TIME has slanted view of Indian country


Make no mistake Indian country, in a cyclical repeat of American history another attack on tribal rights is coming on full steam. The long hard fight for the hearts and minds of the American public on the economic reconstruction of Indian country is not yet guaranteed - not by a long shot. Brace for it, strategize collectively, dedicate and apply significant resources, develop national campaigns to get tribal perspectives heard, get ready to fight the forthcoming media stampede to ridicule and misrepresent this new era of Indian economic recovery. Every experienced tribal leader cognizant of America's legacy of distorting Indian history and of taking Indian assets knew this day would come, again.

In the national media, once a certain tack on coverage is taken by two or more of the heavyweights, the herd instinct is to follow. TIME Magazine, a venerable weekly, just launched the latest and most concentrated anti-Indian rights hatchet job imaginable in its Dec. 16 cover story, "Look Who's Cashing In At Indian Casinos," billed as a "special investigation" by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele. The thirteen-page spread serves up a barrage of negativity about Indian gaming as an economic motor for Indian country. A thick layer of anti-tribal attitude permeates this salvo of a story, which is intended to prove, once and for all, that Indian peoples and their self-governance rights are unfair, corrupt and inept. The piece gives such a negative take on tribal reality that it seems strategically intended to directly challenge the positive concept of hard-won tribal gains.

Indian country can expect this negative onslaught to build up over the next few seasons. It is set to spearhead the justification for great new federal intrusion on Indian life. Of course, Barlett and Steele are already parading through the media as the new Indian experts. Enemies of Indian country gaming under tribal sovereign rights are quickly sharpening their knives.

TIME's attack goes all out. All the current tricks of polemical journalism are evident. The main premise is that speculators and non-Indians are getting rich off Indian rights. The inside summary to the same piece, reiterates the argument: "So why are the white backers of Indian gambling raking in millions while many tribes continue to struggle in poverty?" This is nonsense. The tone and inaccurate approach do not deviate throughout the whole story. There is no other possible interpretation, according to TIME, which here publishes a cover story shamelessly out of context and out of balance.

The article makes much of the fact that non-Native backers of tribes often make a great deal of money while getting certain tribes going in gaming. So what? Is this not what investors do throughout all business? In all cases we know of, the tribes set goals to pay off the investors and obviously many do quite well after their start-up investors are paid off.

The assumption is that the tribes are getting ripped off.

TIME complains that despite casinos, there is still Indian poverty; it irks TIME that some tribes are better prepared or better situated than others. But these are accidents of geographic location and also depend on a particular tribe's leadership and human resources. But it also misses the big picture. American Indian governments are sovereign entities.

TIME charges that the gaming option produces "hundreds of millions of dollars to one Indian tribe with a few dozen members ? and not a penny to a tribe with hundreds of thousands of members." Again, a small tribe with few members has opportunities that tribes from more isolated areas don't have. The only tribe with hundreds of thousands of population that does not run gaming is the Navajo Nation, which, for religious and other reasons, voted not to set up tribal gaming. Again, where is the problem with that? The difference is only in geography and in the Navajos' own free democratic choice. But the article assumes something is socially and perhaps even legally unfair in this reality. Nonsense again.

This poor rendition of journalistic sleight of hand tends to reduce the Indian world to anecdotes that freeze-frame and greatly stereotype what is actually a far more complex, diverse and dynamic reality.

Several anomalies in the national scene, such as the one-member tribe in California that set up a casino and still receives federal aid, get much play in the piece. The same article that bemoans the general poverty of Indian people complains, "that the tribes collect millions in aid from American taxpayers." However, it does not explain that these are the many tribes that are not in gaming-rich situations. Some Native nations, such as Oneida Nation, actually turn back federal funds no longer needed, and request these be distributed to more needful tribes. And the article completely misses a core principle of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which makes Indian gaming 100 percent taxed since the earnings are mandated for tribal government services. And American Indians who receive per capita payments from gaming revenues pay taxes on all their earnings. How could two purportedly acclaimed journalists miss those basic facts?

Whether about Indian gaming or any other context where federal law establishes specific avenues for Indian self-governance, TIME's reductionist journalism in this instance will greatly reinforce an overall image - and impact - intended to diminish the Indian reality. To do this, of course, it can go and find its share of contradictory, ornery, ridiculous and questionable Indian situations. Indian Country Today has reported on most all of TIME's examples and many more for years. This is not difficult given there are more than 550 American Indian nations, each with its own unique social and political dynamics and, sometimes, dysfunctions. Certainly, these are out there and, certainly too, a false construct can be put together by highlighting and stringing together just a few - but such an approach only provides a distorted view of a much larger reality that intersects on culture, tribal identity and membership, and which, for lack of experience, TIME ignores.

