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New Washington state GOP resolution fails to impress tribes

SEATTLE, Wash. - Tribal reaction to the June resolution by the Washington state Republican Party seeking the termination of "non-republican" forms of government on tribal reservations, is paying off.

The flood of official resolutions and letters from tribes, individuals, human rights groups and other organizations around the country into state and national GOP headquarters led the National Republican Committee to send a formal letter to tribal leaders, rejecting the Washington resolution and reaffirming the National Republican Party's support of tribal governments and tribal sovereignty.

"We are writing to assure you we reject this resolution and everything it stands for. ... The elimination of tribal governments is not an option,'' says the letter, signed by Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

The Washington State GOP was not far behind. On July 17, one month after the resolution was passed at the party's convention in Spokane, state GOP chairman Sen. Don Benton released a new resolution "clarifying" the state party's position.

"This resolution attempts to shed light on an issue that has taken on a life of its own over the past month," Benton says. "It is my hope that a new resolution will allow our relationship with the Indian Tribes of Washington State to continue to strengthen and prosper."

The new resolution, passed by the party's executive board, apologizes for any "anxiety or discomfort" caused by the previous resolution initiated by Skagit County delegate John Fleming. The new resolution reaffirms the state party's "ongoing support of Native American sovereignty as well as their ability and right to self-govern as determined by legal treaties signed with the United States of America."

But the press release containing the resolution sends a different message than the resolution wording itself. In the press release it states that the new resolution "seeks to preserve the Constitutional question posed by the original resolution while affirming the Party's support for tribal sovereignty."

It is clear from previous statements made by Sen. Benton, that the "Constitutional question" referred to is one of equal representation in tribal government by non-Natives living on tribal reservations.

"I think it's similar to immigrants who come to America who don't feel like they're part of the processes that are guaranteed by the Constitution," says Benton. "The world is not perfect and we need to work on trying to make people feel more included in decisions that affect their lives."

The fence-sitting position of Sen. Benton, plus the numerous caveats in the new resolution, including blaming the media for inaccurate and inflammatory reporting, have left tribal leaders unimpressed.

"Personally, I thought it was a fumbling attempt, rejecting the premises and notions of the first resolution," says Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe. "The bottom line is that they didn't take responsibility for a very bad resolution. ... Quite frankly this state Republican leadership needs to get with the real world. The wishy-washy back-peddling that they did just doesn't cut it."

For example, it points out that the original resolution did not call for an end to Native American sovereignty; did not call for the termination of any treaties with any recognized tribes and did not "in any way, denigrate any Native American or Indian Tribe."

Members of other organizations, such as the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity in Seattle, also have spoken out against the lack of punch and sincerity in the state GOP's new official resolution.

"I don't think they go far enough in addressing the real substantive attack on tribal sovereignty that that resolution embodied," says Robert Crawford, a researcher for the coalition.

Even Sen. Slade Gorton, R - Wash., whose noted political stance against Indian rights has made him grossly unpopular in Indian country, distanced himself as far as possible from any association with the state GOP's original resolution.

On the bright side, the resolution has enraged so many tribal leaders and tribal councils, that anti-GOP support is translating into dollars flowing into the coffers of organizations dedicated to getting rid of unpopular Republican politicians such as Gorton.

Members of the non-profit, Native-run First American Education Project, which is funding a publicity campaign to make the Washington state public aware of Gorton's negative voting record on tribal rights and the environment, are not angry about the GOP resolution. They're laughing, all the way to the bank.

"We're starting to see some big money," says Allen, one of the founders. "We had a tribe give us $100,000. We've had a number of $25,000 contributions. We've been getting monies from tribes who have very little money, and they're giving us $100 and $1,000.

"The tribes are clearly stepping forward."

The First American Education Project can be reached at: (360) 352-9833