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The political environment for tribal issues, post-Abramoff scandal

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Guest columnist

The Abramoff scandal

While there have been a number of themes appearing with regularity in the national media regarding U.S. tribes that have a consistent negative or critical perspective, the most prominent is the ongoing commentary and political fallout from the so-called Abramoff scandal and how it is often linked to the role of tribes. Because the six tribes who were identified in the McCain hearings altogether contributed approximately $85 million to Jack Abramoff and his cohorts in order to secure influence both in Congress and with the Bush administration, the connection is understandable.

Although it may be argued that Native tribes are being held to a double standard in this instance, this does not change the real-life impact and threats to tribal rights. It is also somewhat predictable that in the political media coverage it is suggested that everyone in Congress who took money from tribes via the Abramoff firm is guilty of corruption. Although some like Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., have stood their ground and defended the right of tribes to participate in the political process by making contributions, many in Congress, after publicly returning any tribal money, have been subsequently unwilling to take tribal contributions at all for fear of the potential negative fallout.

In the eyes of some political observers, the Abramoff scandal is linked to a general weakening of tribal support throughout Congress and represents a barometer of the generally negative image of U.S. tribes that prevails in the national media and inside the Washington Beltway. There are clearly some in the media who now view all tribes though the same cynical prism as all other special interests or lobbies.

Tribes are often viewed as being flush with cash from their big casinos which, by the way, they operate by exploiting a special status not available to anyone else (i.e., on the basis of an uneven playing field). In this “media groupthink” scenario, those tribes who come to Washington, D.C., to buy influence are guilty of doing so in the most crass way. Although it is clear that the tribal clients of Abramoff are in fact the victims of his double-dealing, it is hard for even longtime friends of the Native cause to see how certain tribal leaders could have put up such an extravagant amount of money – $85 million – and not be held accountable by their own communities.

Then too, for some of the Abramoff tribal clients, the media have dwelled on their goals in paying for his services. That is, some were paying him to stop other tribes from getting their own casinos in order to prevent them from competing with the first tribe. Although there is more to the story in most of these cases, that is the negative impression that sticks in the mind of the media audience: D.C. opinion-makers.

Finally, the Abramoff scandal will simply not go away, as the criminal investigation is ongoing and each new blitz of publicity reminds the audience of the link to Native tribes. Indeed, the connection to tribes makes the story more interesting for reporters than it might otherwise be and they continually reinforce this connection with each news story.

The defeat of

the Native Hawaiian recognition bill

On June 8, the Senate voted on a cloture petition filed by the sponsors of the Native Hawaiian bill and the attempt to get 60 votes to overcome a filibuster threat was defeated by a vote of 56 to 42. As all of the opponents were Republican and all of the supporters were Democrats, joined by eight Republicans, this was seen as a partisan issue and vote.

Traditionally, Native issues are nearly always handled as a nonpartisan matter in Congress; thus, it is the partisan nature of this vote that is notable. Moreover, by reading the Congressional Record for June 8, we see that the arguments made by opponents of the Hawaiian recognition bill could easily be applied to all tribes.

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Indeed, the main argument was that the bill would lead to the creation of “racial enclaves of Native people” who would be exercising their own governmental powers in ways that unfairly burden non-Native citizens. In an unprecedented display of biased tactics, the Bush administration weighed into the action by sending a letter of opposition to the Republican majority leader the evening before the vote, arguing that the creation of a Native Hawaiian government would be contrary to the policy of assimilation represented by the idea of the great American melting pot.

Such an argument has no legal foundation nor does it relate to any established policy that might be relevant. The letter came from the Department of Justice after the Republican governor of Hawaii had already been assured that the Bush administration would remain neutral based on concessions to Hawaiian rights that were negotiated with the White House.

The statements of opposition to the Native Hawaiian bill came from some of the most conservative but senior-ranking senators and were supported by the Republican majority leader, who was very active in pressuring uncommitted Republican senators to join in the negative vote.

This incident in the Senate should be cause for concern for all U.S. tribal leaders, as the vote represents the triumph of an anti-tribal rights sentiment that could surface if a similar issue involving tribes is put before the Senate. There clearly seems to be a connection between the Native Hawaiian bill and historical opposition to tribal issues, such as “the convenience store owner lobby” opposed to any form of tribal tax immunity. The “private-property rights lobby” has been unyielding in its opposition to tribal rights to govern fee lands within reservation boundaries; and the religious fundamentalists are united in their opposition to tribal gaming rights, an opposition that has been aggravated as they see the expansion of gaming generally in the United States. These are powerful lobbying forces that should concern tribes should they decide to come together in unity on the tribal right to govern within Indian country. This most fundamental of tribal rights is not distinguishable from the right to which Native Hawaiians aspired and were so disgracefully denied.

The spillover effect

During the recent National Congress of American Indians midyear conference, there were reports by NCAI staff and D.C.-based tribal lobbyists that the negative impacts of the Abramoff scandal are being carried over to other tribal issues. Particular mention was made of attempts to meet with congressional offices on reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, a worthy cause that is clearly unrelated to tribal gaming or to the Abramoff scandal.

Some reported that the congressional staff who previously maintained an open door were telling tribal representatives that their bosses could not help and did not want to be seen as supporting tribal issues, as the press might assume that contributions were involved. Others simply reported that they could not get appointments in offices that heretofore were open to them.

Their analysis is that there is now a prevailing attitude in the Congress that all Natives are now doing gaming and do not need government help. Of course, this is not a universal attitude, but it may represent a majority of congressional offices. Some reported that this negative attitude was also based on a linkage to the Cobell v. Norton case, in that Native claims for billions of dollars for trust mismanagement was simply overreaching (greedy, in fact) and unnecessary in light of tribal gaming successes. It was reported that attempts to put the facts of Native poverty and unmet needs for health, housing, jobs and education are frequently being met with skepticism or lack of interest.

Even if these anti-Native reports are taken with a grain of salt, in that they have not been systematically surveyed, collected and studied, the fact that a significant number of congressional offices and D.C.-based political commentators express such views must be taken as evidence of a serious problem to which all tribal political leaders should pay attention.

In addition to a spillover effect on support for Native non-gaming-, social service- and natural resource-related issues, there are a number of important tribal political goals that are directly impacted by this negative, post-Abramoff-scandal political environment based in D.C.

The most prominent of these issues, in terms of broad-based tribal need, is the land-into-trust policy and practice. What was a difficult issue before the impact of the Abramoff scandal must now be considered practically impossible.

Protecting the tribal right to make political contributions and participate through issue campaigns is likewise an important political asset that may get swept up in lobby reform legislation. Finally, for purposes of this analysis, protection of tribal rights recognized in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act is a high priority that is endangered by the anti-tribal post-scandal environment.

Alan Parker, Chippewa Cree Tribal Nation, is a professor of Native law and public policy at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.