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Native Americans and the Economic Termination Era

A column by David Kimelberg about the huge problems and challenges facing American Indians today.

Not too long ago, the United States’ explicit policy regarding Native Americans was termination. The goal was to marginalize and eradicate Native people and cultures. As a first step, the government stole Native land and resources, murdered Native families and herded the survivors onto bounded reservations offering little chance of survival. The next step was instituting a legal policy during the 1940s, 50s and 60s stripping Native nations of any remaining rights. True to form, this officially coined “Termination Era” witnessed the government terminating over 100 tribes through legislative mandate.

Although the 1960s ushered in a new approach by the United States, one that was trumpeted to respect the inherent sovereignty of the remaining Native nations and heal old wounds, this agreement of respect has shown itself to be hollow. It is as hollow as the thousands of unfulfilled agreements that preceded it. Termination of Native people is alive and well. It’s just taken a different form.

Native Americans have struggled to overcome stacked odds. Gaming was a breakthrough opportunity. Native casinos proved to be a godsend for many tribes, as they created revenue that translated into new health centers, community centers and educational opportunities. Most importantly, the resources were a galvanizing force in creating communal hope for a better future. Again, however, many of the federal and state government agreements underlying this opportunity have proved fleeting. The Seneca Nation of Indians, of which I’m a citizen, has benefited greatly from gaming—it’s been a transformative, community building experience. However, after we invested hundreds of millions of dollars to create new opportunities for our community, New York State went back on its word to not build competing venues in our gaming territory. Moreover, state leaders are now proposing wholesale commercial gaming throughout New York State, a further reneging of its contract with us.

Like other Native nations, the Seneca Nation also used tobacco sales to create fertile opportunities in an otherwise desolate economic landscape. As the business model matured, we created our own brands and utilized the internet to open up new distribution channels. Unfortunately for us, this took away precious slivers of market share from tobacco conglomerates like Phillip Morris. Retribution was swift. Federal legislation was quickly enacted to immediately halt our shipments, which killed our businesses overnight and put many of our people out of work.

The government’s latest attack on Native economies is focused on federal government work performed by tribally and Alaska Native-owned companies. Although these companies account for a tiny fraction of government contracts, contracts that generate desperately needed revenue for its communal owners, some members of congress have launched legislative attacks in an effort to nullify our contracts. One of the main congressional gripes is that these companies are eligible to receive some sole source contracts. Some legislators have positioned this as somehow “not fair.” What they fail to point out, however, is that 10 multi-national corporations dominate the federal market and routinely receive the vast majority of all government sole source work. Specifically, in 2008, eight of the top 10 federal contractors each received more than 60 percent of their federal contracts through non-competitive mechanisms, and these top 10 contractors received approximately $170 billion (30 percent) of the roughly $525 billion spent by the federal government. In stark contrast, tribally and Alaska Native-owned companies received less than one percent of the same spending. Once again, agreements with Native nations are fragile when they remotely interfere with government or corporate bounty.

The termination era continues, although now with a more subtle economic bent. Instead of physically taking land or paying cash for dead Indians, the current approach is more refined and politically palatable. Choking down on revenue streams and economic progress is just as effective as wholesale killing. Economic blight furthers the dependency and bleakness that ultimately leads to extinction. Occasionally, non-Natives get a fleeting glimpse of this in action—Diane Sawyer recently took TV viewers on a shocking tour of the deplorable conditions facing the Oglala Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge reservation. The general public expressed concern, albeit for a moment. Surprise and compassion flowed through the Facebook and Twitter worlds, but emotions were quickly squashed by apathy.

History does repeat itself, but sometimes in a veiled, and often sinister, way. When market share replaces land resources, overt termination takes on more covert forms. Native people understand this and see through the veil. Like the generations before us, we will continue to fight to survive and carry our people and cultures forward. The only request is that simple agreements finally be kept.

David Kimelberg is an enrolled citizen (Bear clan) of the Seneca Nation of Indians and is the CEO of Seneca Holdings, the Nation’s investment arm. His views are his own and not necessarily those of the Seneca Nation of Indians or Seneca Holdings.