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McCain steps into top post at the right time

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With Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., assuming control of the Senate Committee on
Indian Affairs, it can be safely assumed that tribal government gaming will
not be a front-burner issue for the panel in the coming year.

"With [Daniel)] Inouye [D-Hawaii] and [Benjamin] Campbell [R-Colo.], gaming
was number one on the list," a Washington, D.C. lobbyist said of the
committee's changing of the guard. "With McCain, it's down to four or five.
For all intent and purposes, gaming is off the radar.

"The fact of the matter is McCain is tired of that panel being regarded as
nothing more than a committee on gambling."

The tough-minded investigatory lawmaker will be channeling much of his
attention to the probe of besieged one-time D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
His preference on American Indian issues will likely involve matters
dealing with bond financing and tax issues, trust reform, economic
development, sovereignty and the strengthening of tribal government.

If the committee looks at gambling, it will likely be with the intention of
strengthening the oversight and regulation of the industry, a perspective
that might not be well-received from tribes concerned about federal
government intrusion into sovereignty and self-governance.

McCain signaled in early February he plans vigorous oversight of tribal

"We're going to have hearings on the whole issue of Indian gaming, ranging
from oversight to off-reservation sites, to others," he told the Associated
Press. "It's now a $16.3 billion-a-year business. It needs to be looked at
very carefully."

Glancing over his record on campaign reform, one lobbyist said McCain's
priorities are "transparency, transparency, transparency." One might add
accountability to the mix.

"The current threat to our prosperity comes not from over-regulation," he
said of proposed corporate reform legislation.

The chairman was quick to step into the fray when grand jury testimony on
steroid abuse in major league baseball was leaked to the San Francisco
Chronicle, threatening to involve Congress if the league and player's
association didn't clean up the situation.

McCain showed little patience for the $30 billion sweetheart deal Boeing
cut with the U.S. Defense Department.

And his stated position on tribal government accountability and regulatory
oversight of tribal gaming was clearly stated earlier this year when he
grilled Phil Hogan, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission: "Do
you have the funds to do your job?" McCain repeatedly asked.

McCain said it was wrong to allow the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians to
circumvent federal law to build a casino across the bay from San Francisco.

The Arizona Republican promised to hold hearings on a bill by Sen. Dianne
Feinstein that would block the 2,500-slot casino that the tribe plans to
build on non-reservation land.

"I think it was wrong the way that this tribe was allowed to do it," McCain
told reporters outside a press conference. "I don't think that's the proper
process. How do we fix that, I'm not sure."

The Lyttorr Band of Pomo Indians got the right to build the casino on the
site of a San Pablo card room because of language inserted in a 2000
spending bill by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., that gave the land special
federal trust status. Without Miller's intervention, the tribe, which has
no reservation of its own, would have had to go through a lengthy process
of getting federal and state approval.

The legislation by Feinstein, D-Calif., would revoke the special trust
status and require the tribe to go through the normal approval process,
which can take years.


It's disturbing that the image of American Indians in the eyes of the
public, press and politicians is increasing being defined by casino
gambling. Rather than being looked upon as indigenous peoples and sovereign
nations, American Indians are perceived as purveyors of casinos; as
businesses and corporations rather than tribal governments.

Much of this perception is being shaped by news coverage that is focused on
off-reservation casinos or "reservation shopping," taxation and revenue
sharing, regulation of gaming, the growing political clout of American
Indians and the environmental impact of tribal casinos.

The future of economic growth and social progress on tribal lands will be
determined by public perceptions. It is perhaps wise for tribal nations to
step back and take stock, focus on the original intent of the Indian Gaming
Regulatory Act of 1988, which was to rebuild tribal governments and build
tribal economies.

As the tribal gaming industry evolves, it is important that it fuel a
larger, nationwide tribal economy that embraces all Native nations,
particularly those that are not involved in casino gaming.

Tribes need to begin creating courts and non-economic institutions
necessary to ensure their culture, traditions and the Native way of life
survives for generations to come. That is far more important than economic

McCain's duty at the helm of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs will
last about 14 months, at which time he is expected to move on to the Armed
Services Committee.

But it is perhaps best that casino gambling remain off the national radar
for the next year or so. McCain might be the right man for the times.

Dave Palermo is special assistant to the chairman of the Hopi Tribe and a
freelance writer. He can be reached at