The fear of successful Indians

In response to a recent backlash from publications such as TIME and The Wall Street Journal, as well as periodic columns by William Safire, the tribes in the Pacific Northwest invite your scrutiny. Here, we have come to believe that our tribes are approaching the gambling industry much as we have our other governance and resource responsibilities - with caution, with respect and with great honor.

It's rather easy to dismiss one's honor when speaking in terms of millions of dollars. But the American people have to realize that Indian people feel as though we've been through this before - when the values of the external society felt driven to take lands in Westward expansion and later to take our great Columbia River and its abundant salmon. Many of our elders warned us that our success would attract unwanted attention from those who would covet our newfound prosperity and influence.

The Northwest tribes believe that we are "textbook examples" of how to move ethically into the lucrative gambling industry. We feel as though we were very cautious before entering the industry. Most of the Northwest tribes began developing their gaming resources over five years after the enactment of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). In the case of my tribe, the Confederated Umatilla Tribes in northeast Oregon, we surveyed our tribal members, reservation residents and non-Tribal citizens of our bordering community, Pendleton, Ore. We received a mandate of nearly two-thirds of all populations to move forward with gaming. Since then, our services and employment have multiplied, making us a respected government and the second largest employer in a rural, economically depressed area of Oregon. We have, in effect, a job for every Tribal member who chooses to have it, and jobs for hundreds of non-Indians who live near our community. We're proud that we are offering family wage jobs with one of the best benefits packages in our area.

As the writers so easily dismiss the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) as the sole guardian of safety, security and integrity of Indian gaming, they entirely overlook our capable local Tribal gaming commissions, our own law enforcement agencies, NIGC's federal partners (i.e., FBI, the IRS, the U.S. Department of Treasury), our teams of accountants and auditors, some of the most sophisticated surveillance systems around, and, at least in Oregon, a whole division within the Oregon State Police - funded entirely by Tribal assessments from our gaming revenues! We very much took to heart the industry's adage to have people watching people watching people. A cash business simply requires these safeguards. We would challenge any other industry or jurisdiction to match our systems. So, please, spare us the old argument of anything like a "level playing field" - with regard to our reservations and businesses. It's not level and never has been.

Indeed, the entire tone of the various articles harkens to the paternalistic days when local white communities all the way up to Congress felt the need to "solve the Indian problem." The reality is that tribes have only been successful in their ventures when we have ultimately planned and established our own solutions. After 150-plus years of failed federal government stewardship, the suggestion that these failures somehow gives the ill informed the right to condemn our current advances, I feel, reflects a fear of college-educated, economically independent Indians. One gets the sense that some would like us to be confined to remote reservations and dance for the occasional tourist. Organized crime really didn't frighten you, but organized Indians seem to.

In typical sensationalistic journalism, these otherwise respected publications have chosen to examine only the wealthiest and poorest of our 500-plus tribes nationwide. I'm quite certain any research confined to the extremes would point out inefficiencies and inequities, be it in education, health care, business, government or religion. The true story resides nearer the center of the bell curve where the majority of our gaming tribes are making fundamental improvements to their entire system of services, programs, businesses and governance.

Instead of the allusions of corruption that these articles and editorials suggest, many tribes are enjoying unparalleled prosperity, a renewed sense of community and open expectations of hope and improvement for the future, - something that was not made available by current federal government policy. These successes, under any other name, would be nothing short of a Renaissance of Indian country.

It didn't take ivory tower bureaucrats and politicians concocting legislative solutions. It didn't take years of academic research and study, postulating the magical answer. We Indians found, quite simply, that the answer was within us.

We know that segments of the broader culture will try to criticize our successes, reduce your American treaty obligations to our peoples and shove our legitimate jurisdictions aside in order to continue to seek control of that which is not theirs. Many will demonize us, as American society has done with other nationalities over the course of our country's growth. We in the Northwest have a saying, "Indian country: where the American dream began." For two hundred years, Indians have not been part of this American economic miracle. But, like your immigrant parents and grandparents who have tasted the fabled American dream, be assured, we are here to stay.

J. David Tovey Jr. is currently the executive director of the Coquille Indian Tribe and the former executive director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. He is the president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Economic Development Corporation, in Shoreline, Washington, and was named Oregon's Economic Development Leader of the Year in 2001.