Jack Abramoff's indecent and illicit lobbying affair has received ample --
if long-overdue -- attention in the news. And while Abramoff's nefarious,
if not unprecedented, activities threaten to ensnare several national (both
tribal and federal) lawmakers and may lead to much-needed lobbying reform,
more attention needs to be paid to one of the key constituencies in this
sleazy imbroglio: the American Indian nations who were directly involved
with Abramoff and his partner, Michael Scanlon.
As someone who studies indigenous politics for a living, I, like others who
knew about the tribes' increasing reliance on well-connected Washington
lobbyists, have long had concerns about the ever-increasing involvement of
First Nations in the American political process.
Tribal nations, like any other private individual, organized interest
groups, corporations and state governments, have the right to participate
in the electoral process at every level -- to campaign, to lobby, etc. They
have that right as the original sovereigns, as corporate entities, and
since their individual members/citizens are also citizens of the state and
the United States. Historically, tribes have often found it in their
interest and necessity to testify before or to memorialize Congress on
various issues, to visit the president to encourage him to uphold treaties
or to support particular bills, or to meet with the various departmental
secretaries who still play a major role in tribal life, especially the
secretary of the Interior Department and the secretary of the Justice
But historically, or at least before serious Indian gaming revenue began to
accrue to some tribal nations in the 1990s, a majority of indigenous
leaders and their constituents intentionally sought to maintain a
significant measure of political distance from local, state and national
political life. Why? Because they respected their own sovereign political
systems and because they respected those of their neighboring polities.
Since the 1924 congressional act that granted (some say forced) U.S.
citizenship onto many American Indians, there has always been a small
segment of the indigenous population that opted to vote in federal or state
elections. At the tribal level, however, most tribal nations simply sought
to maintain, as best they could, a respectable political distance from
states and the federal government.
Gaming revenues have dramatically changed the intergovernmental dynamics,
however, and the Abramoff scandal provides compelling evidence that Indian
nations need to be much more judicious in deciding whether or not they want
to continue such deep involvement in the non-Indian political process.
Recently, I was flipping channels late one night and happened upon one of
my favorite Westerns, "The Outlaw Josey Wales" (1976), which Clint Eastwood
directed and starred in. Chief Dan George, of the Salish Band in British
Columbia, a distinguished man and fine actor, also had a choice supporting
role in the film as a Cherokee named Lone Watie.
Early in the movie we see George aiming his rifle in anticipation of
Eastwood's arrival since Eastwood's character had a large bounty on his
head. But before George could shoot, Eastwood turned the table and snuck up
on him, placing a pistol at his head. The dialogue here was quite
George: I thought you might be someone who would sneak up behind me with a
Eastwood: Where'd you ever get an idea like that? Besides, it ain't
supposed to be easy to sneak up on an Indian.
George: I'm an Indian, all right. But here in the nation they call us the
"civilized tribe." They call us civilized because we're easy to sneak up
on. White men have been sneaking up on us for years.
The Abramoff episode is a contemporary and not contrived example of this.
Much more disturbing, however, is the fact that some of the tribes used
their ample resources and Abramoff's talented and tainted skills to damage
the efforts of other tribal nations to gain an economic foothold.
While only a handful of tribes were directly involved with Abramoff and
Scanlon on a large scale, if the past is any indication, there is a good
chance that many other tribes will also be adversely branded by this
affair. In fact, on Jan. 27, 2005, John Miller, echoing a growing national
sentiment, wrote a column for The Wall Street Journal calling for the
abolition of Indian reservations "for the good of the people who live
Exactly how terminating the remaining sovereign status and proprietary
rights of Indian peoples would "benefit" Indians is not explained and the
idea is, frankly, ludicrous; but Miller's forced assimilation views are
indicative of a growing sentiment among non-Indians commentators, the
general public and a burgeoning chorus in Washington, D.C. that is
Tribal nations must continue to pursue economic self-sufficiency. They have
the right as well to engage in commercial relations and diplomacy with one
another, the states, the corporate community and the federal government.
But the careless way in which some tribal leaders became politically,
ideologically and economically dependent on Abramoff and Scanlon should
serve as a haunting reminder to indigenous nations that their ancestors and
their current constituencies deserve much better.
If Indian nations insist on continuing to engage the American political
process -- and there is every indication that they intend to do just that,
for pragmatic reasons -- then they must end their dependency on non-Indians
and instead look to develop a Native crop of strategists, liaisons and
lobbyists trained in the values and traditions of their own nations. Tribal
leaders in the past were quite adept at navigating the unsettled political
waters of state and national politics without sacrificing their inherent
sovereign powers. This would be a long-term strategic process, but Native
nations are a patient and enduring set of peoples and time, in this
instance, is their ally -- not their enemy.
David E. Wilkins, Lumbee, is a professor of American Indian studies at the
University of Minnesota.