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Ross Swimmer examines government-to-government relations

TULSA, Okla. - The BIA has grown from a federal agency designed to keep Indian people in their place to a buffer between the tribes and a Congress which doesn't want to deal with Indian issues says former Assistant Secretary, Indian Affairs, Ross Swimmer.

Reflecting on his years in the hot seat in Washington, D.C., Swimmer says what is foremost is "a real wealth of experience in knowing how the federal government works."

Swimmer was head of the BIA when the Indian Gaming Act was passed, worked toward several tribal water rights claims in the West and increased revenue to tribes from their energy properties.

Once principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, Swimmer has been credited by many for tribal programs instituted during his tenure.

As the keynote speaker for the recent Oklahoma Native American Business Development Center awards dinner, Swimmer reminded his audience what the real function of the BIA was, what it is and what he believes it should be.

"It's really a federal agency," Swimmer said. "At one time it was the guardian, superintendent on the reservation. ... It was there to keep Indian people in their place. It wasn't a development agency and it certainly wasn't looked at as a friend to the tribes."

He stressed that the bureau has become a buffer between the tribes and Congress because Congress doesn't want to deal with Indian issues. For the most part, Swimmer said members don't understand the issues. With sparse Indian populations in the eastern part of the country, Swimmer said there hasn't been a real interaction with the Congress and tribes until Indian gaming came along.

He said he believes the tribes need to begin taking accountability and economic development seriously, but also need to take a real look at what is going on in other tribes throughout the country. Perceptions of non-Indians is changing, Swimmer reminded his audience, adding that what the non-Indian population is seeing, may in fact not be the reality.

"Tribes are scattered. They are remote,. so you have this myth east of the Mississippi about what Indians are. Except for the Seminole, Oneidas and Ottawa and a few other tribes, most of the tribes in the East are gone," he said. They were sent to Oklahoma. There really wasn't an interaction. But now, with the Pequot and those tribes that are all new to the federal scheme of tribal government, unfortunately the context in which they were created is gaming. So people look at the Pequot like they used to look at the Osage. They say 'Oh, these Indians are wealthy, they have millions of dollars.'

"Out West, where you have the Navajo Nation that controls a territory the size of West Virginia and they have 250,000 people living in the 19th century there, it just doesn't seem to be fitting together when you have this hundred or so tribes on the West Coast that have all become casinos.

"What are we doing here? What is this Indian country?

"If the Congress tomorrow, passed a law and said there will be no more gaming in Indian country, what would happen?" Swimmer asked. "You wouldn't have to worry about the Branch of Acknowledgment. It could go down to two people because nobody wants to be a tribe.

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"Have we sold our sovereignty for gaming? Are we trading our sovereignty for a casino?"

Swimmer said that when he looks at various tribes throughout the country living in abject poverty, he believes tribes gaining wealth from gaming enterprises should share the wealth with tribes who aren't getting gaming dollars.

"Why aren't we sharing?" he asked. "What would happen if we took a couple million dollars and put it into a multi-tribal fund and either buy private health care or take over the Indian Health Service? We don't have to sit here and rely on the federal government.

"We have these spots of wealth ... that is also a temporary thing. I didn't think it would last as long as it did."

Swimmer said he fears the huge infrastructures tribes have built from gaming wealth will easily break down, if gaming is the only source of economic development a tribe has. "If their income starts going down because of competition, the whole thing could collapse."

Swimmer looked back at the Tribal Villages and Corporations in Alaska, which were set up and failed because of a lack of economic development and heavy infrastructure.

"It was just another form of allotment. They had to get the land out of tribal ownership so they could build a pipeline. They didn't want to do a land allotment because there were so few Alaska Natives, so what they did was transfer land titles over to those 13 corporations and made everybody stockholders. The theory sounds good but the way it was done was very poor. As a result several of those corporations went under."

Swimmer spoke of the contract initiated in the late 1980s for trust fund responsibility, saying it may not have been the best idea when it came to the handling the trust.

"The contract was to do two things. One was the accounting of the trust funds and bringing it up to date. The other was the accountability, so when money came into the fund, it could be kept in individual accounts and properly accounted for.

"But, what is the trust, should it be turned over to them? What control should we be exercising? These are issues that even today haven't been decided. It varies from region to region."

With millions at stake, Swimmer said he had little doubt there was still collusion on and near reservations as "businessmen" try to stay close in case the trust is distributed. He sees the option of turning the trust over to individuals as dangerous as the failed corporations in Alaska were. Yet he said he fears the BIA isn't equipped to handle a successful turn over of the funds to the tribes.

"It would take a lot of hand holding and a lot of instruction, and the government doesn't do a good job of that."

With the complexity of issues in Indian country, Swimmer said he can only advise Indian businessmen and tribal leaders to remember that the BIA is not a voice in Washington for them, it is a federal agency.