type of clout, because for the first time they can exercise it?

A second charge is that poor tribes receive less federal funding, per member, than those that are wealthy through gaming do. The samples TIME cites would prove the charge, but only incidentally. It remains to be studied across the board. They focus on the Mississippi Choctaw, a gaming tribe that is successfully diversifying its businesses. TIME compares the Choctaws' federal government subsidy to the Navajo's. The Choctaws take is much higher, reflecting more aggressive pursuit of federal grants. In a chart, the piece then compares the take from gaming revenues between Choctaw ($25,048 per member) to Navajo and Hopi ($0 per member), but neglects to mention that both the Navajo and Hopi had freely elected not to pursue gaming as an economic motor, which makes for a deceptive comparison. In this context, activity by one tribe has absolutely no bearing or effect on another. As sovereign governments the Navajo and Hopi have the right to reject the gaming option. But that is their democratic choice. It constitutes neither a weakness in IGRA's provisions, nor an obligation on the part of other tribes. And it certainly doesn't support TIME's theory.

After lambasting the Choctaws, the TIME writers assert they would not "begrudge" their success. However, "what is awry is a political system that consigns the majority of Native Americans to a life of poverty while rewarding the few who have casino riches with full membership in the system."

The intent appears to play the rich and impoverished tribes against each other, and to exaggerate problems and conflicts within tribal communities. And we're sure some, Indians included, will take the bait, leading TIME's reporters to believe they've struck a vein. But, again, tribes that are successful do not create the poverty of others. It is true that tribal gaming has not been the immediate solution to all of Indian country problems; but neither has it been the cause of those problems. To imply this kind of theory is reductionist.

Most objectionable is the way tribal successes, and increasing moves by tribes themselves to address these issues are glossed over or described. In fact, some Indian Nations, such as the Oneida (New York) and Mohegan (Connecticut), are in fact returning their federal grants to the government, for redistribution to more needful tribes.

Philanthropy by gaming tribes is also increasing and we will see more in that direction. Always, someone leads in addressing issues, while others follow, but how difficult is it to report on the positive trends as opposed to focus on the negative. The question of intent is relevant.

In this second chapter of its special report on Indian gaming, TIME rehashes the tired and unproven assertion that former BIA director Kevin Gover (now an Indian Country Today columnist), moved improperly to recognize four tribes during his tenure under President Bill Clinton. This is a type of derivative journalism at its worst. These bogus assertions were first floated by the Boston Globe and willingly repeated by the Wall Street Journal. The implied assumption that Gover gained personally by these decisions has no basis in fact, yet it continues to be repeated. The actual problem in tribal recognitions, however, as determined by a GAO report, is that the process is way too slow. What the GAO report actually pointed out - and the current administration agreed with - was the need to speed up the process with additional staff and resources. (Indian Country Today has already conducted and published a forensic report of this misleading journalism.)

Indian country has a lot of problems to be certain. These deserve scrutiny and tribes are advised diligently to pursue all possible ways to improve governmental and business practices. As in all jurisdictions in America, conflict is present. There are winners and losers, and a sense of unfairness does pervade many situations. There are justifiable complaints but there are also many people - including not a few Indians - willing to destroy rather than build.

The TIME reports, projected as breathless expos?, contain nothing new. The vaunted reporters - now making the talk-show rounds - have simply turned over rehashed material covered by other sources, including this newspaper. Indian people deserve better than these nasty and sensational little media games (one section actually calls Indian communities "Nightmare Neighbors"). As always, Indian country needs to tell its own stories.