Stand up for your rights

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Indian leaders and Indian people everywhere: stand up for your rights! Several states now (and given time, all states) are moving to squeeze the Native tribal bases for all they are worth. In this objective, states are joined by all manner of non-native businesses and other economic and governmental forces who are competitive with Indian enterprises and who would see the original Indian share of America's wealth once again reduced, eroded and preferably destroyed.

Indian people, all leadership - old and young - need to know that the fight being joined right now will set the tone of Indian rights and Indian life for the century ahead. We call on all articulate, dedicated and intelligent Native people and their supporters to become educated on Native issues, particularly on those fundamental principles that uphold our status as tribes and nations of indigenous American people with long-standing status in the United States. Be ready to write, speak and advocate, be ready to argue on and act on behalf of your rights.

After more than 30 years of intensified struggle, American Indians are starting to get some recovery for their long-lost real properties. The now aging generation set the conditions for self-sufficient communities served by self-determined governments. It is the new generation's duty to solidify those gains and to turn such opportunities into a recovery movement that will last for a century.

The main enemies of Native sovereign jurisdictions are the states, which - as seen lately with but certainly not limited to, New York and California - are increasingly in the red. Serious budget shortfalls are hitting everywhere. America's spending spree over security, including two wars with two occupying armies, jingoistic international boycotts and even the much-touted tax cuts have failed, so far, to stimulate a sluggish economy. This is the continuing reality. Growing unease about lack of accountability, in both business and government, is further eroding economic traction.

The economic situation is serious and could be quite traumatic for the American mainstream population. Cutbacks in services and in federal programs are still forthcoming under the current scenario, which is as scary as it is apparent. For Indian peoples, whether in urban areas or reservations, the impact is devastating.

What happens in response is predictable: suddenly governors and legislatures focus on Indian enterprise revenues, seeking to resolve their state problems by grasping for the contemporary Indian economic possessions. For tribes in New York and California particularly, the hunger of unmet state budgets is ravenous.

In New York, the Haudenosaunee nations have several legally standing and active land claims against the state, so Governor Pataki has opted to bargain off some choice sites in the Catskills region, where gaming enterprise has much promise. This is the dangling carrot, a fat one to be sure, with the potential for great development. But we hope not one so fat that it will disallow the tribal base from strong sovereign stands at other levels.

There are many forces still at work in the Empire state attacking the Indian governments' right to regulate taxation within their territories and to be free of taxation from the state. This is the result of pressure from non-Native businesses and their political and legal allies. The latest chapter now sees the New York Court of Appeals ruling that the state's casino compact with the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe (Akwesasne) is of dubious standing, as it was negotiated during the early '90s of Governor Mario Cuomo's term, and not ratified by the state legislature. Or so the courts and the legislature would lead the public to believe. Although largely hollow, and fraught with numerous hypocrisies and inconsistencies, it represents one more move to terminate Indian freedom and weaken the Native economic recovery.

The emerging anti-Indian strategies all have to do with knocking tribal self-determination in government and business. The taxation fight is all about that and therefore its refutation must be an imperative for tribal leadership. At least in New York, the moment is ripe for Indian nations to fulfill their vision of establishing their own self-regulated tribal enterprises, the most lucrative of all being the gaming houses, but also including all manner of entertainment, tribally licensed tobacco and oil products, retail and other diverse businesses. These represent the first phase of economic sovereignty and must be defended. It is imperative that tribal leaders share intelligence and strategy to beat back the fundamental thrusts of the attack on tribal sovereignties.

Hold a mirror to New York and you will see California. There, Governor Gray Davis, facing tens of billions of dollars in budget deficits, is pressuring for more and more "revenue sharing" from the Indian enterprises - $1.5 billion at last count. This is a huge jump from the $151 million currently paid by the tribes, including a $95 million fund that pays for specific mitigation projects that address burdens on local infrastructure.

While the larger tribes now pay some 7 percent of their net profits, the new request would multiply that percentage. The $1.5 billion figure would be approximately half of all tribal gaming profits, which state and tribal gaming officials both estimate as just under $3 billion total. Tribal leaders claim that California's demand for 50 percent in so-called revenue sharing is so excessive it would cripple their economic recovery initiative. Why in the world would tribal leadership give to the state Indian resources to which it is not entitled? Indians do not have to look back very far for valuable lessons.

This is all recurring history. The European peoples' migration to the Americas followed their own devastation of that continent's ecological wealth and thus its natural resources (primarily timber), which America had in abundance. America's Indian timber wealth thus helped to save Europe. This is the same situation today. The states are broke for lack of foresight. After barely a decade of economic recovery that is only impacting so far about 20 percent of tribal communities, here they come hunting for Indian wealth. Always, just when Native peoples are getting back on their feet, following devastating times of war and dispossession, the interests of states and other business entities rear their ugly heads. The gaming and other enterprises that are fueling the Indian economic recovery, with relief from oppressive state and federal oppression, are only now beginning to fulfill their promise. Only now is Native American tribal investment beginning to take hold. Only now are the financial bases of American Indian tribes developing a foundation for Native philanthropy. But beware, the coveting of Indian property by the American states is infinite.

Indian patriots organize, get ready to show a political face, at the legislatures and governors' mansions, at home on your indigenous territories and urban centers, at colleges and universities, in the newspapers, radio and television, via other organizations, and, if and when necessary, standing hand-in-hand with good-minded advocates everywhere, on the front lines of Indian freedom. Recovering from hundreds of years of wanton dispossession by the English and other Europeans who, in becoming American, assume the right of ownership of our resources and even our identities, Native nations must not acquiesce to losing any more retained rights. Be visible, be active; fight for your hard-won and long-retained powers and authorities, which are based on Indian jurisdictions inherent in sovereign governance.