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Is There a Backlash in the Making?

A column from a right wing periodical Town Hall, "No Reservations: The Case for Dismantling the Indian Bureaucracy," gives an excellent example of the kind of stuff that feeds anti-tribal backlash. The lead sentence reads: “If ever a federal agency were a candidate for termination, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) would make for a good choice.”

That opening is not surprising, given the performance of the BIA over nearly two centuries (including the IIM trust funds rip-off), but the rest of the article is a detailed attack on the tribes and tribal sovereignty. The blog feedback at the end of the article gives an idea of the public this trash is targeting, and the impact it has on such yahoos. For example, this comment was typical of responses: “I'm all about reducing the money that goes into the reservations. If they want to be sovereign let them be sovereign. Stop voting in US Elections, don't receive US money. Run your own show and do what you want. Hold your own elections or do what you did in the old days and put a chief in charge. Keep your Indian heritage alive. I'm all for that.”

Carl Horowitz, the author of the column, is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project of the National Legal and Policy Center, an “organization dedicated to promoting ethics in American public life.” Just as anti-tribal groups did in the backlash of 1976-77 with names like Montanans Opposed to Discrimination (MOD) and Interstate Congress for Equal Rights and Responsibilities (ICERR), Horowitz’s organization claims a high-minded aim like ethics to cover its real purposes. He writes convincingly, with facts that he uses selectively to support his logic for dismantling the BIA, IHS and all federal Indian programs, and for discontinuing recognition of tribal sovereignty.

He writes that within the reservations, which he calls mini-nations, tribal leaders enjoy unlimited power, and often use it as a cover for corruption. And that such corruption is widespread in Indian Country, and cites cases in Fort Peck, Tonkawa, Apache, and Cheyenne-Arapaho in Oklahoma, and Southern Paiute in Arizona. These alleged theft cases total $1,158,000, a pittance compared to what was ripped off from American stockholders by such as the Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs in recent years.

Although none of the above-cited cases involved BIA funds, per se, he goes on to say “It isn’t just the Bureau of Indian Affairs funds that have made their way into the pockets of crooks.” Then he cites a GAO report that tells of medical equipment, worth about $15.8 million, being unaccounted for by IHS. Horowitz doesn’t tell what the GAO report suspects may have happened to the missing equipment, but his readers are led to surmise that the Indians stole them, for he goes on to say that “far bigger piles of loot can be made legally in class action suits.” This, of course, leads to the Keepseagle v. Vilsack and the Cobell v. Salazar settlements. “The details of these cases,” he writes, “suggest a well-planned and executed plaintiff shakedown.”

Now comes the usual beef about Indian gaming, in which Horowitz describes the massive revenues from larger casinos on the East and West Coasts as examples of Indian gaming throughout the country. Of the Indian Gaming regulatory Act (signed by President Reagan, by the way), Horowitz says that it “confers monopoly rights upon tribes,” and gives them “immunity from state regulation.”

What a twist on sovereign rights that is. But that kind of spin is what makes people resentful of Indian rights.

Horowitz concludes: “Ending the network of incestuous relationships and accompanying corruption requires that Congress do the unthinkable: Abolish the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service and all other federal agencies that serve Native American interests. These agencies have outlived whatever usefulness they had. Lawmakers also ought to end the practice of formal tribal recognition. Why should Cheyenne, Choctaw, Mohawk or Sioux sovereign ‘nations’ exist within our borders, any more than Dutch, Irish, Italian or Polish ethnic ones? It is one thing for members of a particular tribe to live in close proximity, preferring their own company. It is entirely another for Americans as a whole to be coerced into subsidizing this tribal confederacy, an arrangement that is not only costly, but also corrosive of national identity.”

All this stuff sounds completely reasonable to many people, enemies of tribes as well as some well-meaning people who will see termination as freeing Indian people of their dependency and poverty. And it is people like these who will push their state leaders and Congressional delegations to listen to the likes of Horowitz.

Indian people feel more confident than ever before in our sovereignty and our self-governmental rights, and in our unique trust relationship with the United States. And we are right in feeling that way. We should feel secure in the confidence that our firm belief in ourselves provides.

Our leaders, we hope, will never knowingly surrender our sovereignty, and it can’t be taken from us. But those who resent us can get Congress to enact laws that would make it damned hard or virtually impossible for our tribes to exercise sovereignty for the people. That’s what I fear in backlash.

I don’t know if anything is being done by our advocate organizations to even talk about backlash. But I think it would be wise to prepare ourselves to address such a movement in its early stages if it should come, for the political atmosphere today is right for such an eventuality.

Charles Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association—forerunner of the Native American Journalists Association—in 1970, and served from 1972-1978 as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians. He can be contacted at His website is