It’s but a six-letter word, yet when used it’s almost guaranteed to ignite a wildfire of controversy. That word is racism. While there’s never a good excuse for racist actions or attitudes by anyone, racism takes a particularly ugly turn when used to challenge inherent Indian sovereignty.
Next election day in Rhode Island, voters there are scheduled to vote on an amendment to the state constitution which would allow the Narragansett Indian Tribe, along with partner Harrah’s Entertainment, to build a Class III casino in West Warwick. Not so fast, says Donald Trump.
The Associated Press reported that Ajax Gaming Ventures, a Trump-owned company, filed a federal lawsuit in Rhode Island on July 21. The suit, to which the town of Johnston is also a plaintiff, alleges that the proposed amendment “violates a provision in the U.S. Constitution requiring state governments to give all people equal protection under the law,” the AP said.
Trump’s lawyers, AP continued, claim unconstitutionality because casino gaming rights would be given to only one community – West Warwick – and “a single racial group, the Narragansett Indian Tribe, to the exclusion of all others” [Emphasis author’s.] Looks like Trump is playing the race card.
Now how ridiculous is this? It is impossible to dispute the fact that the American federal and state governments have rarely offered Native governments and peoples “equal protection under the law.” The Cobell v. Kempthorne trust case and the Supreme Court’s City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York decision are but two current examples of how indigenous peoples are still getting less than “equal protection under the law.” Yet a billionaire whines that he is being denied equal protection because of being left out of an exclusivity arrangement? Absurd.
Even more egregious is the claim that gaming rights are being awarded to “a single racial group to the exclusion of all others.” The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act has nothing to do with race; IGRA simply legitimized the right of recognized tribal governments to conduct gaming on Native land. This right stems from American Indian sovereignty, not racial preference; to suggest otherwise is offensive.
Because Trump has long sought a toehold in the Indian gaming arena, we’d have thought he had already read the text of IGRA. It’s high time he did.
<b>Individuals as sovereigns</b>
Unfortunately, there are many others out there who see the race card as a viable strategy to get what they want. One is Donald Cieri of Oneida, N.Y., who apparently believes that he, as an individual, has the same degree of sovereignty as a federally recognized Indian nation.
On July 25, the Oneida Daily Dispatch newspaper reported that Cieri, who owns a building that fails to comply with city of Oneida ordinances, has legally maneuvered to avoid prosecution by forcing the city into arbitration. Cieri argues that because the Oneida Indian Nation earlier this year agreed to settle disputes over its properties within the city through arbitration, he should have that same right. [Indian Country Today is owned by a business enterprise of the OIN.]
Cieri states that the city-nation agreement, which includes tax payments by the nation and which is meant to ease long-standing disputes over jurisdiction, effectively amended the city charter. Then he told this whopper to the Daily Dispatch: “It’s based entirely on race because it’s not available to any non-Native Americans in the city of Oneida, which we contend is a clear violation of not only due process of law, but also equal protection of law.”
This statement raises the question: How long has Mr. Cieri been a sovereign government?
<b>Distorting a distortion</b>
Despite what Cieri and his lawyer think the 2005 Sherrill decision said, the Supreme Court did not in any way de-legitimize the inherent sovereignty of the OIN. What it did do, incorrectly in the opinions of many knowledgeable scholars of Indian law, was overturn decades of precedent by citing the so-called doctrine of discovery and little else of any substance.
In ruling against the OIN in the Sherrill decision, the Supreme Court distorted reality to avoid opening a potential can of worms – giving Indian nations a way to reclaim stolen lands. But the real danger of Sherrill is here – it gives people like Cieri and Trump a foundation, albeit a very shaky one, upon which to build convoluted arguments about racial inequality. What makes this trend even more offensive is the fact that no group of people has suffered and lost so much at the hands of our federal and state governments as have American Indians.
Since Sherrill, anti-Indian voices have crowed loud and long against the OIN’s application for a BIA land-trust. Even though Sherrill explicitly says that tribes should make such applications to preserve sovereignty over their lands, the anti-Indian crowd somehow concludes otherwise – they claim Sherrill doesn’t allow such applications, thus distorting a distortion to serve their own interests.
Now, we’re seeing another second-generation distortion emerge – those like Trump and Cieri who distort inherent Indian sovereignty into racial preference. No court should accept their twisted arguments. Yet given the faulty logic in Sherrill, who can predict what any court will do with a case involving Indian sovereignty?