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Russell: Political theory according to Tonto

In that famous joke, the Lone Ranger said “Tonto, we are surrounded by hostile injuns. We’ve come to the end of the line, old friend.”

“Ugh,” replied Tonto, “what you mean we?”

Tribalism tells us who is friend and who is not. The myth of tribalism gives us too many governments that assume Indians are fundamentally different from other human beings, that we are by nature a race without greed.

There is much contemporary evidence telling us Indians can be as greedy as the colonists and not at all hesitant to steal from other Indians. Remember the Jack Abramoff scandal, where the former King of K Street took in great sums of money from tribes who wished to keep other tribes out of their casino turf.

There are a number of instances where extant tribal governments are opposing federal acknowledgment of other tribes on no theory beyond not having thinner slices of the federal pie or the tribal vice market, casinos and smokeshops.

I’m the last person to oppose vice, having plenty of my own, but the vice market is bound to be temporary. Market saturation, state competition or (least likely) improving habits are bound to at least shrink the ability of Indians to offer what states cannot, or offer it cheaper. The possible exception is storage of nuclear waste, where the competition normally runs in the opposite direction – but what’s the future in that?

I’m the last person to oppose vice, having plenty of my own, but the vice market is bound to be temporary.

The legal advantage tribes have is that state civil regulations do not normally extend to tribal land. This is the general rule that created the great casino rush, but surely there are places besides casino gambling where state regulation is based on prejudice rather than common sense?

In Texas, the practice of denturists – technicians who make appliances for your mouth when you have many missing teeth – has been banned when the denturist does not work under the supervision of a dentist. This has nothing to do with public health or safety. It’s all about the political punch the dentists have in the legislature. Other states get along fine with technicians making false teeth and charging less than dentists.

For a brief period of time, the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe regulated the practice of denturists with a tribal ordinance that enabled an individual practicing on the reservation to offer a significant cost savings over the dental monopoly off the reservation. Unfortunately, since there was only one person offering this service, the economics of litigating with the state of Texas just did not make sense for the tribe, even though it seems obvious that the tribe was correct.

More tribal governments need to think outside of all state regulatory boxes, not just the narrow one that contains gambling. Indeed, playing in the gambling field has been terribly complicated to the disadvantage of tribes by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. One of the great challenges facing those of us who teach policy is to explain that IGRA did not confer upon tribal governments the opportunity to enter casino gambling. In fact, IGRA was passed for the purpose of cutting states in on the action, as a limitation on tribes rather than an expansion of tribal authority.

Count on it that whenever a tribe discovers a chink in state regulations that can be exploited to our economic benefit, the states will be all over Congress to kill our new buffalo. It’s the lot of creative Indians, since we represent less than one percent of the population, we are seldom allowed to eat what we kill for any period of time. All the more reason that when we saddle up for the Indian wars, we need to remain clear in our own minds that the shape of an Indian firing squad cannot be circular.

When we saddle up for the Indian wars, we need to remain clear in our own minds that the shape of an Indian firing squad cannot be circular.

Tecumseh, Pontiac, Dragging Canoe – you could make a long list of historical personages whose primary contribution to American Indian political thought was the realization that all Indians have a target on their backs and will until we have been separated from every last acre of land and all the resources tied to that land.

Others not known in the history books for theory had a line on the same practice. The war for the Southern Plains was made a serious fight by an alliance of Kiowa and Comanche, just as the Northern Plains were vigorously contested not just by Lakota-Dakota-Nakota, but also by Arapaho and Cheyenne.

The abortive attempt to create the state of Sequoyah was driven by all of the Five Tribes with a lot of support from Indian citizens of other tribes to boot.

It’s easy to see in the historical rear view mirror that we put up the best fights, military and political, when we stood together. Why, then, is it so difficult to see that we need to stand together in the here and now? Do we seriously believe the Indian wars have ended with tribes still in possession of significant property?

When the documents underlying the Abramoff scandal became public, I was not shocked to learn that K Street lobbyists discussed their Indian clients in terms both racist and disrespectful of their intelligence. I have lobbied for Indians and I know where we stand in halls of the Texas Legislature, so hearing of similar stuff in D.C. was no shock.

What does shock me is this: All these years later, tribal leaders who shoveled so much money to the K Street racists to harm other tribes have paid no political price. Elections have come and gone, and the people who showed industrial strength and moral bankruptcy retain power, often without even apologizing. Their only mistake, it would appear, was hiring dishonest hit men instead of honest ones. Am I drawing too much from our history to suggest the problem was putting out a hit on other Indians rather than the identity of the hit men?

It’s easy to see in the historical rear view mirror that we put up the best fights, military and political, when we stood together.

Another lesson from the Abramoff fiasco is something I’ve always thought should be basic to tribal contracting. The customary Indian hiring preference in contracts with tribes is not enough. Every time tribal governments hire out work to be done because there are no tribal citizens capable of doing the work, the contract should require internships for our students or apprenticeships for our would-be technicians. To be filled from other tribes if our tribe has too few students or apprentices. This would include the practice of lobbying.

With Indian student interns on the lobbying team, not only would the clients not be referred to as monkeys or Tontos, somebody would have been present, should the other tribe be about to gain an advantage, to play the part of Tonto in that famous joke and say “What do you mean we?”

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and an associate professor of criminal justice at Indiana University. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today. He lives in Bloomington and can be reached at swrussel@indiana.edu.