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Lessons learned at the Thanksgiving table of sovereignty

We are in the midst of an American Indian renaissance: A reawakening of
Native American culture and traditions long shackled by poverty and
neglect; and an emergence of a new tribal economy fueled largely by
government gaming.

It is a historic era, one of great opportunity for the first Americans. It
is also a time of reflection and challenge.

As the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians move forward on the path to economic
viability, I have come to learn some valuable political lessons.

The first is that sovereignty is the most important attribute we have, and
that the purpose of tribal government programs and enterprise is to enhance
our sovereign right to self-governance. Generating jobs for our people and
revenues for our governments through gaming has given the Viejas and other
tribes the resources and ability to exercise their sovereignty.

Our growing economic strength has also tested and enhanced our respect for
the politics of exercising sovereignty. In the process of developing our
entrepreneurial ventures, we have had to acquire new political skills, both
on and off the reservation.

Our tribal governments today must relate to the world of business, our own
and others. We also must learn to deal with other governments. We must be
consistent, fair and firm. We must earn the respect of other governments,
be they chartered or sovereign.

Asserting our rights and powers as sovereign nations is not enough. We must
exercise sovereignty in a responsible manner. We must use our growing
political and economic strength, skills and confidence to build viable
governments and government programs.

We must fill the void left by past dependence on the Bureau of Indian
Affairs and others who have controlled our lives and resources. Some call
it nation or government building. Moving from dependence to governmental
independence requires more than money. It requires the capability to govern
our people and offer them a place and environment that is stable,
supportive, nurturing, strengthening, safe and disciplining. It's a
political, social and spiritual quest.

American Indians today have the best chance we have had in over 300 years
to control our destiny.

Gaming may raise the quality of life and reduce dependence on federal
programs, but it doesn't necessarily create a cultural renaissance or
strong governments. Gaming success may, in fact, discourage or blind us to
the need to recapture lost values and traditions. Complacency may rob us of
the need or desire to build strong tribal governments.

Economic diversification is crucial. But each venture brings new
challenges, particularly those off the reservation.

Tribes need to develop fair and impartial dispute resolution for tribal
members, employees, guests, business partners and other Indian and
non-Indian governments. Indian jurisprudence must be independent of tribal
politics. It must stand up to scrutiny from within and outside the
reservation.

Tribal politics must not run tribal business.

When dealing with the federal, state or local governments, there is often
the need to compromise. And there is always the haunting fear, steeped in a
tortured history, that an inch given will lead to a mile stolen.

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Indian gaming and related hospitality and entertainment businesses have
boosted tribes to new levels of purchasing power and economic growth. We
once again sit at the Thanksgiving table as participants in America's
prosperity and wealth. But how do we protect our seats at the feast? And
how can we get more Indian people to the table?

We "Buy Indian." We craft a tribal economy such as that which existed among
tribal nations long before the European settlement of this country. We
create and encourage Native industries to serve tribal casinos and related
businesses.

In the process, we create an increasing demand for American Indian
professionals: Tribal educators, attorneys, architects and marketing and
management executives.

We control or own financial institutions, such as Viejas' Borrego Springs
Bank. We form American Indian partnerships, such as Four Fires and Three
Fires LLC, consortiums building Indian-owned hotels in Washington, D.C. and
Sacramento, Calif.

There are different paths and a future emphasis for tribes. Some will
strengthen sovereignty through spiritual and religious beliefs and
practices.

Some will provide new models of strong 21st century tribal governments.
Others will focus on economic development.

Building an economic base is important to self-reliance. But self-reliance
requires more than finding financial investors. It means building a
community in which people want to invest, not just their capital, but their
hearts and lives.

Above all, we balance commerce with culture. We ensure that business and
prosperity do not deprive us of creating a long-term vision for our
community.

We involve all tribal members in creating this vision. We talk to our
elders, we listen to the children. We sit again in talking circles as we
did centuries ago.

We build our governments and our businesses around skilled and loyal
people. We develop institutions on a foundation of tribal traditions and
language, based on an Indian worldview steeped in history and culture.

Indian culture forms the living branches of the traditional tree. Like our
vision of sovereignty, our culture must evolve, find its place in the sun,
and continue to create, innovate and reproduce new versions of itself.

The age and psychology of scarcity for many California tribes is over. We
must exorcise the bad habits that fighting over scraps created. We must get
back to a vision of plenty, community, sharing and mutual support.

We need to see, feel and imagine and re-invent what Indian sovereignty is.
And we need to do this within each tribe and within all of Indian country.

Anthony R. Pico is chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians.