No group of people in the United States - or the entire world, for that
matter - lives under the same unique legal status as American Indians.
The complexities of sovereign tribal governments are difficult for the
public, the media, elected officials, even attorneys trained in Indian law.
Most of our U.S. senators and representatives and their staffs are no
The need to educate Congress about tribal governments and sovereignty
became painfully clear during a recent weeklong Capitol Hill summit by
member tribes with the California Nations Indian Gaming Association.
The summit was a valuable endeavor. California tribal leaders and lobbyists
were able to meet with key congressional leaders on major issues
confronting Indian country: proposed amendments to the Indian Gaming
Regulatory Act; the nomination of William Myers to the U.S. 9th Circuit
Court of Appeals; Indian health care; the Internet Tobacco Sales
Enforcement Act; and several other matters.
"It was good that CNIGA tribes were able to make the trip to Washington,"
said Ernest L. Stevens Jr., chairman of the National Indian Gaming
Association. "CNIGA is a valuable source of strength to Indians throughout
the country. And it is here, on Capitol Hill, where the battles for
sovereignty and the right to game are being fought."
But as the CNIGA contingent walked the halls of Congress, it grew
increasingly clear that our nation's leaders are woefully uninformed - even
misinformed - about even the basic principles of tribal sovereignty and the
trust relationship between tribes and the federal government.
The tribes do a good job when it comes to confronting congressional and
state challenges to Indian sovereignty and the right to game. We do a good
job of putting out the congressional and legislative fires. But we've
forgotten how to prevent these fires in the first place.
Education is our most powerful weapon. Congress is the policymaking arm of
the federal government and those agencies dealing with tribal economic
development, health care and other issues. If the men and women on Capitol
Hill were informed about tribes, tribal governments and sovereignty, it
would go a long way toward preventing the legislative wars we are
continually forced to wage.
A PLAN OF ACTION
The first level of opportunity for educating Congress and federal agency
bureaucrats falls to NIGA, the National Congress of American Indians, the
National Indian Education Association and other Indian organizations in
Washington. Perhaps once a month, they could secure a room on the Hill and
conduct half-day seminars for members of Congress and their aides on tribal
sovereignty and basic tenants of the federal Indian trust responsibility.
It was encouraging to hear the proposal by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif.,
for a tribal economic summit. It's important at this stage of tribal
economic development to bring together Indian leaders and officials with
the U.S. Congress and the departments of defense, commerce and
transportation; agencies such as HUD and Health and Human Services and the
Small Business Administration; and, of course, the private sector.
It's time that the federal government contract set-asides are made more
widely available to tribal government and Indian-owned enterprises so that
just a small percentage of the trillions of dollars in federal procurement
can find their way to Indian country.
It's time there were tax and other federal incentives to encourage
investments on Indian lands.
And, perhaps most important, there should be an evolution of economic
development on Indian lands that include tribal government business
enterprises, individual Indian entrepreneurship and private sector
businesses. There should be federal and tribal programs by which individual
tribal members are given a chance to develop their own businesses and
pursue the American dream.
All this cannot be accomplished unless Congress and federal agency
bureaucrats are educated about tribal governments and the
government-to-government trust relationship between Indian tribes and the
The contributions to the nation's economy by tribal governments can be
immense. Look at what the Mississippi Choctaws, the North Carolina
Cherokees, the Pueblo of Laguna and other tribes accomplished long before
gaming, despite the political, legal and social obstacles.
California tribes, with employment at more than 43,000 workers, are
providing the only significant job growth in the state, and they're doing
it without a dime of taxpayer's money. Think of what could be accomplished
with additional partnerships between the tribes, federal and state
governments and the private sector.
No group of people is more under-utilized than American Indians. It doesn't
have to be that way. And the key to change is education.