The Indian Sovereignty Fight is a Good Fight


Last week we paid special attention to the Seneca Nation. It was a moment
of truth for that tribal community, as they faced one of those
perception-creating series of articles that media can define you with. If
Indian nations don't watch it, the media around them will often start to
paint them as corrupt, as inept, as wanton and in other ways unworthy
peoples. This is to be combated at every turn, we believe. In even the
smallest of Native communities, as a number of New England tribes,
recognized and unrecognized, can tell you (Seneca is one of the largest
Native nations in New York), there are varieties of opinions, a great range
of viewpoints and personalities. If you let the media paint over you with
wide brush, once, twice, three times, you will be to the world whatever
color they paint you.

In the Seneca case, as in so many others, the formula for us is to widen
the base of sources and of deeper thinking that we always know is present
in these tribal economic and political movements. Whatever troubles may
exist in the Seneca (or any other tribal community or nation), we also know
there are that many decent and honest people in that nation doing the right
thing by their people. Often, they are in government and trying hard to
improve their communities.

This is the deeper Indian reality the media often misses. They miss it
because they don't have the time to get to know the more complex aspects of
these communities. They miss it because they often lack the experience of
living within and having worked to establish private business and build
better government in tribal communities - which makes them more vulnerable
to the vagaries of social and economic theory in Indian country. They miss
it because they see the glass as half empty, looking to condemn the
frailties of Indian life and governance rather than see that always there
are those correcting the very same problems; and these are the folks who
must also be a primary focus of any fair and honest journalism.

We are pleased to be of service this way, to correct media distortions
against Indian peoples wherever and whenever they surface. These are
perilous times for Native nations. Anti-Indian traditions in America are
never found too far under the social surface and there are always enough
Americans who in times of political and economic tension will attack any
group of color, particularly Indians, which dares to carve out their own
status in society.

In tracking the way media companies are playing the Indian economic success
story, we can see that varieties of media organizations seem to have
spotted an opportunity to attack Indian tribes, per se, at best with little
understanding of the political and economic realities these communities
have endured and continue to face; at worst, with the impetus to create
chaos and impugn damages to the victim, namely the tribes, who after more
than two centuries of dispossession, somehow are now excoriated for using
their hard-fought-for legal circumstances to create an economy for
themselves and, actually, for many surrounding towns, counties and regions.

The Indian world, for all its many decades of filming and media focus, is
not that media savvy. Coverage of American Indians in media went from the
early racist negative "kill the Indian, save the man", through the "love
the Indian as ecologist", to the current ongoing colonialist "kill the
nation save the poor Indian" syndrome. Indian nations, particularly those
that are showing economic strategy and success, are under great and
all-too-often hostile scrutiny. The advent of gaming as a rotor of
financial enterprise for Indian nations created a new ballgame. Indian
governments have grown exponentially; they are powerful players in many
regions of the country. As a result they are also bestowed with great

The "bad Indian" these days for some media organizations is the
well-organized Indian who can succeed at pressing political and economic
gains. An individual is tolerable, the more traditional the better; all
Americans equal calls for the raising of individual examples of cultured
and successful Indians; but not so for the tribe as a whole. No, the tribal
governments or the other entities actually holding together the basis of
Indian sovereign powers in the milieu of counties, states and federal
jurisdictions, these appear more and more open season to attack.

The opposition to the exercise of Indian tribal rights can count on this: a
sizeable portion of the American electorate and particularly anyone in any
way affected by the expansion of Indian enterprise and political reach
hates the idea of sovereign Indian nations. Tribal nations of American
Indian peoples with standing in the American legal system and capable of
fighting for inherent human and property rights - this is very
objectionable for some Americans who themselves project their own special
interests. Americans, who are deeply divided on a host of issues these days
have generally supported Indian freedoms. But the scales are precariously
balanced. At the peak of the Wounded Knee occupation in 1973, a poll showed
Americans sympathized with the Indians by 51 percent. More recently, New
York citizens have shown majority support for Indian rights within the
state. But beware, in this day and age, with groups actively organizing
against tribal rights, this negative half of the equation, if galvanized,
can cause huge damage to tribal peoples. Thus the importance of honestly
recognizing and uniting for the positive side of Indian life. There is a
need for all Native nations to pay attention to the guidance of our allies.
Move all your partners in ways that stress the positive side of our tribal
existence. Only then is it possible to identify and clarify and help to
correct the negative in our midst. But the positive must lead, must help in
the selection of problem-solving approaches. However, if you let the
outside media define your problems, soon, you will find that you and your
tribe will be defined as the problem.

Perhaps the most important arena for all tribes is in media itself, as it
informs and too often leads the court of public opinion. All entities
seeking to hold their own in the world must contend with it; must know how
to project their own unfolding stories and must not allow others to define
them in the public discourse. Public perception influences and fashions
public policy. The court of public opinion in some ways is as crucial as
the courts of law, particularly in North America. Prior to going to the
legal court, the court of public opinion sets up the conditions for the
actual passing or not passing of certain laws.

Tribal nations and enterprises undertaking major projects based on
self-governance and self-determined political action must always strive to
project as accurately as possible their organizations and their peoples.
They need to hold up their efforts to rebuild their communities and tribal
nations; they need to build teams of professionals, preferably from among
their own communities, and certainly of team members who "get it," who can
grasp as human beings the nature of the Native tribal struggles to survive
and to thrive. Those who would help us must know the importance of
recovering a piece of America for the way we wish to be, so that our very
Native and very human cultures, inclusive of economy, can prosper. We must
always answer and respond to biased media attacks; we must create a message
of tribal traditions applied for the good of people; American Indian
sovereignty, we still contend, is good for America.