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Free speech at risk in Abramoff's shadow

The controversy over influence-peddling in the nation's capitol is casting
an unwelcome shadow over Indian country. As a result, some of the gains
that tribal communities and their neighbors have won in recent years could
be at risk.

The recent indictment of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff allegedly
threatens the careers of numerous elected officials who accepted
contributions from him or from his clients. Because the list of Abramoff's
clients included a handful of Indian tribes, there has been a rush among
some members of Congress to distance themselves from tribal interests.

One candidate for a leadership position in the House of Representatives --
Mike Rogers, R-Mich. -- is actually campaigning on a platform that promises
to curtail the opportunities for tribal economic development and restrict
the tribes' existing free speech rights to make political contributions.

Once again, there's a misguided perception that tribal influence is in some
way tainted.

As a tribal leader, I am deeply troubled by the apparent ease with which
these misperceptions spread. As an American, I hate to see prejudice
exploited in this way for political purposes. But above all, I worry about
what this could mean for the numerous tribal enterprises that have helped
to spur the economic growth and social revitalization in our part of
California's Inland Empire and in other regions throughout the country.

The problems presented by Abramoff's example are serious, to be sure. They
need to be addressed. But it is important to keep in mind that only six of
the 562 federally recognized Indian tribes ever hired him.

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Our tribe, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, had no dealings with him,
yet reporters have asked how the Abramoff scandal affected us. There is a
real risk that his activities may overshadow the benefits that Indian
gaming is delivering every day to America's prosperity and to the
communities that benefit from tribal economic development.

We are proud of the good working relationships that we have established
with elected officials at the local, state and federal levels. These are
relationships built on hard work, mutual respect and a shared concern for
the constituencies we serve.

We should not allow Abramoff's bad example to spark new attempts to curb
the advocacy efforts of tribal governments working at the federal level.
Indian voices have a right to be heard on Capitol Hill. The complexity of
government today requires effective representation. For many of us, that
means hiring competent, ethical lobbyists and working through our own
associations of tribal governments, just like the League of Cities and the
National Association of Counties.

The vast majority of tribal governments do not spend large amounts on
lobbying. The fact is that most tribes spend what revenues they have on
education, housing, roads and economic development.

Most of the tribes that are active in governmental affairs are working to
protect what they already have and to ensure that more is not taken away.
Indian gaming is only one of many issues that are taken up in Washington.
Land ownership, Indian child welfare, housing, taxation and health care are
all vitally important problems that engage tribal governments in dealing
with Congress and many other agencies of the federal system.

The investigation into Abramoff's dealings should trigger lobbying reform
-- not mistrust of the tribes that he defrauded.

Maurice Lyons is the chairman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians,
Cabazon, Calif.