Skip to main content

Panel at state lawmakers conference tries to bridge 'knowledge gap'

  • Author:
  • Updated:

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. - Hoping to bridge what they see as a knowledge gap between state lawmakers and Indian tribes, two prominent West Coast tribal leaders appeared on a panel at the National Conference of State Legislators on July 22.

Ron Allen, chairman of Washington's Jamestown S'Kallam tribe and Derron Marquez, the chairman of southern California's San Manuel Band of Mission Indians each made a plea to the assembled audience comprised mostly of various state lawmakers for greater understanding of tribal issues.

R. Aura Kanegis, an official with the National Congress of the American Indian, joined them on the panel in a session that was attended by various state lawmakers from around the nation including Washington state Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip.

The session was moderated by Kansas Senator Lana Oleen, R-Manhattan who set the tone of the presentation with a plea to her fellow state lawmakers to allow tribal self-determination and to conduct negotiations with tribes on a government to government basis.

"We need to build on collaboration and not confrontation," said Oleen in her opening remarks.

Oleen then introduced Allen, a former president of the National Congress of the American Indian, who blamed the nation's educational system for what he believes is a general ignorance of where tribal governments fit into the American political system.

Calling American Indians the "great untold story of American history," Allen credited the rise of Indian casinos as one of the primary reasons that state legislators are now taking notice of tribes.

Allen hailed a 1989 accord signed by tribes and Washington as a potential prototype of how tribes and states can form the basis of better relations.

"Let us not debate over who's more sovereign state or tribes," said Allen. "Our communities have every need that a state does."

Going on the offensive against the perception that tribes, as non-taxable entities, do not contribute to the state or local communities Allen ran off a litany of contributions made by tribal casinos.

For example, Allen said that in addition to providing funds for destitute rural areas, i.e. Indian reservations, tribal casino revenues, unlike the revenues generated by a large corporation like McDonald's stays in the local communities.

Since the majority of workers at most tribal casinos are non-Indian, these employees pay taxes on both their payrolls and any property they buy because of their employment.

Allen said that his own tribe's health clinic services the local non-Indian population who make up about 85 percent of all patients, including 35 percent who are Medicare recipients.

Additionally Allen pointed out that tribes pay taxes on land held in fee status.

Another danger, cautioned Allen, is the perception that all tribes are suddenly wealthy as a result of Indian gaming. Of over slightly 500 tribes only 200 operate casinos and only a small percentage of those are financial windfalls for the tribes.

Allen sees the perception that all tribes have become wealthy as a danger because he feels that states will often cut funding and resource programs where they are still needed.

"Tribal/state relations are more of an art than a science," said R. Aura Kanegis, director of operations and programs for the National Congress of the American Indian.

Kanegis began her presentation by pointing out that Indian tribes, as one of three sovereign entities listed in the United States constitution are political and not racial groups. She cites as examples the BIA, treaties and holding lands in trust as evidence of the political relationship of the United States government to tribes.

Like a state, Kanegis asserted that tribes must provide for an attire apparatus of government for tribal members, including law enforcement, court systems and social service programs.

Kanegis also pointed out that historically states have had no jurisdiction of tribal lands as the federal government alone dealt with Indian issues.

"Now what we are seeing is tribal governments becoming more sophisticated and seeking greater roles forcing tribes to bump shoulders with the states."

Kanegis also called for the federal government to give money directly to tribes and criticized the practice of filtering federal money for tribes through the states.

On the issue of law enforcement, Kanegis thinks it is a fallacy to not give tribal police jurisdiction over lands. She points out that Indians suffer domestic violence at about twice the rate of the rest of the country, and that non-Indian offenders perpetrate 75 percent of the domestic abuse involving Indians.

Kanegis took a parting shot at the state of Rhode Island over recent incidents in that state that resulted in the governor calling in police to arrest tribal officials over tax revenues from a smoke shop. She compared it to Rhode Island going into Connecticut and arresting state leaders for not collecting Rhode Island tax.

San Manuel Chairman Marquez was the final speaker of the afternoon. He warned of the potential pratfalls that face tribes who readily sign Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) and Memorandums of Agreement (MOA) with states and local governments.

"When you enter into a MOU or a MOA (with local and state governments) you erode (tribal) sovereignty," said Marquez.

Marquez also took the opportunity to denounce a proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, to force tribes to comply with local regulations. Though Feinstein's proposal was done in response to a Northern California tribe, city leaders in San Bernardino, where San Manuel operates their casino, have begun to take interest in the proposal after fighting San Manuel to stop their casino.

The San Manuel casino butts up against the outskirts of San Bernardino and local officials and residents have tried to stop a planned expansion by the tribe. Marquez insists that the tribe had no other choice as to where to place the casino since most of the reservation is located on rugged terrain.

Marquez blamed the city for not adequately checking its own urban sprawl.

The panel members also pointed out that the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks inadvertently laid bare the urgency and importance of cooperation between tribes and states.

Since a significant portion of the national boundaries on both the north and south are Indian lands the panel members stressed the importance of having states work with tribal governments to adequately police these borders.