The American Indian world is an amalgam of many currents and identities; tribal nations have very specific histories and cultural imperatives. Since tribal sovereignty, an inherent political reality and assertion, became the dominant concept in tribal aspirations in the past thirty years, however, liberals and conservatives alike have seen the Indian litany of victimhood complaints turn increasingly to social-political victories in education, cultural recovery and now economics. The opportunity to secure capital bases from which to rebuild the nations is certainly not without its pitfalls and horror stories, but it is the big story of Indian country the past ten years. We contend that it is a largely positive, very incomplete story that is yet in its early stages. A decade of economic movement is nothing compared to the history of American conquest and its severe disruptions and outright thefts of American Indian assets.

To be fair, some issues raised in TIME's critique are on the mark. It is true that, "Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota account for less than three percent of all casino proceeds," yet they account for half of the Indian population. For these tribes, "[o]n average, they produce the equivalent of about $400 in revenue per Indian [person]." Then there is the reality of heavy-handedness on the part of some leadership, the usual range of corrupt politicians (and the usual range of prosecution and clean up.)

The issue of growing economic disparity in Indian country is most important. TIME made its points in this regard, and no doubt it needs addressing. But attempts to address this disparity are already a hot topic in Indian country. At all times and for all peoples, the natural tendency for those with new capital is to amass, to learn to compete and to use whatever legal tools are available. As experience with capital matures, at its best, it works to establish the most adept institutions and to develop a social contract worthy of a hopeful community future. Many successful Indian governments are going in this direction, while some are not yet there. This is being accomplished through the development of American Indian financial institutions, banks, community and Aboriginal capital development corporations, and through the creation of foundations and collective and private philanthropy. Philanthropy, in the Indian context of nation-building, is not just passing out money, but is also the funding of useful and well-managed projects, some profit-making, some not, that are productive for the tribal society and, when possible, for the mainstream.

This is a hugely important goal for Indian country leadership. East and West Coast Native nations with increasingly well founded financial resources might consider setting up developmental and philanthropic program models. These might include "no tribe left behind" foundation initiatives, with programs to support projects in education (youth and colleges), economics (lands, business, international Indian trade and commerce), health (community clinics, maternal care), governance and cultural enhancement. This tradition of sharing would go a long way in generating much-needed common goals within the national Indian currents and causes. California has one model for sharing by gaming to non-gaming tribes; many tribes donate to one another. Some Eastern tribes such as the Pequot, Mohegan and Oneida have donated tens of millions to tribal and national Indian cultural institutions. When White Mountain Apaches suffered devastating fire losses, a California Mission tribe sent them a million dollars.

But these and far more numerous on-the-ground developments that constitute the visible results of the Indian economic recovery, largely based on Indian gaming, curiously did not make it into TIME's frame of reference. Virulent antagonism such as displayed by the TIME cover story should serve as a wake-up call to Indian country leadership. Indian country needs to address some troubling issues, but it also needs constantly to find its bases of unity and stick to them, in the face of media willingness to manufacture perspectives to exploit internal Indian contradictions. Question always whether the intent of the journalism is to diminish the tribal base, or to help build and strengthen it.

No doubt, appreciating the positive trends of the past ten years requires a deeper understanding of the intensity of the destitution suffered by Indian peoples, how much worse things were just 30 years ago, even 10 years ago. To so wantonly now attack these legally instituted financial trends in Indian country, is to work to reverse important restitutional policies and processes. To do as TIME magazine and even some myopic Indian commentators suggest is to help break the back of the only hopeful major economic initiative to grace Indian country since the colonies and later the United States began their coast-to-coast sweep across Indian country. First our lands. Then our natural resources. Followed by successive legislative and judicial waves to destroy the powers and authorities of our Indian governments. And now our markets. It has become an all too familiar story.

However, the lesson for Indian country is clear. Unity and mutual respect is a high priority, a requirement for any collective national strategy to retain tribal powers. A trend is visible in this direction, as most tribes can and do benefit in various ways from recent economic developments. Indian leadership has become increasingly astute and is better resourced to be responsive to both the great needs that remain in tribal America and the threats that emanate from misinformation campaigns like those generated by TIME.

How to improve the conditions for American Indians nationally while respecting each tribe's sovereignty is already a loud conversation in Indian country. One simply needs to hang around long enough to hear it. Apparently, TIME's fledgling Indian country reporters did not have enough time for that.