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Remembering Proposition Five as an act of self-determination

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Some moments of history are too good to forget. They need to be savored and studied and understood. This happens to a degree with old history. Dozens of books have been written, for example, detailing every minute and every perspective of the Battle of Little Big Horn and of the massacre at Wounded Knee. However, recent history, certainly within the past 20 years or so, is often ignored. Happenings of great importance to the contemporary reality are thus obscured by time and discarded into uselessness.

Such could happen to the 1998 California referendum initiative, Proposition 5, which successfully forced California to meet its obligations and negotiate fairly with the state's Indian tribes for their gaming compacts. The California Proposition 5 initiative was probably the single most substantial victory ever engineered by a coalition of Native nations.

Even though the referendum was later voided by a decision of the California Supreme Court, the political momentum of the tribes' public win in a statewide election carried the issue to a successful breakthrough.

California tribes had been held back and largely ignored by then governor Pete Wilson, Republican, who stalled negotiations over gaming compacts with the state's tribes for several years. Instead, Gov. Wilson had engineered negotiations with non-gaming tribes, attempting to end-run the majority of the state's Native nations. The governor's obfuscation forced Indian strategists to analyze the pros and cons of going to the public with their issue.

The tribal leadership decided to explore fully what their chances were of scoring a major victory with California voters in the face of very well funded opposition. Putting up a public referendum, they found out, was risky indeed. First off, they had a formidable array of strange-bedfellow enemies. Not only was the governor against them, the racing industry and card clubs, the religious right and other anti-gambling organizations, and, most importantly, the Nevada gaming conglomerates were investing heavily against successful Indian gaming in California. The tribes were also starting with low positive public support for Native gaming. All presented serious obstacles.

However, the initiative challenge, issued by then Morongo Mission Band chairwoman Mary Ann Martin Andreas and chaired by Ken Ramirez, San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, achieved an overwhelming victory. How it did this is worth reviewing.

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One, it rallied the tribes, initially gathering 30 and ultimately 88 tribes into the campaign. Unity was key to be able to convince voters that most Indians (96 percent of reservation residents, the campaign could claim) were in favor. The tribes made sure they were right, then put up the needed resources to do the job. Over $100 million was spent overall on the proposition.

Two, the tribes scientifically gathered the needed information; they did their research on voter opinion. They found out that there was marginal public interest but not opposition to gaming per se. However, there was considerable voter sympathy for Indians doing what was needed on their own reservations.

Three, the tribes designed the proper approach. Worthy of great note: they picked the right enemy, focusing their case on the most assailable opposition, the Nevada gaming conglomerates. According to Richard Maullin, a Democratic pollster and consultant who has analyzed the initiative, this move alone gave the tribes an early defense against potential negative messages. It fixed in voters' minds a clearly identifiable but very un-simpatico opposition.

Four, the tribal initiative put forth the best position by framing the issue as one of Indian nation-building and self-reliance, with a strong dosage of the American ethic of self-determination. To accomplish this, they put forth their best voice, Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians. Flanked by elders and other reasonable, likeable Indian people, Macarro projected wonderfully with compellingly reasonable but emotional approach. Macarro became a well-accepted spokesperson, recognized statewide.

Five, the tribes prepared a smart and quick-response campaign, ready to counter-attack the opposition's ads within 48 hours. Whether to respond or to ignore the opposition's attack needs pondering. There are for and against reasons for each. In the California initiative, they felt it was necessary. But these were presented almost always in the form of positive testimonials from tribal members and others telling their stories of how the gaming initiatives had improved their lives. The tribal initiative conducted much direct work with journalists, editorial boards and public figures.

Many predicted the campaign's defeat but because of clear goals, excellent strategy and smart tactics, it won a resounding victory of 67 percent to 37 percent. It was a great moment in American Indian public engagement.

The way of this 1998 victory - others come to mind as well, such as the defeat of Indian sovereignty archenemy Slade Gorton in 2000 - merits study and reflection by Native leaders everywhere. A concise and pertinent article by political consultant Richard Maullin (Campaigns and Elections, February, 1999) recounts the successful tribally run campaign. The topic would make a great Masters or Ph.D. thesis for public policy and communications students. When we find our points of unity and put jealousies and egos aside, Indian people can do wonders. When we believe in ourselves and work hard together we can change the world.