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Southern California sojourn amid 'islands of freedom'

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Indian tribes in Southern California played in the big leagues again this past month and took their share of criticism, some of it quite unfair, in the process.

The tribes here are politically savvy and are active once again having an impact on the politics and economics of their beloved ancient homelands. A few years ago they showed considerable political and economic muscle by successfully delivering at the polls a major constitutional amendment for the state of California.

This was more than some would-be patriot super-rich politicians could countenance. Republican Governor Pete Wilson went to war directly with the tribes, who beat him in the courts and in the public arena.

This round the tribes are feeling a d?j? vu called Wilson-a-la-Schwarzenegger, with major tribes here in Southern California responding to the democracy-busting "recall" by hedging behind a long-time friend among politicians: Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, who was sustaining a slight lead in the polls one month before the balloting, which is now postponed. With the fate of California hanging in the balance, many founts of money were tapped - including monumental personal fortunes - for contributions to the hectic and many-sided campaigns going on. But, make note of this, only the Indian contributions have been viciously slandered as "sleazy," "clouded," and attacked with other aspersions as to the character of the leadership and governmental councils of the tribes in question. It is very frustrating and indicative of the old Wilson machinery behind Schwarzenegger, since the credentialed conservative candidate, State Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, is a noted supporter of Indian economic enterprise and calls reservations, "islands of freedom," from federal and state intervention.

Indian Country Today senior editors visited among the contested tribes last week, in dialogue with chairs and council members from five different tribal nations; Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, Temecula Band of Luiseno Mission Indians, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Morongo Band of Mission Indians, and San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. We thank them all for their warm receptions and informative conversation.

We've written here about the importance of a development that sees real coalescing occur between distinct sets of people who may realize they have interests and even histories in common. Entities that can do that and work together are the ones that can influence political change as a result. The California story presently unfolds and reveals a deep friendship and long-term relations between the Native tribal citizens and the Chicano-Latino population. This was born of a common history and also results from a highly sophisticated strategy that draws upon shared aspirations.

The leadership of all five Indian governments clearly understood the need for continued good relations with other ethnic groups. Using the potentials of tribal community self-government, and as some of California's major employers, these leaders have seized upon the gaming opportunity and have now reoccupied a position of importance and serious relevance throughout the state.

In American life, if anything, American Indian tribal gaming operations and corporate design should be seen as a great balancing and fair development. While not nearly enough tribes are benefiting from the capital base generated from gaming, nevertheless, gaming is developing an important capital base that will yet prove to be a relevant underwriter of Indian community survival, renewal and prosperity deep into the 21st century.

Attacked as "sleazy" for simply supporting candidates who respond to their concerns, nevertheless, all these tribal leaders are compelled to run their corporations for the purpose of nation building - to provide ample tribal government services to their members and ensure tribal self-sufficiency based on tribal sovereignty and tribal values as distinct American Indian peoples. In a running dialogue with this proactive leadership, these kinds of serious issues and concerns were presented:

oIndian country carries its own definition, sometimes hard for the public to understand, but one that is no less honest and in fact by and large carries the torch on honesty brighter than most municipalities or states in the Union. As the insults from flamboyant talk show hosts and even some magazine editors pile up against Indian governments, we need to introduce to the larger public the wisdom and fine ways of our Indian elders and the most cultured among our people. We need to take to task those who insult our leaders and elders and who misinform the public at large about our peoples and our communities. We need to expose the misinformation with facts, with good education and with dignified discourse, culture and bearing. This from Morongo Chairman Maurice Lyons: "Every wrong fact told about us must be answered. Every twisted lie must be straightened out."

oAs our tribes regain lost assets and our peoples improve their abilities to manage and regulate profitable enterprises, will we lose our values? Will we sustain our wish to help the people and maintain a human touch and approach to our governments and all our institutions? This we heard from Viejas Chairman Anthony Pico: "This goes for all our tribal people and also for those who work for our enterprises, the team members, they also are part of us, they influence us and we influence them. We have to get it completely right with the larger society as well as with ourselves."

