It behooves all well-meaning politicians to be fair in their assessments of situations concerning their constituents. In eastern states where Native peoples have made economic strides based on inherent sovereign rights, it is sometimes all too easy ? in the name of politics ? to assume an anti-Indian stance.
Certainly, local and county leaders in areas affected by Indian land claims often push that position to virulence, casting aside all possibility of productive negotiation, among all parties, that could lead to lasting and fruitful collaborations.
All assertions of historical and political rights, particularly in cases involving Indian land claims, cause friction. While it is true that two wrongs don't make a right, a degree of pain is always involved. Sometimes, innocent people are caught in the fray. Sides harden into conflict. Resolutions that will be truly fair and magnanimous become increasingly difficult to find.
Recently, Sen. Charles Schumer D-N.Y., on a visit to Oneida country, assumed a stance that left New York's Indian leadership wondering if senior political voices in New York state will ever again weigh in on the side of reason.
The senator appeared to side heavily with the most virulent anti-Indian positions, addressing local economic and political questions involving the Indian nations harshly, without ever consulting with his constituents on the Indian side of these same questions.
Without doubt, this is one prerogative for the senator, but it is not the only one and certainly not the one most needed. The senator, we believe, could play a much more helpful role, one that could help usher in a new, much more constructive discourse for the region.
In Central New York, issues involving the Oneida Nation, including both a delicate land claim and a hugely successful economic venture, have been undeniably controversial. In a move that everyone has come to agree increased the pain without adding to resolution, neighboring homeowners living within the Oneida Nation's land claim area were named in the lawsuit for land recovery. The result of dynamic, strategic pressures led by the federal lawyers, over time everyone has recognized that this was not a good path to take. As it now stands, that avenue for addressing historical wrongs is not likely to be resurrected.
Sen. Schumer is rightfully concerned with that issue and has weighed in on the side of lifting the cloud of uncertainty over titles to private property that such a strategy requires. However, the economic issues involving well-established and intricate questions of tribal sovereignty, freedom from taxation and other avenues for tribal economic recoveries available relative to U.S. law, deserve much more serious contemplation.
On the economic issues now before the Indian nations within New York and local counties and townships, Sen. Schumer could benefit from a more thorough dialogue. His approach might be more encompassing and his considerable influence might be put to enhancing the possibility for scenarios that provide both the Indian nations and the other players in the region with a viable and reconciled future.
Although the heated rhetoric of local politicians often obfuscates this reality, Indian nations in the throes of economic recovery are not without friends and allies. For instance, in the Oneida example, its tribal enterprises employ some 3,000 Central New Yorkers. All nation employees, more than 80 percent non-Native, use local and regional services, pay federal and state income taxes and local property and sales taxes and constitute a tremendous economic force over several counties ? having a discernable regional economic impact created by jobs that otherwise simply would not exist.
Most of them, along with other family members, vote in local and national elections. The next time Sen. Schumer travels to Central New York he might consider visiting with some of those of his constituents.
While critics often describe American Indian nations' economic recoveries in very negative terms, this is not at all true of the many people who have found employment, including many long-standing professional careers, and have raised families fruitfully in the region over the past decade.
Some of the same critics severely and regularly attack Indian nations for adhering to federal legal frameworks relative to taxation and other rights based on inherent tribal sovereignty. But they also refuse to consider the various contributions that these Indian nations have offered to offset perceived losses proclaimed by local counties, townships and school districts.
This sector's closed-mindedness is highly unproductive and it involves considerable political posturing based on arousing passions without any positive intentions. It borders on irrationality and clearly feeds a small but persistent number of hard-core, bigoted groups that have organized around an anti-Indian stance so spiteful as to generate threats of assassination and bombings against Indians.
Sen. Schumer characterized his recent stance as 'opposing Indian tribes,' which he admits is not a popular thing 'in Washington.' But the senator needn't lock himself into such a position. There is no need of strict pro-or-anti limitations for leadership that wants to do the right thing to help all their constituents.
While conflict inevitably does arise over assertions of tribal powers and authorities, the hostilities signaled now in Central New York are increasingly artificial. What is needed is a broad-minded and statesmanlike approach that can envision ways to break the current painful impasse while building bridges of understanding between the land's first peoples and governments and its more recent non-Native peoples and governments.
We hope Sen. Schumer will help lead such an approach by example and set forth a more diplomatic tone. The rebuilding of Indian nations by Indian peoples is not a whim. It grows from a deliberate and long-standing desire to restore through practical economic, social, legal and political means their rightful position as self-governed peoples who can do for themselves what hundreds of years of snarled federal and state policies have failed to do.
But it can be a positive process for all; it can and does provide an economic stimulus from which local townships, counties and even the state clearly benefit.
There are some very good reasons why in Washington learned and distinguished elder statesmen contemplate American Indian relations deeply and why they approach American Indian peoples with respect, dignity and honor. In the full context of history and on balance they know that Indian sovereignty is good for America.