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Niman: Anti-Indian racism in New York’s anti-casino movement

An ugly courtship between anti-casino and anti-Indian political forces is emerging in western New York. In June, Coalition Against Gaming in New York Chair Joel Rose wrote to his members telling them there’s “good news on Turning Stone” as he celebrated a N.Y. Court of Appeals decision against Cayuga and Oneida land claims.

Rose was excited, however, because the case could eventually lead to the closing of the Oneidas’ Turning Stone Resort and Casino in central New York. If so, and if the Oneidas refuse to comply, it could also lead to some form of armed takeover of Oneida land – what we call war. Anyone cheering such a court victory is cheering the unilateral imposition of U.S. law on a sovereign nation. While it may lead to the closure of a casino, it’s like nuking a city to kill one fugitive. The casino will be closed – but only after the Oneidas’ identity as a sovereign nation is eradicated. That’s nothing that any well-intentioned person should celebrate.

The United States was built on a foundation of racism. Employing words like “savage” and “primitive,” so called “modern” and “civilized” cultures unleashed a historically unprecedented holocaust upon the hemisphere. The map of upstate New York was drawn by racist officials who, after the American Revolution, sent the U.S. Army into Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) territory to annihilate Native populations. Cayuga Lake, for example, is circled by historic markers denoting Cayuga villages and orchards burned during the Clinton-Sullivan Campaign of 1779, next to others commemorating the first homes built by “white” men in the wake of that campaign. This racism was a land grab – with mass murder as its tool and anti-“savage” racism as its justification.

While the Haudenosaunee were driven from much of their land, they were never actually defeated, their government was never crushed and their expulsion from much of their land was never up to legal muster in the United States. Hence the disempowered have recently begun to regain lost power, struggling to exercise their rights as sovereign nations, living on a radically decimated land base surrounded by the United States and Canada.

By regaining control over small tracts of land, Haudenosaunee people are recovering political power. For some people, this is unacceptable. Indians can live under U.S. domination, but not as sovereign equals maintaining their own culture and laws. Hence, in the villages of Union Springs and Cayuga, N.Y., on the shores of Cayuga Lake, in Cayuga County, we now have an almost all-white group of people – the “Upstate Citizens for Equality” – who have formed to oppose a sovereign Cayuga presence. In essence, what UCE is doing is struggling to maintain its own political advantage over the people who historically controlled the land UCE members now claim as their own.

In 2002, UCE branched out to form a western New York (Buffalo) chapter to combat Seneca land claims and eventually join forces with anti-casino activists – in effect, attempting to co-opt the anti-gaming movement into the anti-sovereignty movement (Ironically, their office is located on Indian Church Road in the Buffalo suburb of West Seneca). After I wrote a column for Buffalo’s weekly, ArtVoice, asking the question, “When do well-intentioned activists cross the line to racism?”, Joel Rose, a leader of Buffalo’s anti-casino movement, responded by writing, “We are not racists: I have never uttered a racist word or expression.” Rose went on to defend UCE, arguing that “UCE has based its position on the distinctly non-racist notion that we should all be playing by the same rules.”

The rules that UCE argues we all have to play by, however, aren’t mutually agreed upon – they are the rules imposed on the Haudenosaunee during the Sullivan Campaign. Rose describes Haudenosaunee territory as “islands of sovereignty in the middle of a modern nation.” Now, while UCE members are not donning hoods or shouting epithets, they are arguing the notion that Indians who live in the here and now are somehow not part of the modern world and that hence, they have to play by rules that their so-called “modern nation” would impose upon them. This is the same rhetorical argument white society used to justify genocide and ethnocide against supposed “savage,” “primitive” or “uncivilized” Indian nations in the 17th and 18th centuries.

What UCE and Rose are arguing for is not equality – it’s the maintenance of a power dynamic that privileges non-Natives at the cost of disempowering Native nations. And of course, Rose’s statement begs the question: If Indians are not a modern nation, then what exactly is Rose saying they are? And if this assumption justifies their disempowerment, then is it racist?

UCE and the anti-casino Coalition Against Gaming in New York now tie together though their leadership, with Daniel Warren serving as chair of the WNY Chapter of UCE and as a director of CAGNY, of which UCE is a member organization.

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What is interesting here is that while UCE is anti-sovereignty and hence, one could argue, anti-Indian (since Native identity and political power are entwined with sovereignty, UCE is not against gaming; and neither is Warren, who writes that he supports “either the rescission or full legalization of gambling, but not the granting of a monopoly [to Indians].”

So if Warren, a director of the anti-casino group CAGNY, is not against casinos, then what exactly is he against? According to Warren and the UCE Niagara mission statement, UCE supports “an expeditious and final resolution of all Indian land claims.” The phrase “final resolution” echoes the Nazi “final solution” calling for the annihilation through genocide of the Jewish people – an idea they came up with after first discussing the forced relocation of Jews onto reservations in Madagascar. UCE’s idea of a final solution is the ultimate negation of Native sovereignty – a sovereignty that has until now survived centuries of oppression.

Indian nations don’t have the monopoly on gaming that Warren describes. New York is replete with racinos, OTB parlors, Keno, lotto and lotteries, bingo, etc., not to mention casinos in neighboring states and Canadian provinces. By focusing on Indian gaming and not gaming in general, by joining forces with UCE and by admitting leadership that is not opposed to gaming, CAGNY is crossing the line from being an anti-gaming group to an anti-Indian group.

The issue always comes back to sovereignty and a resistance to recognize Haudenosaunee sovereignty. Niagara University Hospitality Management professor Steve Siegel, for example, in a cover story for ArtVoice, wrote that an Indian-run casino at Buffalo Creek would have an unfair advantage over U.S.-run businesses.

Siegel argued that U.S. federal, state and local agencies will not have authority to regulate Seneca activities. He wrote that “those who feel they were discriminated against by Indian employers” will not be able to file a complaint with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board. He went on to explain that victims of sexual harassment in Indian businesses “cannot sue the Seneca Nation for lost wages or psychological damages in [U.S.] federal court.” It’s interesting that Siegel, whose article attacks sovereignty but not the idea of casinos, chose to discuss hypothetical sexual harassment and discrimination by Indians. By doing so he is continuing an old Reconstruction-era tradition of terrifying white audiences with images of emancipated non-whites sexually victimizing helpless victims.

Siegel listed areas, ranging from health inspections to music and liquor licenses, in which Native businesses will be unregulated. Absent in the professor’s analysis, however, is the fact that the Senecas, as a sovereign nation, are the ones who regulate and adjudicate all of these issues as they see fit – just like their sovereign Canadian counterparts across the river – without needing paternalistic oversight from their U.S. neighbors.

This is what enrages Indian people as racist – the unquestioned notion that sovereign Indian nations are not competent to manage their own affairs. Historically, U.S. administrations used this justification to impose corrupt BIA control over Native resources, just as states today want to regulate Indian gaming.

Traditional Haudenosaunee people tend to oppose gaming, but they would never compromise sovereignty. By alienating Native anti-gaming activists with their anti-sovereignty rhetoric, the white anti-casino movement has in effect alienated the very people who could be effective allies in their struggle. If the anti-gaming movement is to survive with any credibility, it needs to cleanse itself of its racist aura and return to focusing on the gaming debate – and divorce itself from the fight against Native rights and political power.

<i>Michael Niman is a syndicated columnist and professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College in New York. A two-time Project Censored winner, his columns are archived at his Web site: