New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's approval on Feb. 20 of an off-reservation casino for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe marked a rare occasion in Indian gaming. Only three times before has a state supported a tribe in such an endeavor. For the community of Akwesasne, the territory within which the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe operates as the elective, federally recognized government, the controversial issue of casino gaming in the Mohawk's ancestral territory, New York's Catskills region, seemed to have reached its long-awaited conclusion.
Immediately, de rigueur lawsuits were filed by casino opponents, including anti-gaming organizations and environmental groups, to delay final approvals of the proposed $600 million casino. The Mohawk tribal officials have long been prepared to fight this initial backlash in the legal courts.
However, what the tribe seemed less prepared for was the obnoxious uproar from the court of public opinion that has an entire community of Indian people again defending itself against what amounts to a racist and ethnocentric defamation of character by the media. There is outrage that ''news'' organizations based in New York City purport to know anything true about the life of Mohawk people. There is plenty of anger and emotion, and rightly so, on both sides of the issue. But the editorials, opinions and letters appearing since the February announcement have offered plenty of vitriolic hate speech and libelous statements.
To provide an introduction for this particular display of ignorance is to be transported back in time when the American rubric for discourse on the ''Indian problem'' included references to lynching, sterilization and extermination. It is misguided thinking to generalize a tribe ''as disreputable as the St. Regis Mohawks'' as bad business partners. But to then ask, ''How can a man whose goal it is to clean up Albany invite nefarious lawbreakers like the Mohawks to sit at his table?'' is reminiscent of signs barring ''Indians and dogs'' from public establishments. The comments, by reader Tom Cahill of Manhattan in a letter to the New York Post on Feb. 24, do not end there. ''Let the leaders of the tribe perpetuate their social corrosiveness if they wish; maybe it's the prerogative of their tribal law,'' his disgusting conclusion begins. ''Keep it away from we honest, God-fearing and law-abiding citizens.''
And so was the tone of several of these letters published by the Post, referring collectively to the ''Mohawks'' (no further distinction was deemed necessary by any respondent) as ''Indian gangsters,'' ''corrupt folks,'' ''crooks'' and the St. Regis Mohawk tribe as a troubled ''organization'' with ''a history of unacceptable behavior.'' What is worse is that these comments were fueled by the paper's editorial, ''The Gov's Gambling Goof,'' published three days earlier, in which they roll out imagined statistics in an embellished version of the ''extended history'' of the tribe. It is a ''travesty'' to partner with the Mohawks, says the Post, because of its connection with widespread drug and people smuggling operations along the U.S./Canada border that cuts directly through the Akwesasne community.
Sure, these are the misguided and racist comments of a tabloid and a few of its blowhard readers, but consider the reach of the New York Post. According to its circulation department, the Post publishes more than 700,000 daily issues and has a readership of 2.3 million. That's just in New York City, where, incidentally, many hundreds of Mohawk families live, work and go to school. As part of News Corp, the massive media conglomerate that is the world's leading publisher of English-language newspapers, the Post is also distributed in Miami, Tucson, Los Angeles, and Chicago, with its tabloid tentacles continually reaching other major cities. And, like Indian Country Today, the Post participates in Newspapers in Education, which is an international program to advance the use of newspapers in schools. The main purpose of NIE is to improve reading, spelling and writing abilities of school children. But also, it is a great tool for spreading knowledge, or intolerance and hatred, about other peoples and cultures.
It is unconscionable that media outlets like the Post do not find it ethically and socially irresponsible to allow such discourse to occur in their pages. Could we imagine opening a major newspaper tomorrow morning to read editorial praise for the Holocaust, or letters to the editor advocating for the return of slavery? Of course not, not in a ''civilized'' society like the United States of America. But it happens every day and Indian peoples, as communities, tribes and sovereign nations are the targets.
We have examined the grotesque offense of these media reports, but where is the defense? The lack of official response from the St. Regis Mohawk tribal leaders, in this case, has been considered by community members and supporters as collusion. The thinking is that if they have not disputed or corrected with all the might of their office these attacks on the character of not only the tribal government, but of Mohawk children and elders too, it must be true. It is a dangerous slope for tribal leaders to push mightily for an issue (and doubly so if that issue is large-scale gaming) at the expense of the outer public's perception of their constituents.
The community of Akwesasne has a well-documented history of outstanding service and contributions by Mohawks to society:
"The Akwesasne Freedom School, an independent elementary school founded in 1979 by Mohawk parents concerned about the educational and cultural inequities in the state education system, is flourishing today with its Mohawk-language immersion curriculum.
"Akwesasne is home to several renowned makers of fine ash splint and sweet grass baskets, most notably Mary Adams, Mae Bigtree and Henry Arquette. They have been honored as masters of traditional arts in upstate New York. Adams has baskets at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Vatican.
"Hundreds of Mohawk ironworkers built much of the New York skyline, including the World Trade Center's twin towers, the Empire State Building, the United Nations building, Madison Square Garden and the George Washington Bridge.
"The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe collaborates with state and local universities, including Cornell University and Clarkson University, on a variety of health, education and environmental projects. It is now developing a biodiesel plant to convert used vegetable oil from its gaming facilities into clean fuel for tribal vehicles.
"A long tradition of athletic excellence continues as the girl's high school hockey team, comprised mainly of Mohawks, won the New York state championship for the fourth consecutive year. Several Mohawks are in the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame; their legacy is a vast minor lacrosse system that is maintained by community volunteers. Many of those young boys grew to play professionally in the National Lacrosse League and continue to do so.
"The community has disproportionately high numbers of U.S. military veterans and college-enrolled students.
The Mohawks of Akwesasne, like all Indian peoples, are no strangers to bad press. They are the proud survivors of generations of U.S. and Canadian policies aimed at separating Indian people from their inherent sovereign right to wander, trade, travel, work and marry freely on the back of A'nowara'ko:wa, the Great Turtle that Haudenosaunee peoples believe is the base of the North American continent. The international border that many Indian and non-Indian activist often describe as an imaginary line, a construct of oppression, is a very real and ominous presence in the lives of Mohawks.
A conundrum the mainstream media rarely examines in their regular attempts to examine the roots of the border problem at Akwesasne is how such a visible and heavily-policed piece of land - after all, the border is ''protected'' by at least half a dozen federal, state and tribal law enforcement agencies - could breed such terrible consequences. The waters of the St. Lawrence River were once an abundant sacrament of spiritual and cultural wealth and physical health for the Akwesasne Mohawk people. Today it is both battleground and weapon, consistently used by bureaucrats to destroy the very fabric of what it means to be Mohawk. Just as the community did not choose to be exposed to widespread public persecution over casino gaming, it did not choose to host an international, a state or a provincial border and all their implications. Having endless strength to face these challenges is now a defining characteristic of Mohawk people. That is the story to tell.