In America, the Indians are made to pay. Indian property- stolen "fair and
square," apparently - has been the fuel of American economy for more than
Today more than ever, that bite is on everywhere. Political cowardice and
opportunism, combined with the power of the rich and powerful, are
bankrupting the public treasure of America. As Washington lets the
highest-income corporations and individual Americans off the taxation hook,
states and counties of the Union are feeling the pinch directly. The many
services American citizens have come to expect - education, public safety,
emegency and others - are deeply in jeopardy, as budgets are sliced
uniformly throughout the country. Meanwhile, the accumulation of real
wealth at the top classes of society is at an all time high; the top 1
percent of rich Americans now hold as much wealth as the bottom 40 percent.
The solution in the minds of politicians and other special interest groups
in the various states that contain Native nations is to go after whatever
assets and revenues Indian tribal governments and member associations
presently hold, and work to impose fees, taxes and any and all manner of
tentacles upon such sovereign properties. The intent of and hostility from
many state and local governments are palpable. The instinct as the
conflicts deepen and widen is to go for the throat. State governors
throughout Indian country are intent on making tribal America fill the gap
left behind for the big tax cut cave-in to special interests at the federal
level. Everywhere the bite of states - illegal and unwarranted - upon the
economic treasure of Indian country grows more ferocious.
No doubt compromise is always the doorway to a win-win deal: but the states
must respect the fundamental Indian tribal sovereignty and jurisdictional
frameworks. The assertion that states have the right to tax the revenues of
Indian governments must indeed be challenged at every turn.
In Minnesota, Stanley Crooks is one of those who stand their ground. Crooks
recently received the Wendell Chino Outstanding Leadership Award from the
National Indian Gaming Association. He won it along with Richard
Milanovitch of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, another stalwart
chairman up to the challenge of demanding justice and fairness for his
people, who also live in a state that seeks to balance its books on the
backs of Indians.
Crooks stood up quickly when Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in an act of
political duress if ever there was one, demanded some $350 million in
gambling revenues from the tribes for his state's treasury. The feds are
failing him, so the Indian tribes must pay. If the tribes don't acquiesce,
he threatened to make Minnesota the Nevada of the upper Midwest, throwing
the state wide open to state and corporate casino operations.
Crooks, chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux (Dakota) Community,
wrote the governor last December: "There is no reasonable justification for
you to demand, or otherwise expect, tribal governments in Minnesota to
share any of their gaming revenues with state government."
In the now-renowned letter, Crooks cited the reigning interpretation of
sovereignty-protected Indian gaming as a nation-building enterprise:
"Tribal gaming revenues are for tribal governments and Indian people to use
in an effort to address historically dire conditions on Indian
reservations. Such conditions persist today in most of Indian country.
"Even with gaming, the tribes have limited resources with which to address
the many issues throughout Indian country. On the other hand, state
government has ample opportunity and resources available to it to pay for
its own responsibilities without having to look to the tribes."
University of Minnesota Law professor Dr. David Wilkins also weighed in on
the governor's arm-wrenching proposal. He shared this 1988 quote from Sen.
John McCain: "The state and gaming industry have always come to the table
with the position that what is theirs is theirs and what the tribes have is
negotiable." He then went on to call Pawlenty's proposals "attempts to
coercively extract $350 million" from tribes, while their "present compacts
are still good law."
Pawlenty's arm-twisting tactics would violate the 1988 Indian Gaming
Regulatory Act. Wilkins quoted the act: "Nothing in this section shall be
interpreted as conferring upon a state or any of its political subdivisions
authority to impose any tax, fee, charge, or other assessment upon an
Indian tribe or upon any other person or entity authorized by an Indian
tribe to engage in a Class III [gaming] activity."
While the Minnesota governor touted his squeeze-the-Indians campaign as a
"better deal for Minnesotans," Crooks pointed out that "not all Minnesotans
are members of tribes [but] all tribal members here are Minnesotans." He
pointed to the "improved lives of over 14,000 Minnesotans, Indian and
non-Indian, who are employed by tribal governments and the thousands of
others whose jobs are supported by tribal gaming."
In 2002, Pawlenty promised the Tax Payers League that as governor, he would
not raise taxes in a million years. He also promised not to expand gaming
beyond Indian casinos. But it is easier to fight with Indians, so he turned
on the tribes.
Some local columnists now call him "Big Tim, Indian Fighter." As Pawlenty's
Minnesota predecessor, the independent Jesse Ventura, put it to a
similar-minded governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California: "He promised
to balance the budget without raising taxes ... [but] ... I guess it's OK
to rip off the Indians."
The stand by Crooks and others among the economically fortified tribes in
the state, while not fully successful to everyone's satisfaction, forced
the governor to forward a plan both politically savvy for him yet
necessarily advantageous for some of the state's most economically poor
northern Chippewa tribes - White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake - which
would become partners in a metro-area casino.
It is a substantial forward motion when disenfranchised and remote tribes
can be brought into the playing game of casino capitalization. And
regardless of how the political ball happens to roll on any particular
season, it is always a good thing for Indian leadership to stand up against
local and state jurisdictions whenever these cross the line and try to
limit Indian sovereignty in any way.
While no doubt Pawlenty's approach is chapter and verse out of the
divide-and-conquer book, it is always a good thing when any Indian
community improves its lot. It is also always best to maintain a vigilant
and cautious attitude toward every governor of every state. This we fully
encourage, as it always tends to bring around better situations and
agreements for all tribal peoples who refuse to forget who they are.