The Wall Street Journal's barrier


No sooner had we answered the last Wall Street Journal editorial slamming Indians ? in that case, oral tradition around sacred sites, they were in print once again, this time excoriating Native gaming as an economic base.

It seems rather odd for The Wall Street Journal to be sustaining this kind of attack on what is arguably one of the only viable financial boosts Indian country has secured in centuries. Once again, the Journal ignores the multiple benefits for community building and the incipient role that gaming economic opportunity brings to previously deeply impoverished tribes and areas of the country.

Their anti-Indian diatribe this time makes the argument for a proposed study of Indian country as sponsored by Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf, a piece of legislation that was clearly aimed at blocking tribal gaming and attacking the tribal recognition process. The same old tired arguments, based on derivative fiction and the Journal's own erroneous reporting, provided a backdrop.

First, the editorial focuses on a recent case of a tribe reportedly down to eight members that will operate a casino with the help of a Las Vegas company. (How the tribe became that small is of course glossed over.) From a silly exhortation on this anomaly among Indian gaming tribes, the Journal repeats its usual litany of complaints ? all which have been discredited by more accurate reporting in this newspaper.

The Wall Street Journal rails that the benefits from Indian gaming are not all that widespread. It warns, yet again, that organized crime is around the corner. It charges corruption in the recognition process at the Department of Interior. It should embarrass someone, it demands from the Indian world, that in some casinos, customers won't encounter many Indians. Indian identity, says the Journal, "now means any group with the right combinations of Indian blood and political connections."

The silliness masks a bone of contention being deeply ground. Of course, some Indian casinos are full of Indian employees; some have only a few Indian employees. Some places more, some places less. Nevertheless, all casinos are expected and required to fund government and social services for their tribes, while providing many local jobs. The charge of organized crime activity has been refuted by FBI testimony before Congress. Indeed, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton cited those FBI reports in an exclusive interview with Indian Country Today editors on Sept. 9. Norton, much like American Indian leadership, understands the need for honest and thorough accountability and appropriate regulation of the Indian gaming industry. However, neither she nor others have bitten on the Journal's novelistic warnings of a potential influx of organized crime into the Indian gaming industry. Currently, the facts have been far more effective than the Journal's incessant cries in shaping political perspectives on this issue.

We also restate: the federal recognition process is actually quite rigid, contrary to The Wall Street Journal's editorial perception. It involves many markers that are very difficult for the tribes to meet. The BIA did not override "BIA historians [who] had shown [the Pequots] didn't qualify." This is a complete untruth (See "Errors and Omissions," this page).

It is certainly true that some tribes are thriving while others are seriously impoverished. The difference is most stark when comparing gaming tribes with those large land-base tribes, which have limited gaming markets. But these happen to be different tribes, in different locations ? apples and oranges. Of course, a growing discussion in Indian country is pondering the deeper questions within this dynamic: How will this growing Native capital base serve to address these disparities? This is a good discussion, and certainly not a reason to destroy Indian gaming. The renewed re-capitalization of Indian country is still in its infancy. As the thriving tribes harmonize their assets, will they provide financial opportunities for others? We certainly encourage it; many are studying it. Some examples of Indian-to-Indian trade and commerce, as well as international aid and assistance already exist. The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in California set a good example when it made a million-dollar donation to the fire-ravaged White Mountain Apaches.

Several tribes have made major donations to national institutions, such as the National Museum of the American Indian. Philanthropy toward other needs like education is beginning to flow. The California model in which thriving gaming tribes donate to a pool for less fortunate or non-gaming tribes is also worth exploring nationally. Programs to stimulate a broader Indian economic recovery are being discussed at the BIA and throughout Indian country.

The Journal properly castigates the federal bureaucracy for its treatment of the tribes, but for the wrong things, the wrong reasons. The federal bureaucracy is at its best when it defends Indian jurisdictions and the constitutional powers and authorities affirmed in Indian governments, such as when treaties were recognized, although unfortunately rarely upheld, as the law of the land. This is one good function of the federal bureaucracy. There are also very bad functions, such as its willing role in the taking of Indian lands and rights over centuries of jaundiced policies and mismanagement. The Journal admits that most Federal policy toward Indians has failed, but it might have mentioned that the one policy that was exceedingly effective was dispossession.

The Wall Street Journal finds ironic the fact that American Indian nations are now able to keep at bay major anti-Indian pieces of legislation, as if it were a crime to spread "their dollars around Congress and statehouses." The irony is in their very statement, that one of the most accepted and necessary practices in American life, that of informing Congress, should be denied to Indian tribes simply because some now have resources. Beyond its cynicism however, the Journal might also contemplate that Congress is finally making honorable decisions based on a renewed commitment to forging a respectful relationship with American Indian nations.

Most curious and truly paradoxical: In the same issue of the Journal in which the editors lambasted American Indian economic recovery, appeared a major feature story on tax breaks now due to Wall Street companies that cooked their accounting books. It seems fines over the sleazy practices will be tax-deductible and serve as a windfall to the very same corporate cheaters who misled millions of American investors. Now, that might be worth enough indignation for a Wall Street Journal editorial. Much like the wall that was once constructed in southern Manhattan to keep the Indians out, it now seems The Wall Street Journal can't see clearly on either side of its symbolic barrier.