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Putting Indian realities in context for the media

The task of breaking American Indian stereotypes, dispelling myths and
putting tribal issues into context falls on the media, the public's primary
source of information. If the press doesn't understand us, the public will
never get past the stereotypical ignorance that has plagued Indians from
the day the first European arrived.

Tribal leaders have an obligation to do what they can to educate both the
public and the media. No less than the future of American democracy is at
stake, along with a rare chance to alter generations of failed relations
between Indians and non-Indians.

The media can help free non-Indians of the residual ethnocentricity and
racism buried in the dark recesses of history and myth. They also can help
free America's original people from the lethal grip of despair and
generational cycle of dysfunction that result from being viewed as
disposable icons, defined to fit the designs of others.

The perception of American Indians is framed not by the thousands of years
we lived on the North American continent, but by our short, largely
confrontational relationship with European immigrants. Our culture and long
history in this country has been ignored. Instead, we have been
characterized by conflicting and changing public attitudes ranging from
"the only good Indian is a dead Indian" to the romanticized "noble savage,"
keepers of the lost innocence of the Garden of Eden.

In the past, we were treated as obstacles to Manifest Destiny, anachronisms
with no place in the emerging country. That belief led to exploitation,
war, genocide and exile from our ancestral land and culture. The view of
indigenous people as expendable and obsolete remains in the nation's
conscience.

The victors not only get the spoils of war, but they get to write the
history. The unexamined portrayal of American Indians and this country's
history needs to be debunked and exposed because the self-serving
rationalizations of the past are still robbing generations of American
Indians of our lives and future. It also dishonors America's ethical claim
as a culturally diverse democracy.

Elders told me some time ago that they wanted me to be chairman. In doing
so, they charged me with finding an economic base for our tribe so we could
become self-reliant and once again control our destiny. They sought the
means to generate income for our government and jobs for our people.

My people wanted to meet our governmental responsibilities to our community
and land, as our ancestors had done. They wanted to finally exercise the
retained sovereignty promised us in treaties, the U.S. Constitution and
legal precedent.

Governments cannot function without funds. And a strong government and
resources are necessary to instill Native pride and secure a share in the
American dream. The elders knew that our people must have an investment and
voice in our future.

It was also a matter of survival.

Viejas elders wanted our tribe to stand on its own two feet, free of the
federal government's crippling policies that kept us in perpetual poverty
and dependency. They saw the social and cultural dysfunction and
hopelessness that resulted from being at the mercy and political whims of
states and the federal government.

Between dependency on other governments and benign neglect, Indian people
were not just starving from a cultural and economic standpoint - we were
also slowly committing social suicide.

We were poor. And we were hungry: not just for resources to feed our
families, but for justice.

My mission to find an economic base didn't challenge me as much as the
realization that part of my job description as chairman would be to
interact with the media. Indians don't like to talk to the media; it's a
trust issue that goes back more years than I can count. Whoever speaks to
the media usually takes political heat from the tribe. And then I
discovered the idea of context.

Most people criticized because of a quoted remark in a newspaper or
magazine give the same excuse: "I was quoted out of context." I decided the
idea of context was something I should keep in mind for future reference.

Context is important in the media.

Gaming and our newfound government revenues gives us a real chance to once
again exercise our sovereignty. Yet my heart worries that for every inch we
give, others will take a mile and more. Such has been the lessons of our
past, a tortured history that is difficult for American Indians to forget.

Our success creates conflicts with other governments and competition in the
marketplace. Our success upsets the status quo, whether political or
economic. We are forced to play politics to protect our interests. This,
too, is new to us. As those in the press know better than anyone, politics
on the national and state level is at best a minefield, where even the most
experienced players get tripped up.

So, to put things into context, sovereignty at this point in time is an
evolving process. It's a learning experience for Indians and non-Indians
alike. All previous federal policies that attempted to exterminate,
assimilate, coerce or patronize Indians failed. Even the best-intentioned
policies of providing for Indians failed. We do best, like all people, when
we are the caretakers of our own destiny.

Harvard University research has shown that Indians have the solutions to
the endemic problems of poverty that federal oversight was never able to
resolve. Strong Indian governments - governments that take their self-rule
seriously and responsibly - produce the most functional and long-lasting
economic development.

The success of our businesses depends on our sovereignty and how well we
exercise it. And educating people about sovereignty is important because
our future will be determined in the court of public opinion.

Our ancestors demand better of us. They were survivors who paid a great
price that we might one day have the means to once again prevail as a
people. We owe them the opportunity they never had: to prove that we are
capable and viable governments, ready and willing to contribute to this
land we share and love.

If we fail to grasp this opportunity to exercise our sovereignty, we
forfeit the future of our children and their rightful place in America.

Constitutional scholar Felix Cohen once said, "Like the miners' canary, the
Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison gas in our political
atmosphere and our treatment of Indians ... reflects the rise and fall in
our democratic faith."

Indeed, the integrity of America and democracy is once again being tested.
And the test will be to see if this great experiment in freedom and equal
opportunity finally applies to American Indians.

Anthony R. Pico is Chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians.