Tribes beware new face of Indian bashing

Posted: August 22, 2003 - 12:02pm EST

It is entirely predictable that as Native people gain a degree of political power and work to build economic potential, enemies of Indian recovery will surface. The old idea, racist in origin, that Indian people can be denied their property and inherent rights as pre-existing sovereigns, dies very hard indeed.

Once, the argument against Indian tribal nations as distinct and actual peoples, hinged on the fact that they were not "civilized" in the Western or European model, which meant, they were not of the Christian current of humanity. Thus, Indians were the "infidels," or heathens and pagans who could and should be overrun by a might-makes-right, "manifested" European destiny. For a country with a political system ostensibly "secular," it is amazing how consistently - deep into the 20th century - the Christian/non-Christian card was played in the quest to dispossess Indian peoples of most of their lands. The sense of rightful tribal ownership to territories was dismissed out of hand by a vile racial prejudice that often attempted genocide and, failing that in many cases, ran a very determined but ultimately failed national policy of ethnocide.

Today, that history continues, but in more sophisticated and polished ways. The marvelous legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King and the quest for civil rights thankfully have disallowed America of the public expression of racist hate. National media eyes are everywhere. The public dialogue has grown so that society is generally against overt forms of racism, including words and acts of hatred and prejudice. As a result, the hatred directed against tribes and their inherent rights bases today is more subtle and strategic. It is perhaps a line of attack following precisely what always mattered most anyway, Indian assets, the way to justify the continued dispossession of tribal economic potential for the benefit of their own self-interested associations and businesses. Once, the "red devils" could be killed for sport. Now the attack is couched in business terms, in arguments about the payment of taxes and the inconvenience and "losses" that it causes those whom are in competition with Native nations. It is also wrapped in the cynical flag of patriotism, in an "Americanist" definition of democracy, which argues (or assumes) that the concept of Indian sovereignty has no foundation within the American experience.

In recent months, a statewide Oklahoma anti-Indian organization, One Nation, a privately funded group that gathers various other associations, has emerged and appears seriously intent on damaging or destroying tribal sovereign status. They are not alone and, of course, anti-Indian organizations have been documented nationwide. But this one appears better organized, charging membership status rates from $650 to $10,000. Its stated membership gives evidence of a combination of forces that could be worrisome. Founding coalition members for One Nation include: the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, the Oklahoma Petroleum Marketers Association, the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, the Southern Oklahoma Water Alliance, and the Oklahoma Grocers Association, along with Jeramy Rich, director of public policy for the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, and Rusty Shaw, owner of Shaw’s Gulf, Inc.

As reported in Indian Country Today this past week, the organization states that it was "... created to ‘push back’ against the massive expansion of tribal authority and the various disruptions and inequities created by sovereignty ... " (Could not the very same, and yet stronger, argument be made by American Indians of the United States?) One Nation boasts that it will be "an outspoken advocate on issues relating" to Indian sovereignty. As usual for such groups, One Nation invokes the cause of American liberty. Its primary charge: "Native American tribal authority and power is distorting the free market American economy."

Bemoaning the fact that many Native jurisdictions do not tax their own businessmen for sales of tobacco, oil and gasoline products, One Nation argues that Native Americans pay no taxes, and "cost" the state millions in gambling, cigarette, and property taxes. This is the argument against Indian sovereignty carried by just such entities and movements, regionally and nationwide.

An organization with similar argument based in Central New York, Upstate Citizens for Equality (UCE), which seems to have the same playbook, has been challenged as a hate group by two major national Indian organizations. United South and Eastern Tribes (USET), and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) have both passed resolutions to that effect. UCE also wraps its rhetoric within the banner of patriotism, but its intended objective - the complete destruction of tribal sovereignty and Indian nation status - is anti-Indian to the core.

Fortunately, the general public and fair and informed politicians, if well educated on the legal and social history of Indian sovereignty, do not agree. There is a general knowledge and sentiment in the country that Native tribes were seriously ill-treated by the U.S. government. With adequate attention, this sentiment could be inscribed not only in law but also in the general consciousness of America.

Tribal leaders in Oklahoma and nationwide do well to pay attention to One Nation and other such networks. In particular, we congratulate Kim Collins, Choctaw, who has been instrumental in bringing awareness of One Nation to the national Indian audience. We agree with Collins’ call to Indian tribal unity in the face of direct opposition against all tribal sovereignty. Through his efforts and those of the tribes generally, Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry (D), although intensely lobbied, has pushed away from One Nation’s positions and radical message.

Strategic and massive public education is the best defense. Tribal leaders must continue to step forward in their nation building and, when able, in philanthropic efforts that create solid walls of good will and loyal and lasting alliances with broad range of institutions and publics within America. Vitriolic messengers of confusion should never alter the decent sharing values of our cultures.

What is so hard to understand about inherent Native tribal sovereignties? Although continually defined and redefined in American law, Indian sovereignty enjoys a substantial reality, both de-facto and de-jure, throughout the American landscape. For the tribal nations, the protection of sovereignty is crucial to survival as peoples. It is the basis of the right to self-government, our assets, and of territorial integrity and retained jurisdictions. Supported by the right to distinct tribal cultures, our inherent sovereignty provides the foundation from which to formulate, educate and litigate, that is, to struggle for all possible advantages and opportunities within the surrounding and hugely encompassing American Union.

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