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Without commitment to fairness, nation building suffers

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If it is not about nation building, there is little justification for the benefits of tribal sovereignty within the U.S. legal system. Certainly the tremendous opportunity currently enjoyed by a few dozen Native nations to secure a growing financial base for their peoples cannot be simply for a few individuals to get rich.

'It is not just about casinos,' former Morongo tribal chairwoman Mary Ann Andreas, who has run a hugely successful tribal gaming enterprise, told a group at last June's conference of the Native American Journalists' Association. 'It is about giving our peoples a chance for a future.'

Beyond per capita payments, which are the lesser way to share the wealth, the building of nation and tribal community is essential to that future. Some recent cases give us pause, however.

Whether when invoking the disenfranchisement of tribal members under what looks to be rather dubious circumstances, as seems the case with Michigan's Saginaw Chippewa, or attempting to minimize the killing, accidental or not, of two children by a Florida Miccosukee tribal member who then gained temporary exoneration by the word of tribal relatives, there are all too many times when the search for equity and justice in Indian country suffers from growing pains.

There are cases, particularly those that involve or create the victimization of innocent people, when fundamental unfairness, most often against other tribal members, cries out for deeper and more equitable reasoning. These cases are very difficult to analyze and even harder to judge. Even among those of us who hold firm to the position that utmost respect for inherent tribal sovereign rights is paramount, and would defend the right of tribes to make their own decisions and mistakes, all too many such situations are hard to swallow.

Certainly there is such a thing as fundamental fairness. Certainly when prosecutor and jury are the same people, when appeals from one ruling must go to the same tribal leaders for a 'higher level' ruling, something is awry. Obvious and irksome, these contentious cases, which pit tribal sovereignty against the sense of fair play, are nearly impossible to resolve.

Membership disputes such as the Saginaws', when disenfranchisement befalls someone or other who might find themselves on the wrong side of the lineage track, are the hardest. The federal government still presently and rightfully respects the right of tribes to determine their own membership. But this sovereign tribal power can be jeopardized by cases that have every appearance of severe internal imbalance.

In the Saginaw case, recent reports describe a leadership attempting to expel several dead tribal ancestors, with an eye on excluding their offspring and thus fall under suspicion of trying to gain for itself higher payments from new tribal enterprises. This one has all the makings of a dark Hollywood comedy ? except it hits home in all too many places ? and has the capacity, in addition to so many others ? of severely damaging the integrity of tribal self-government.

Those expelled are increasingly taking their cases to federal institutions. The courts have so far held to the standard of tribal sovereignty, but Indians testifying and agitating against obvious or perceived unfairness in their own tribes create powerful attitudes against all tribal jurisdiction. More and more are going the political or legislative course, and are too easily exploited by much larger and darker forces that have targeted tribal sovereignty for destruction.

Tribal leadership in Indian country is not inherently, nor even to any great degree, corrupt. But in a world where even the appearance of conflict of interest is tantamount to guilt by immediate public media accusation, the erosion of trust in the fairness of a governmental system can be a very real danger.

Building with the young in mind is completely required. Small-minded greed versus social good, doing the best possible for people and society for the future generations is a necessary basis. Perhaps this seems naive, but there are serious practical, as well as ethical, reasons for holding this line.

No system of government can long operate with legitimacy without a reasonable public contract from its own citizens, a sharing, if not of all resources, at least in the fundamental rights of family, community and nation. This is deeply imbedded in all Native cultures, even when our institutions are lacking in strength, even when leadership fails its responsibility to uphold fundamental fairness.

The building and strengthening of tribal institutions that can properly and objectively address these issues is of supreme importance. The traditional tribal impetus to resolve conflict among members in ways that harmonize is a sound base. This is not ever easy, particularly for the smaller tribes where family relations and governmental functions are difficult to separate, but it must always be a necessary goal. Policies that expand a nation's role as well as its intellectual reach, rather than shrink them, usually provide the more beneficial courses of action.

American Indian principles speak to the duty of leadership to consider the consequences of their decisions onto their future generations. Stated in various ways, this remains a viable cultural value of Native peoples throughout the hemisphere. The times call for this thinking to dominate governmental actions ? fair treatment and peaceful reconciliation based on the commonalities that we still share.