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Palermo: We can sway perception and policy

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About two years ago, tribal leaders gathered at Portland State University to discuss how tribal government gaming and the evolving image of Native America was impacting American Indian policy on Capitol Hill.

The gathering took place as convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff was dominating headlines, the 109th U.S. Congress was taking shots at tribal sovereignty, and there was a growing concern tribal gaming was tarnishing the public perception of American Indians.

''Public polls seem to suggest our support has eroded in recent years due to the backlash created by the Abramoff scandal and negative images surrounding tribal gaming,'' said Alan Parker, professor of Native American law and a citizen of the Chippewa Cree Tribal Nation. ''It seems a large segment of the public believe that what Indian people are about is operating casinos.''

''Casinos ... are not who we are,'' Nisqually tribal elder Billy Frank Jr. told those at the meeting. ''We are our languages, our culture, our natural resources, our spirituality and our prayers.''

That was two years ago. Abramoff has since faded from the front pages of the Washington Post and New York Times. The Senate Indian Affairs and House Resources committees are focusing on more urgent, non-gaming tribal issues such as education, health care and natural resources. And tribes can rejoice at the attention the presumptive Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are giving to tribal issues.

''We're seeing for the first time, the candidates are reaching out,'' Kalyn Free, founder of the Indigenous Democratic Network and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, told the Denver Post. ''They are recognizing the power of the Indian vote and that Indians could be pivotal in this election.''

But many remain concerned about the nationwide, public perception of American Indians, particularly the notion that, thanks to tribal government gaming, indigenous Americans are no longer economically and socially disadvantaged.

There is a nagging fear the ''myth of the rich Indian'' is prompting Congress, federal policy makers and bureaucrats with the U.S. Department of Interior and BIA to ignore the nation's trust responsibility for the more than 2.4 million citizens of more than 560 federally recognized tribes and Alaska Native villages; promises etched in treaties made in exchange for Native lives and lands.

Statistics show economic growth on tribal lands is three times the national average, a trend that to a large degree can be attributed to a federal policy of tribal self-determination introduced in 1975, U.S. Supreme Court rulings upholding the right to game on tribal lands, and enactment of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

But American Indians still lag far behind non-Indians in every socio-economic category, from income to health care to housing to education. The impact of government gaming has been limited, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission, with 63 of 387 tribal gaming operations generating 71.5 percent of the revenues in 2006. Most tribal casinos are marginal enterprises providing jobs, but nowhere near the rivers of cash flowing from Foxwoods Resort, Mystic Lakes and other more lucrative operations.

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The Hopi, Navajo and other Indian nations and tribes in the Southwest United States and elsewhere still suffer from cyclical poverty. They depend on a strong treaty relationship with the federal government. And they stand to suffer from public misperceptions of American Indians that influence Congress, federal bureaucrats and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The public has historically embraced Native culture. Statistics show a desire to experience Native culture and traditions remains the priority for visitors to tribal reservations, including those with resort casinos. But there is a growing tendency for the public to regard tribes not as culturally rich communities, but more as corporations and purveyors of gambling. This can be damaging.

''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,'' said Anthony Pico, former chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. ''It will be decided in the court of public opinion.

''How we are viewed in the eyes of the nation - and 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 grandchildren, their grandchildren and future generations of Native Americans.

''Perception is reality,'' Pico continued. ''Truth is our ally. If we don't take steps necessary to promote and accurate image of contemporary Native America, if we do not tell our story completely and accurately to all who will listen, the pillars of economic, social and governmental progress tribes have begun building over the last 30 years will come crashing down around us. Sadly, I fear cracks are already growing in the foundation.''

American Indian trade associations and organizations do a commendable job lobbying on behalf of Indian country. The National Indian Gaming Association in particular has been a strong and effective force on Capitol Hill advocating for the tribes and keeping potentially harmful legislation off the floor.

But these organizations and associations and Native America in general is doing a woefully poor job educating the public and helping promote an accurate and positive image of American Indians as culturally rich, indigenous peoples, living as sovereign nations with governments that existed long before the United States.

The tribal lobby is strong and effective. But when you need to rely on a lobby as a tool to protect and preserve tribal sovereignty and self-governance, you have already lost the war.

Attacks on tribal sovereignty - whether they come from Congress and state legislatures or the U.S. Supreme Court - are largely born of ignorance and public misperceptions of American Indians. Until a concerted effort is made by tribes and their associations to educate the public and promote a more accurate image of Native America, the attacks will continue.

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