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'There ain't no Indians in Texas' ? a red alert

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What could be the ultimate in states' rights injustice is beginning to unfold. It emanates out of Texas and it portends the highest possible danger for American Indian nations.

The Fifth Circuit District Court of Appeals in New Orleans decided that the Tigua Indian Tribe of the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, neighbor to El Paso, Texas, and a federally recognized American Indian government, basically does not have the rights of virtually every other federally recognized tribe in the country.

Cavalierly, the court decided to deny the status rights of the Tigua, agreeing with the state attorney general's position that "in Texas," Indian tribes are simple "associations" and have no more rights than "a sorority or a fraternity."

The Tigua are federally recognized and covered under the 1987 Pueblo Restoration Act. The act is but one of several legal bases that open the way for tribes to conduct economic enterprises, including gaming, in Texas and in any other state where federally recognized tribes reside. But, according to this troublesome ruling, Texas has the right to define the status of American Indians, and is in complete non-compliance with the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The lead objective of that congressional legislation was to promote self-sufficiency for the tribes.

The tribe blames the Texas legacy of its former governor, President George W. Bush, for its current fight. The tribe contributed more generously to the rival candidate than to Bush during the president's second run at the governorship. The tribe claims that it picked up the enmity of Texas Republican operatives. In what has the feeling of a left-over fight from another era, an overzealous attorney general did tend to ride roughshod over the backs, not only of the tribe involved, but also a whole range of political and business supporters in the immediate area.

In most states, such as in New York, Indians are sometimes virulently opposed by local towns and counties. Yet, by and large, the state's politicians have figured out that Indians will vigorously uphold their standing as the land's first peoples and governments, and are now beginning to work together to build their shared economies.

In this respect casinos can be a boon to those stagnant financial areas that plague large areas of their state, especially following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. In the Texas case, the Tigua are ardently supported by an impressive list of neighbors. Yet the state has relentlessly sought to destroy it, even branding its economic initiatives "as illegal as drug dealing."

While the judge has ordered the Nov. 30 closing of the Tigua Casino, the Tigua's case for keeping it open is impressive and resonant.

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The Tigua of Ysleta filed a motion Oct. 23 in U.S. District Court requesting the court allow its casino to remain open while the tribe appeals the astonishing and explosive decision of the 5th District Court. They and others expressed concern about "extensive economic damage" if the casino is forced to close during the appellate process.

Since its opening in 1993, Speaking Rock Casino has emerged as a crucial partner in the regional tourism industry. Business and community leaders regionally are united in their recognition that the Tigua, a small tribe, have generated a strong economic boom for an extensive economically depressed area. Given El Paso's weakened economy, the ruling may prove catastrophic. With an annual local payroll of more than $14 million and 800 employees (only 50 are tribal members), Ysleta del Sur's gaming enterprise has pumped over $824 million into El Paso's economy.

Of course, the closing of the casino, which provides 87 percent of tribal program funds, would have devastating impacts on the tribe itself, particularly harming health care for tribal elders and children, education, and housing programs.

The Tigua have the support of the vocal majority of citizens of El Paso and boast a whole sheaf of unanimous support resolutions from such agencies as the El Paso City Council, El Paso County Commissioners Court, the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, and the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Listen to Cindy Ramos-Davidson, from the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce: "Speaking Rock Casino has given so much to El Paso by providing wages that exceed the average with benefits that are second to none. With today's economic outlook, if the casino closed, it will have a devastating impact on our community."

But to no avail. It appears that the Texas approach to Indians and tribal sovereignty, possibly based on political paybacks, is intent on destroying or denying them.

We wonder what could possibly have been the honorable motive for then Gov. Bush to start this fight? And we wonder now what benefits President Bush would see in such an egregious court decision or even in such a termination policy toward Indian tribes in his home state. There are few enough tribes in Texas, after all, and in this era of much-needed national unity, the creation of economic opportunities for tribes can certainly be seen as a worthy cause for national action. To pick this moment in history to disenfranchise a recently destitute Indian people sends the wrong signal across this country and around the world.

It certainly would not hurt the embattled president if his associates in Texas were to lay off the persecution of the Tigua. Texas Attorney General John Cornyn might take a cue from another Republican, New York Gov. George Pataki, who has of recent partnered with his state's federally recognized tribes to reenergize his terror-victimized state with several new projects. In New York, out of both desire and necessity, Pataki extended a clean hand and the tribes have responded. It's a more positive Republican direction.

We hope Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., and other good senators and congressmen (particularly those who defended George W. Bush during the presidential campaign) will advocate strongly for the Tiguas of Ysleta. The people of Texas should simply back off this unsavory movement and totally reject this gross injustice by the 5th District Court. The tribe has the inherent right to be whom they are, to continue as a people and, through their own self-reliant government, to support their own essential tribal programs. In so doing, they are also helping support the economic health of El Paso. The president, the state, the nation, and indeed justice, will be better served.

We urge all of Indian country leadership to support the Tigua's fight for respect as a sovereign tribal government.