Strengthen the Circle Chiefs andDefend the Commons


Having grown accustomed over two centuries to simply appropriating Indian
peoples' real estate and resources the states of the union are now focused
on Indian gaming revenues as the new frontier to be conquered.

Tribes, always at various stages of economic strength and political
leadership, are scrambling to respond and the need is always to remember
that anything given up is nearly always lost forever. Any agreement made
that lowers the standard, that gives away a high percentage of revenue,
that limits a tribe's right to purchase lands back into tribal title, that
agrees to restrict any and all jurisdictions must be resisted, and studied
deeply. Holding the line is essential in any contest and any breach of any
point of the Indian negotiating line immediately compromises the integrity
of the whole line. Precedents get set that states and federal agencies
learn to demand. The collective potential is lowered.

The opposite would be to learn from and exult in any higher standard set
successfully by any other Indian nation. Thus may tribes force the states
to uphold their best proposals and negotiate "in good faith" with tribal
governments. Indian governments with high revenues deserve to be seen as
great economic rotors for depressed regions in states that see with wise
vision the potentials of Indian sovereign enterprises generating financial
opportunity for thousands in multiple counties and providing a strong
regional-historical presence and identity.

As the New York state reflection of this common reality rolls forward and
the state pins down specific deals with specific tribes, many observers
wonder what Indian tribal leaders may be losing for not supporting or for
not at least speaking with one another. There must be ways for Indian
leadership to share the fundamental assertions of rights and standards of
negotiation. Is it conceivable that tribes can forge strategic initiatives
that can multiply their impacts, say in Albany and Washington?

Recently, Mohawk and Oneida tribal leaders met at the Oneida Nation. They
discussed several important issues. Intense dialogue, often painfully
direct, rode on the wings of diplomatic protocols and a shared awareness of
the perils of ongoing Indian-to-Indian dissonance. Foundational sentiments
and understandings are as crucial as they are difficult to identify and
perilous to discuss. Some leaders are direct and thus impact and draw
impact directly. Others are more overarching, reminding the people that no
matter their discords, they are forever linked by history, culture and
considerable kinship. Between the two styles, hopefully an inter-tribal
memory can persist and prevail.

Impact and precedent of each Indian nation case is closely watched by other
Indian nations, even more than by the state and the feds. Recently the
Cayuga Nation and New York state agreed on a multi-issue settlement.
Question: as Cayugas make their deal with the state, how does it impact
other tribes? Ditto for Mohawks, Senecas, Oneidas, and ultimately for
Onondagas and Tuscaroras. Haudenosaunee nations share many of the same
historical and legal precedents. Once a mighty working confederacy active
in all manners of diplomacy and trade and commerce, now once again each and
every sovereign nation among the Iroquois looks out for itself. This may be
completely necessary at a time of maximum competition, but nearly always it
diminishes the whole.

Conflict is not as brutal or as final as in the olden epic days of
inter-tribal warfare, but the lack of willing Indian to Indian
collaboration is always quickly obvious to the state and very useful to its
strategy of dealing with each tribe in their weakened status as single
entities rather than with more united Indian fronts. Any united Indian
coalition (around specific issues) signals a serious pitfall for state
governments already beleaguered by big deficits and rebellious counties and
townships. It would be the best thing the various tribal representative
governments could do to sustain strong and open dialogue on all issues
where they can coalesce forces to convince the state that such issues need
to be resolved in ways that will not diminish Indian jurisdictions.

Iroquois tribal nations have serious land claims and serious de-facto
positioning in a state with long-defined Indian relations. In Western New
York, the Seneca Nation is moving fast to secure a long-term economic
growth based on hegemony over a gaming market that extends for a sizeable
region. In Central New York, the Oneida Nation starts its second decade of
economic expansion with a greatly expanded tourism and gaming resort. The
nation (owner of Four Directions Media, Inc., publisher of Indian Country
Today) fields a widely respected circle of seasoned tribal and professional
working groups. The Mohawks are struggling with deeply fractured
governmental jurisdictions, but nevertheless its federally recognized
government is forging a plan to secure a second major casino in the
Catskills region of New York. More recently, the Cayuga Nation has agreed
on a settlement that places that fourth Iroquois nation also in the running
as emerging economic power in the Eastern region.

To emphasize the point, on June 22 - 23 Indian leaders within New York
gathered with some 300 attendees at the 2004 New York Gaming Summit held on
Oneida Nations homelands. There exists a great deal of intrigue and
speculation surrounding which Indian nations will emerge with gaming
compacts for the three legislatively-approved casinos in the Catskills.
Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter cautioned the tribes to be wary
of the state pitting them against one another. "The real value in what
we're doing here is how it helps our people and how it will help our people
in the future," he said. "All this money really isn't worth having unless
we use it properly to do our best for the faces yet unborn." Halbritter
also reminded those in attendance that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act
prohibits states from taxing or forcing revenue sharing upon Indian nations
in exchange for their freedom to operate gaming facilities.

We congratulate the Mohawk, Oneida, Seneca and Cayuga leaders who
reinitiated the New York Indian dialogue. This is welcome news. Even with
serious disagreement on some issues, keep talking, we say. One group can
always learn from the reasoning and rationales of another.

No doubt discussions must start from the understanding that each nation is
a sovereign, which must protect, defend and deploy on behalf of its own
people. Any positive conversation must recognize the polishing of the
chain, understanding that this is a slow process and requires a very
serious commitment to peace, power and righteousness. Past blows have been
struck by everyone. Regrets are useless and so are recriminations. All
nations, communities, governments must at times fire over the bow of other
sovereigns. Each must play its own strategy and tactics. Political heads,
lobbyists, lawyers of various expertise - all join in. All influence the
dysfunction as well as the healing. All should see their futures in the
success of the re-empowerment of confederated and otherwise mutually
supportive tribal peoples. These are tough and decisive times in New York
state, and across Indian country. The budget knives of state bean-counters
are sharpened by the belt-tightening all around. This movement charges
forward now to slice at tribal incomes, tribal rights, tribal futures.

Indians everywhere must strengthen their respective circles, as the true
marauders once again spot gold in our streams. Tribes that share ideas and
share resources assist the proper and vigorous defense of tribal rights.
Different tribes and tribal leaders develop widely different areas of
expertise. Depth of skill banks to draw upon is a hugely needed resource
for all tribal leaders. This is yet another benefit of any process that
works toward Native unity.