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Iroquois resolve is crucial: leaders must lead

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The attacks on Indian nationhood by politicians pandering to the worst instincts of the American imperial tradition are growing. In New York state, a new law goes into effect on Dec. 1 that threatens to destroy the basis of economic growth for several Native nations. While some Indian communities face utter ruin as a result of the forced collection of taxes by New York state, all face the loss of inherent rights and freedoms by acquiescing to taxation by another sovereign, namely the State of New York. All these Indian nations must unequivocally reject New York state's imposition as unacceptable.

Most recently, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer came out to condemn Indian sovereignty directly, and especially Indian land claims, which he called, "a dark cloud hanging over our heads." Cried the Democratic Senator: "You can't create a whole new nation within a county or a town. We've got to find a way to stop it. It worked fine out west where there is a lot of open land, it doesn't work in the middle of an urban area."

Notwithstanding Schumer's puzzling historical revision (the Indian nations existed in the area now known as New York long before the families of the settlers of the towns, counties, or state had ever departed Europe) and his rather strange notion of American Indian policy (surely he is not advocating the removal of eastern Indians to the West), the new law and the hardening attacks on Native livelihood are likely to provoke the Iroquois and other Native communities into the courts and onto the streets. There is no doubt that as the cigarette shops and gas stations on reservations get shut down, the huge loss of revenue into Indian communities will severely explode unemployment and leave tribal affairs in disarray. Serious hardship is coming in that sense for several reservations and it represents an insult to all.

At Onondaga, where a single cigarette retail business funds nearly all tribal programs, from elderly services to fire department, the new law that would collect state taxes will be devastating. At Akwesasne (Mohawk Territory), it would eliminate close to 600 employees, two-thirds Native, worth about $15 million. Fees paid by retailers to the tribe from cigarette and gasoline sales represent crucial funds that support tribal government, housing, education and social services. In Seneca Nation, several independent operators, among dozens, are preparing a lawsuit against the state. Estimates put job losses also in the hundreds there.

This bill should never have happened. Even Governor George Pataki calls it a big mistake. Such an attack on tribal sovereignty will bring "devastating consequences for the state's relationship with Native Americans," Pataki warned the legislature. This battle has been fought before so how did it get this far. What clout do the convenience store operators - the primary special interest constituency for the bill - have that Indian nations collectively can't generate? But as the legislature worked the bill through, very little pressure and early opposition came from the tribes. Reality is that this fight can not be terminated except by a serious common Indian front that can apply political pressure in a coordinated fashion, continuously. This bill might not have passed if the Iroquois nations and governments had agreed on their fundamental reasons for unity of thought and action in their common political and economic life.

Among Native peoples, the Iroquois are arguably the people most identified with the creation of a united confederation. The founding basis of that unity, the Great Law of Peace, and the structures of government it prescribes, were influential in the study of democracy by several of the Founding Fathers, notably Ben Franklin. What impressed the genial Franklin most was strength of the Iroquois unity at that time. Buffeted by the winds of war, religious fanaticism and new economic impositions, the strength of the Six Nations appeared "indissoluble" to the elder Philadelphian even as late as 1754. In fluctuating historical waves the Iroquois peoples have been able to reunite and fight together many times. It is time to do so again, to fully understand that unity is not about having to agree on everything, but about joining mutual strength to resist and defeat that which will diminish or destroy the nations one by one or in similar fashion. Strength through unity, confederation for common purpose, is to understand that if American Indians, together, as a people, do not confront the attacks upon their political bases, their governments and institutions of varied origins, their attackers will in fact destroy them.

It behooves the Iroquois leadership, across all religious and ideological boundaries, to seriously consider the bases of unity among their nations at this moment in history. It is time to put aside the petty squabbles and jealousies of the recent past. It is time to move beyond unproductive ideologies that would keep the Iroquois people irrecoverably divided because some are longhouse while others are Christian, or some participate in the elected tribal council governments while others adhere to hereditary systems. The use of divisive ideas and language that divide rather than unite, such as "true Haudenosaunee" versus "ethnic Iroquois," must be rejected for the self-defeating terminology that they are.

Both traditionalist and elective governments serve the Six Nations communities and the demise of one or the other is not necessary for the people to be amply represented toward peace and prosperity. All Indian entities need to work to agree upon and implement strategies that can confront the assumptions of the State as it cows before the anti-Indian forces. The statesman or stateswoman of the hour - the Iroquois leader to be remembered from this time in history - will be the one who can give ongoing and substantial energy to the task of implementing pragmatic and winning strategies that maintain the inherent freedoms of their people.

By once again attacking the common economic interests of the Iroquois nations and their allies, the state effectively delivers this menacing and redundant message to yet another generation of Iroquois: "Your liberty is negotiable." In honor of your mothers and fathers before you and in honor of all your ancestors, who heard this same message in various forms through the ages, know these truths to be absolute - It is your land. It is your freedom.

The statesmen and stateswomen to be remembered from this time in history will be the ones who can give ongoing and substantial energy to the task of unifying the people. To the many chiefs' councils and women's circles, the main professionals and managers among all of the people, representatives of every new and ancient clan among all of the people, coalesce and defend the proper place of Indian nations and communities within New York and American life.