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Wanamaker: "Let the games begin"

One of the missions of Indian Country Today is to educate its readers regarding the political, economic and social realities facing Indian tribes and peoples, with particular attention to tribal sovereignty and government-to-government relations. In this particular space, we offer ideas and insight on issues related to gaming, and more broadly tribal economic development. The degree to which the concepts espoused here have penetrated into mainstream society makes for an interesting measurement.

Not long ago, I ran into an old friend whom I had not seen in quite a few years. "Joe" and I grew up in the Syracuse, N.Y. area. We'd both moved away and returned to the area since graduating from high school some 20 years ago; he's now a building contractor and was not overly happy to learn for whom I write.

"How can you work for the Indians?" he asked, amazed. "They're trying to steal peoples' land."

Indians stealing land? Had I not known a little better, the reporter in me might have sensed the scoop of a lifetime.

My old pal then launched into his interpretation of the Oneida and Cayuga land claim cases, which have been in the news in this area on-and-off for the last few years. Joe rambled about how "we conquered them fair and square" and "all that stuff happened over 200 years ago anyway." Indians, he said, were nomads who "didn't really own the land anyway" and therefore have no business trying to evict "legitimate property owners." Besides, "they don't pay any taxes and they want all this land claim money from the taxpayers - why should I have to pay them anything?"

I inquired whether or not Joe is a member of the Upstate Citizens for Equality. He said no, but that the anti-Indian, anti-sovereignty group is "right on" in his estimation.

Joe admits he is not a big reader of newspapers, nor does he watch the TV news with any regularity; neither offers much coverage in the way of Indian-related news anyway. But he insisted that "everybody knows this stuff - where have you been?"

I wanted to tell him that "I've been paying attention" but bit my tongue.

Instead, I tried to explain that "we" didn't "conquer" anybody. The federal government and some of the tribes in what is now Upstate New York negotiated and signed treaties guaranteeing certain lands, without interference, to the Indians. New York State later acquired most of the Indian land in the state; because the state had no standing to acquire Indian land without federal approval, which it never received, such land sales were ruled invalid. None other than the Supreme Court has upheld the Cayugas' right to compensation. (At present their award of roughly $247 million is under appeal.)

"It looks like the Indians are right on this one," I said, speaking of the Cayuga land claim in particular. Joe would have none of it.

"It ain't fair," he insisted. When I explained to him that the judge in the Cayuga case ruled that no private landowners would be evicted, he just shook his head.

"We can't have people living under different rules," he insisted. "It ain't right."

I attempted to explain the mechanics of sovereignty, of government-to-government relations. I tried to get him to understand the Constitutional origins of the concept of sovereignty and its importance to Indian people.

"That's B.S.," said Joe.

"No my friend, it's in the Constitution," I replied. "And there's not an Indian tribe out there today that would willingly compromise its sovereignty."

"Well why the heck not?" Joe asked. "Why can't they compromise? What's their problem?"

What's their problem? I pointed out that the Indian tribes have, to varying degrees, lost all or most of the following: their land, culture, religion, language and way of life, in addition to an incredible (and unknowable) percentage of their population strength. If your sovereignty was all you had left how would you or even how could you compromise? Then what would you be left with?

Joe just shook his head again. "It's still a bunch of B.S."

Recent poll results concerning the war in Iraq reveal that almost one-quarter of those surveyed believe that weapons of mass destruction have already been found. This of course could not be further from the truth, as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of foreign affairs and current events should know. Where do these people get their information?

As songwriter Paul Simon once noted, "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest." This statement is, unfortunately, all too true too much of the time.

Our conversation drifted elsewhere; Joe and I eventually exchanged phone numbers and went our separate ways. I wonder if my friend heard a word that I said about the Indians.

Indeed, I was left with the dual questions of how to get through to the "Joe Six-packs" of America, whose brains are filled with years of knee-jerk anti-Indian rhetoric, and whether it is worthwhile to even try.

Concerning the latter question, getting the Indian perspective into the spotlight on any issue is certainly desirable. Hopefully, through our editorial and perspectives pages, this column and the rest of our coverage, we will continue to be influential in Indian affairs. Unfortunately, I don't think we have too many Joe Six-packs on our list of subscribers.

Regarding that first question, however, actually getting Joe Six-pack to listen is another challenge to which I admit that I have yet to find an answer.