oAt Agua Caliente, as he showed us construction on their new casino expansion in downtown Palm Springs, desert oasis to California's rich and famous, Chairman Richard Milanovich, Cahuilla leader and elder, cautioned other tribal leaders around the country on the need for responsibility so as to not abuse the substantial and yet fragile cloth of sovereignty that underlies the tribal right of self-government. "Sovereignty brings grave responsibilities," he said. "We have to always act responsibly."

oEvery one of the tribes opened up wide to the question of regulation. At Pechanga, we toured the casino with Norman Pico Sr., chairman of the 42-staff Pechanga Gaming Commission, which is totally autonomous from the tribal council and is elected directly by the tribe's membership and empowered to shut down the casino at the first sign of serious irregularity. Pechanga's elaborate checks and balances throughout their operational system deserves to be on 60 Minutes, it so belies the illusion of "sleaze" put forth by some media.

At Morongo as well, Chairman Lyons and others showed us the many layers and overlapping supervisions, which were explained in great detail by some very serious regulators, notably retired ex-lawmen. Worthy of good and positive scrutiny, these tribal regulatory systems invite accountability and boast of the impossibility of infiltration by organized crime, or of systemic internal corruption. The various tribal watchdogs would not allow it because of the clear danger it poses to tribal renewal. All leaders say it: "We do not tolerate corruption in our system." Again, this is a major untold story in those newspapers, journals and programs that easily dismiss Native gaming as "moral decay" instead of seeing it for what it has become - a proper and quite positive build-up of financial bases for tribal self-preservation, prosperity and growth.

As always, the most central question revolves around the prospects for tribal unity - internal and intertribal across the country - to pool support for state-wide and national initiatives that propel forward the momentum for the burgeoning Indian economic revival. Led by a growing but limited number of tribes, the capitalization of Indian country, via tribal and entrepreneurial funds, fuels increased business opportunities.

And it is only beginning. As well capitalized as the California and various eastern tribes have become in just this past decade, they in fact will handle that much more resources in the coming years and stand, when well managed, to grow much larger and powerful in just over the coming decade.

As this second gaming decade begins, Indian country capital needs to extend, in creative and helpful ways, to the struggling tribes and their various efforts at self-reliance and empowerment in those places where gaming is not a good option. The gaming tribes are, primarily, positioning themselves for the future through business developments seeking to gain minimum returns of 15 percent to 35 percent on investment. Deron Marquez, chairman at San Manuel, spoke of his nation's commitment to becoming economically self-sufficient by the year 2020, without majority reliance on gaming. This emphasis on diversification seeks not only to achieve a future for the seventh generation, but for the next generation. The commitment also grows to the "buy-Indian" campaign led by some of the tribes. Whenever pragmatic, possible and profitable, they all asserted, they would help those tribes with difficult business geographies and climates, which nonetheless have the political stability and human resources to sustain ancillary business ventures.

In addition, tribal and family philanthropy, as sustained commitment to the traditional Indian values of generosity, was also much discussed. Increasingly tribes are recognizing the value added when donation committees are formalized into national Indian foundations. The formalization process is helping them to focus their giving guidelines while empowering them to contemplate good works while sitting at the same table with the Gates, Rockefellers, Fords, MacArthurs, Kelloggs, and Lannans of the world. Additionally, California has a special fund thus designated, into which the gaming tribes contribute good budgets to the non-gaming tribes. As always with California, which gave us the 1969 Alcatraz occupation, this help-each-other policy will hopefully be a harbinger for Indian nations nationally. "No tribe left behind," emphasized an Indian Country Today editorial last year.

In California, the tribes have proven a formidable political block. In coalition with Chicano-Latino interests and other aspiring communities, connecting community to community, gathered by leaders who transcend numbers with clear vision and competitive acumen and economic reach, they have made history by holding fast to their Indian identities during several defining moments, and are currently in the thick of national currents. Winning their state-wide Proposition 5, they garnered 65-plus percent of California votes. Now, they are main players as California convolutes through recall fever (as of this writing postponed by the 9th Circuit Court).

Even the most mutually antagonistic tribes have the need to feel common cause when it comes to defending sovereign self-government vis-?-vis counties, states and federal entities. Indian Country Today salutes Southern California Indian leadership as it readies the field for serious tribal emergence into mainstream heartland discourse and concurrent politics.