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In California and elsewhere, tribal futures will depend on communication

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Several California tribes have borne the brunt of media criticism because of hefty contributions to two recall candidates - Cruz Bustamante and Tom McClintock. Perhaps excessive, perhaps bold, probably a bit of both, the tribal donations in question had Indian tribal interests at heart, and if the Sept. 24 debate is any indication, California interests as well. Both Bustamante and McClintock were clearly the most experienced and qualified gubernatorial candidates on stage.

The criticisms go beyond the pale because of the facile and stereotypical assumption in the mainstream media that because Indian gaming tribes are doing it, there must be sleaze attached to it. This should not surprise. Nor should it be allowed to diminish these tribal initiatives to enter the political arena and advocate for those who bring actual qualification, substance, honor and integrity to California's otherwise fractious and dysfunctional political circus. The two loud and bickering neophytes in the competition, television pundit Arianna Huffington and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, have both, throughout the campaign, mischaracterized tribal political and economic realities. In an unexpected outcome, the tribal donations acted like an efficient diagnostic tool in quickly uncovering the profound ignorance these two candidates have of Indians and Indian country.

The tribes' contributions process, now more defined by the courts, was a justifiable strategy since California's Indian nations have become large business owners who already share over $100 million dollars of revenue, skewed in favor of the state, and whose industries created over 40,000 jobs held by workers and vendors who pay over $280 million in federal income and payroll taxes annually. It is only sensible that tribal businesses that supply millions into state coffers should have as much right to exercise political leverage as any other entity in American society. Anyone who directly supports the political system through revenue sharing and taxes - as tribes are increasingly doing - has a right to play in that game.

The law on political donations was iffy and confusing, the court admitted, while disallowing the big tribal contributions. The court did not consider the matter as criminality, but as a complex legal question to be settled. Sacramento Superior Court Judge Loren McMaster said no one "intentionally violated the law." The judge even cited the California Fair Political Practices Commission as a source of confusion on the legality of such a contribution and allowed that the Bustamante campaign "no doubt acted in good faith" in accepting the tribal contributions.

Nevertheless, one result of the over-beaten story is to fully reveal that tribes will work pro-actively with politicians who understand the legal philosophy and practice that upholds tribal self-government and inherent tribal freedoms from imposed jurisdictions by states and municipalities. This is a positive thing.

Tribes capable of influencing the political and social process of their regions and states and nationally should not be discouraged by the recent attacks. While the virulence of the anti-Indian attitude is always surprising and alarming, it is precisely because such people and their self-righteous yet ignorant anger exists, that tribes must press to be as effectively influential as possible. Although direct financial contributions to political campaigns are one strategic option to be considered, other approaches must also be weighed by tribal leaders seeking to protect their nations' freedoms. Building a consensus with a wide network of civic leaders and elected officials on the factual bases of Indian government and jurisdiction, and the positive attributes of the tribal economic revolution is a great and necessary, not to mention enduring, task for all capable tribes.

What tribes can not allow is complacency or hesitation in the face of opposition. They also always need to determine first, how, as Indian governments, they can best position themselves relative to other governments and within the public eye. In this, it is important to understand the three primary arenas of endeavor and engagement. Two of these are receiving moderate to good attention; one is misunderstood and misread often. Tribes are fighting in the courts, often at huge expense, and despite great limitations, have won impressive victories. Tribes, as we are seeing, are also now capable of linking financially to support political allies. But the third element, the public policy and media dialogue arena, is lingering yet for lack of well-stated vision.

The need for well-focused strategy to present more comprehensive and constructive content and image on these important tribal issues is clear. Few tribes are yet getting the bang for the buck or even putting up the actual support for this essential national battle over hearts and minds. The battle or contest over the media interpretation and imaging of American Indian realities is extremely important. These days the enemies of tribal self-sufficiency and freedom are using highly aggressive methods in coordinated campaigns to besmirch the character and intentions of the many serious and honest men and women who both lead and support Indian country. Make no mistake about it, this battle is hugely important, and the Indian side has precious few tools and technical weapons at its disposal yet to give a proper response.

At Indian Country Today, we are committed to the proposition of Indian nation building and community building throughout the country. We see the gaming revolution, for all its birthing problems, as a huge new opportunity to progressively self-finance an Indian country tribal economic renaissance. We posit that this era of reconstruction from the inside has already begun but is yet limited by the first decade's definitions of the opportunity. The new era is very young. Relatively few tribal leaders and members were ready to fully lead the huge new opportunity to confront poverty, destitution and social dysfunction while organizing and launching risky new enterprises. We understand and applaud those many tribes that have begun the journey of economic reconstruction and are creatively improving their situations beyond gaming by valuing their cultures and community building traditions, by diversifying their new business bases, by supporting their long-impoverished families. We believe this process, which is a learning process can and must be positive and solution-oriented; that it should strive to involve and enhance all tribes; that it should respect and support the good moves and growth of whatever tribe that can use its advantages and resources to prosper.

In his best effort to re-cast the Indian as boogeyman, Schwarzenegger broadcast a scurrilous ad that painted Indian peoples as "special interest" groups. Although presenting himself in the debate as a candidate with business credentials, Schwarzenegger seems wholly uneducated about American Indian businesses in California and the hefty tax revenues they already generate for the state. This is doubly remarkable given that Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., and an economic advisor to the Schwarzenegger campaign, is an investor in Indian country's renaissance. One would have thought Buffett might better educate his candidate.

As Indian Country Today already recommended in an editorial last week, (Against the Wall: One more opinion from the fabled Journal), the proper business approach to generating more revenues for the state from the Indian gaming industry is to eliminate the restriction of 2,000 slot machines per tribe. To repeat ourselves, what sense does it make to limit the growth and expansion of a successful industry that creates thousands of tax-paying jobs and that generates significant revenues for the state and federal governments? Bustamante (who Schwarzenegger chastised for not owning his own business) understands. McClintock understands. Surely Warren Buffett understands. So why not Arnold and Arianna? They lack the experience.

We believe that all media denigrations and inaccuracies against tribal peoples must be answered. Even more importantly, the hope and aspirations and the many creative social and economic projects of Indian country must be widely shared. This is a reality that must be understood by the American public. In fact, this foundation of understanding and empathy must be imbedded deeply and widely in the American psyche if Indian peoples would survive these next few decades. Cultural, political, educational and legal understanding is key but these must now ride the back of communication strategies of great sophistication and capacity.

Tribal America is pumping up in many good ways. America needs to hear about it. Passion for justice and honest documentation is required. And Indian country's boundless creativity is key.