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New York Times frames Iroquois country

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A recent New York Times news feature ("Bad Blood in Battle Over Casinos," Oct. 28) on the new gaming opportunities in Iroquois country made many important points but, as usual, it fashioned its own scenario. In this case, once again, the Times framed the Native peoples and issues of New York state in the easy paradigm of internal tribal conflict.

The overriding metaphor of the article speaks of an essential conflict between traditional and non-traditional Indians. The idea put forward is that traditional Indian culture is against contemporary business and enterprise and vice versa. The Times article would lead you to believe that the two approaches are necessarily separate or incompatible.

By its very nature, it seems media often frames a story in a pro-and-con, thesis-antithesis fashion. The possibility that a more circular approach to information structure and decision-making needs to be applied in order to actually understand reality is sometimes difficult in a daily mass media format. It often requires a deeper level of experience in the communities and sufficient time to explore the social, cultural and political geneses of the issues.

Of course, the reality is more nuanced and takes a bit longer to understand. Media often misses the point, as did the New York Times this time. Economic re-empowerment is a many-sided endeavor. It is not always pro-and-con. Furthermore, what is the source of division can also be the basis of unity, for political and resource empowerment as American Indian nations.

The search for self-empowered self-government, for a workable definition of sovereignty as distinct peoples of the Western Hemisphere, and other unifying themes of Indian political life suggests itself as a proper framework in this context. But it would not be searched for in the Times article.

The ups and downs of the Indian country are well-known, but a journalism that would also search for the unifying factors, for the sources of strength, rather than to permanently emphasize and frame the divisions is always of great value to Indian communities. To always identify the portentous, two-sided antagonisms, invariably searching for the opposites instead of the like activities, can be corrosive.

The news is not just disunity among the Iroquois. The news is also when the Iroquois unite. When united, the Iroquois possess the potential for great accomplishment.

The New York Times article, by David W. Chen and Charlie LeDuff, was full of phrases like "genuine salvation or false temptation" in describing the current trends in Iroquois country. The current reality is presented in a completely either/or concept, as if the various cultural and social needs of communities cannot coincide with the development of substantive capital bases for Indian communities.

Inter-tribal antagonism is presented as inevitable, as in this sentence: "It (the current condition) is a clash between those with a reverence for the old ways and those with a thirst for a revenue stream."

But reality is that many of the people involved in business enterprises have "reverence" for the old ways; indeed, not a few longhouse families pay the bills and run their economic lives in the context of the new Indian economies.

Then, too, revenues from gaming enterprises, gas stations and tobacco shops are paying for cultural education, including language recovery programs. The most traditional precept, take care of the elders and children, is being followed, as good educational opportunities and elders' centers are also high priorities among economically improving tribes.

Another traditional imperative, the reacquisition of traditional lands, has also been made possible through the development of viable businesses.

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"Those with a thirst for a revenue stream" ? "thirst" is pretty unfortunate use of language here. By implying the feeding of a habit, it makes direct use of stereotype and gives a negative stylistic slant to the American Indian search for enterprise development.

No one would claim that speedy growth of gaming enterprises has not spawned great change and its share of conflict in some parts of Indian country. But many of the factors of that change were already in place before the gaming opportunities began.

The casting of "traditionals" versus "non-traditionals" no longer adequately describes Indian country. The world is more complex than that, and like everyone, Native peoples will take advantage of their opportunities to carve out a piece of American life out of their ancient homelands. It does not mean people will not work to maintain their ancient cultures and traditions and languages; seeking a prosperous future does not make a person or a tribe, "less Indian."

The article speaks of "selling a piece of autonomy," of "rifts in countless families." But interestingly, the language of compacts and agreements originates in the concept of Indian sovereignty. And what does a phrase like "countless families" mean? That you did not count them? So, how many families are you talking about?

The article declares that "the wealth is uneven: the two Indian casinos in Connecticut, Foxwoods, run by the Mashantucket Pequots, and Mohegan Sun, run by the Mohegans, account for 20 percent of the $10 billion" of Indian gaming revenues nationwide.

But is this an evil in itself? Should we demean the Connecticut tribes' good fortune of being in the right market place at the right time, as suggested by the Times writing team? Since when is "uneven wealth" a culprit in Times articles or a serious consideration of its wealthy founders? Perhaps only since Indians got a chance to control wealth again?

Uniformly, the article states, the state tribes' experiences with high-stakes gaming, "share two things: bad blood and a lack of consensus."

Well, they share a bit more than that. The tribes all run governments and services, have systems of administration and oversee common reservation programs and lands. They all have similar and serious problems in social and economic stimulus, but are starting to apply some of the options available to American Indian nations for some kind of recovery.

The Times article also talks about, "... a lack of consensus." But here again, why apply a different standard to Indians from how it happens politically everywhere else in North America? Splintered opinions, contending parties are part and parcel of every sovereign government in the hemisphere. Why should it be any different in Indian country?

American Indian resilience is a tried and tested quality. Sorting out the new against the old has been a constant in wave after wave of change and growth. That Native life is definable by the conflict of old and new is an old cliche. But, success, realistically, is always the synthesis of old and new. And this is happening too.

Another thing, Native peoples are resilient and take time to renew their communality. Culture, that act of developing by education and training, has perpetual qualities, but is hardly static, as the Times article would leave its readers to believe.

Tribal self-determined ways will persist. This deeper reality is disagreeable to some opinion-makers, but it is one that prevails in the hearts of Native peoples.