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Schwarzenegger and the battle over hearts and minds

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It was about a week before the recall election, which would propel him onto the helm of the world's seventh largest economy, that Arnold Schwarzenegger caught a good idea out of the air on how to propose a potential deal to the California tribes. His campaign - which attacked the tribal gaming sector savagely in television commercials - was nevertheless able to grasp that their governor will work better with the tribes on a win-win equation than with strong-arm tactics and bone-headed threats.

Schwarzenegger, because he is smarter than the right-wing talk radio hosts, perhaps can now consider, in the calm after the fray, that Indian tribes could be among his most prominent allies; and that he could do a great American thing if he would approach the tribes with due diligence and respect, with a forward-thinking, positive, solution-oriented attitude.

What's the win-win? Here is one: Tribal casinos are now capped at 2,000 slot machines. Some of the Indian markets could significantly expand their share, and most could do at least twice their present business if the cap were lifted. The state's revenues would increase correspondingly.

This seems a perfect place to join forces. We say to Schwarzenegger: Let the Native peoples, the tribal bases of California grow, let them thrive, as they deserve to, because they gave so much, because they gave the ultimate, the ground of Mother Earth that California sits on. The California tribes, as partners, will be worth much more to the rebuilding of California's ailing economy than as enemies to be throttled and squeezed. The California tribes and how they handle their business and their nation-building duties are a harbinger for the rest of Indian country. The values and intelligence applied to their fight will have repercussions beyond their state.

Indian governments in California - all tribes nationally, all the time - need to sustain and enhance their continuous outreach to the American public. The tribes engaged in the recall campaigns took a deeply unfair beating from a shallow and misinformed press. Chris Matthews, mouth agape, as if this was becoming great sport, said Oct. 7 about Schwarzenegger: "and he is going after the Indian casinos!"

We expect Arnold the governor will be wiser, more considered, than Arnold the candidate, and certainly than the effervescent Chris Matthews. But he must be educated, as all politicians should, as to the best ways and under what common bases to deal with the tribes. It is after all, a cyclical responsibility of American Indians to educate each new successive wave of American politicians who know next to nothing about them. So it is that an immigrant from Austria can exploit one of America's most insidious instincts by calling a cavalry charge down upon the original inhabitants of his beloved California.

The tribes' public perception and public messaging machinery needs to continue to build crescendo. California's tribes should not let up during the present time or during any lull. Reconnoiter, rewind and keep pitching balls like a batting machine. From where we are sitting, the lull time is the best time to reach the public. There is less competition for the mind and heart of your identified constituency and a more in-depth, connective message for empathy building can be extended. Tribal bonds with other sectors in society must grow wide on the main and yet mundane identifications that all human beings share: family, stability, values, community, and security.

The tribes have leadership, elders and children and their professional and working population from which to draw core talent. The tribes have their range of team-members at their tribal governments and enterprises and via tribal peoples' relations with the variety of cultures. The tribes have a large and varied customer base. This clientele should be worked with substantially, generously and with high quality, to gain a sense of belonging and identification as well a grasp of tribal histories and especially of today's dreams and aspirations as peoples and communities.

Indian country is changing, and so is its image. Gaming as practiced by the tribes is as clean as it gets - and we will defend that statement - but casinos are nonetheless an easily assailable way of making a living. Moralists have a field day diminishing tribes for it and shallow media assumes the worst about it with almost no coverage of the role of gaming in community building in Indian country or its great utility as business activity rotors in economically depressed and stagnant regions of the country.

Supporting informed politicians and making alliances across the political spectrum is crucial for tribes. Deploying teams of the best lawyers in the country to defend tribal sovereign and other positions in the courts - very important. But projecting positive and popular imaging and establishing winning positions and relations with the general public of the state and the country is at least equally imperative.

The battle over the hearts and minds of the American public in the final analysis is the most definitive field of action for the tribes in the next few years.