Palermo: Prophets and victims and poor public perceptions


"The future preservation and prosperity of American Indians will not be decided in the halls of Congress or state legislatures, nor will it be adjudicated within the solemn chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court. It will be decided in the court of public opinion.”

– Anthony R. Pico, Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians

“Casinos are not who we are. We are our languages, our culture, our national resources, our spirituality and our prayers.”

– Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually Indian Tribe

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Carcieri v. Salazar limiting the ability of American Indian tribes to take land into trust is reverberating throughout Native America. The ruling appears narrow in scope – targeting tribes not recognized prior to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 – but legal scholars are scurrying to determine its impact on pending efforts to secure and reacquire ancestral lands.

 Instead of developing an image of Native America for the next seven generations and beyond, tribes have been looking ahead to next week.

I apologize for the phrase “narrow in scope.” A court ruling limiting efforts by indigenous peoples to hold what is most precious should not be regarded as narrow. The land strikes at the very heart of what it means to be an American Indian.

What is alarming is that leaders of 560 federally recognized tribes and Alaska Native villages were warned by contemporary Native American prophets that the courts and Congress would begin eroding tribal sovereignty and self-governance.

Tribal leaders were told this would happen, time and again.

They did nothing.

A false perception

“There is no longer the notion of tribes pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. Now the notion is, ‘Why should tribes be getting all the gold in them there hills?’ It’s OK for tribes to be poor. Now that some of us are well off, that is unacceptable. A negative perception has emerged.”

– Hon. Ron Allen, chairman, Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe

Native America has for two decades experienced unprecedented social and economic progress, gains achieved largely through tribal self-determination and the growth of government gaming. But this era of progress may soon end, the victim of an erosion of public and political support fueled by controversies surrounding off-reservation gambling, political activism by tribes and the continuing fallout from the scandalous activities of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The threat is exacerbated by the public’s ignorance of Native America and tribal self-governance and the misperception gambling has created untold wealth in Indian country.

The public no longer perceives indigenous peoples as culturally-rich first Americans. The public, the press, elected officials and the highest court in the land perceive Indians as purveyors of gambling and casino operators.

“The people believe we’re all about gaming, that we are all very wealthy from gaming. It’s an extremely dangerous misperception. It’s a threat to our status as sovereign nations and our treaty agreements.”

– Tracy Stanhoff, former chair, Prairie Band of Potawatomi.

The perception is not only eroding sovereignty and self-governance, but impacting congressional and bureaucratic decisions on health care, housing, education and other crucial bricks in the foundation of Native America.

“You heard members of Congress remark, ‘Hey, all these tribes are making all this money, why are we providing free health care to Native Americans? They can pay for it themselves.’”

– Rachel Joseph, citizen of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and advocate for the Indian Health Care Improvement Act

“We’re losing money. A handful of tribes generate all the wealth. Tribes in North Dakota, South Dakota are never going to get wealthy from casinos because they don’t have the population. We’re losing money for health. We’re losing money for education. When it comes to poorer tribes, Congress is taking away what little we have.”

– Tim Giago, author, publisher and citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation

A court ruling limiting efforts by indigenous peoples to hold what is most precious should not be regarded as narrow.

A voice

“We need to educate the non-Native community. We are obligated to use the media to explain our issues and who we are.”

– Hon. Kevin Leecy, tribal chair, Bois Forte Band of Chippewa

“How we are viewed in the eyes of the nation – our ability to deliver our message to the public, the press, elected officials and federal and state policy makers – is of crucial importance to our children, our grandchildren and future generations.”

– Anthony R. Pico

For 20 years tribes have generated the resources needed to create an accurate image of American Indians as culturally rich indigenous peoples and sovereign governments.

Tribes, regional gaming associations and national organizations – the National Congress of American Indians and National Indian Gaming Association – could have explained to the local, regional and national media what it meant to be American Indian.

A constant, consistent message through the media over the past 20 years could have accomplished a great deal in creating an accurate public image of American Indians. It did not require much money, certainly not as much as the $80 million paid to Abramoff.

Instead of engaging the media, tribes and tribal associations have for the most part remained aloof, ignoring press inquiries and, in too many cases, going to war with the media. The investment in media relations was nowhere near what was paid to lawyers, lobbyists and high priced public relations firms that simply alienated the press.

Instead of being proactive, creating a strong, accurate image of American Indians, tribes have been reactive, scurrying to respond to negative publicity, damaging court decisions and Congressional actions.

Instead of developing an image of Native America for the next seven generations and beyond, tribes have been looking ahead to next week, or reacting to yesterday’s federal court ruling. It’s been a recipe for failure.

“Once you call us,” said a tribal lobbyist on Capitol Hill, “you’ve already lost the battle.”

If tribes do not look to the future in their public and media efforts, they may lose the war.

Dave Palermo is an award-winning former newspaper reporter and editor. He currently is a freelance writer and media consultant. He can be reached at