ECONOMICS, SOCIAL – CULTURAL and POLITICAL FRAMES)
By Shalin Hai-Jew, Ed.D. 1 “The tribes need to really be more successful about framing their message back to the public-who are they, what are they about. It's not enough to say we've used gaming to overcome generations of poverty. It's not enough to say we've created healthy rural economies that wouldn't otherwise exist. They have to be able to show the public that the tribal ethic continues to be the dominant ethic that the tribes' role in society continues to be what it historically has been...the original people of this land, the caretakers of the American dream, the custodians of the earth. That's the role. If you know the tribal people, you know that's the common vision.”
-- Professor Alan Parker, J.D., Evergreen State College, Chippewa Cree Tribal Nation, and Commissioner with the Washington State Gambling Commission
A Brief History
Historically, Native Americans have endured a “long history of warfare, imported disease, land loss, cultural suppression, racism, and paternalistic federal control of reservations” that have had a negative impact to the present (Cornell and Kalt, “Sovereignty and Nation-Building: The Development Challenge in Indian Country Today”). Mainstream “indifference, misconceptions, misapprehensions, and distortions of the truth” have been issues that affect the “forced march to oblivion for many indigenous peoples” (Davidson, 1993, p. 2).
These various factors led to a major decline in the Native American population. “And always the numbers dwindled. In 1850, the U.S. Census counted only 400,764 Native Americans. Twenty years later, the official count was 313,712; by 1890 it stood at 248,253. Then something amazing and quite unexpected happened: the indigenous peoples of North America began to make a comeback. In 1938, John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, reported the ‘astounding and heartening fact’ that the Indians were increasing in numbers faster than any other segment of the American population. Said Collier, ‘For nearly three hundred years white Americans, in our zeal to carve out a nation made to order, have dealt with the Indians on the erroneous, yet tragic assumption that…(they) were a dying race’” (Davidson, 1993, p. 10).
US federal policies strove to assimilate Native Americans in what many perceived to be genocidal and ill-conceived, through erasure of cultural, religious and language differences and Native American land ownership. “Since late in the nineteenth century, federal policy toward American Indian tribes has repeatedly vacillated between efforts to assimilate individual Indians and break up reservation communities and policies of federal support of various kinds for tribal communities and reservations. These divergent and often conflicting policy approaches have had at least one thing in common: until the late 1970s, all of them failed to ameliorate the crushing poverty and abject social conditions on Indian lands” (Cornell, Kalt, Krepps, and Taylor, July 31, 1998, p. ii).
Light and Rand describe 200 years of “byzantine federal Indian law and policy” (2005, p. 5) and overlapping jurisdictional issues. “Reservation and urban Indians remained among the poorest of the poor, and this poverty accelerated a political resurgence that began to call for greater Indian control over Indian affairs” (Cornell, Kalt, Krepps, and Taylor, July 31, 1998, p. 5). Janisch describes the “failed” federal policies as that of “relocation, allotment, assimilation, and termination” (Nov. 2006, p. 353).
Those who survived were the only main repositories and purveyors of authentic Native American languages and cultures. “The 1990 U.S. Census counted one million nine hundred thousand Native Americans, one-fourth of whom were Cherokees and Navajos. Most of the five hundred and forty-two other tribes listed had fewer than a thousand members. And some tribes had only a handful of members, the last living repositories of their people’s customs and ties to the land” (Davidson, 1993, p. 10).
Central concerns for the Native Americans today have been the overall well-being of Native Americans everywhere and tribal sovereignty and rights.
“Freedom for indigenous peoples wherever they are—this is my cause…We defend our roots not only to preserve them, but that they may flourish and bear fruit. In our struggle to gain respect for economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights, we cannot agree to symbolic recognition or superficial concessions. Our aim is that all those rights should become effective at all levels: local, regional, and national. None of the grave and deep-rooted problems of the world can be resolved without the full participation of the indigenous peoples. Similarly, the indigenous peoples require the cooperation of the other sectors of society.
“Many people have said that indigenous peoples are myths of the past, ruins that have died. But the indigenous community is not a vestige of the past, nor is it a myth. It is full of vitality and has a course and a future. It has much wisdom and richness to contribute. They have not killed us and they will not kill us now. We are stepping forth to say, ‘No, we are here. We live.’” -- Rigoberta Menchu, Nobel Peace Prize Winner (Davidson, 1993, p. ix)
Tribal Sovereignty and Rights
The issue of tribal sovereignty has been referred to as the “central legitimating issue” for tribal gaming (Fenelon, Nov. 2006, p. 388). In a law article on fundraising for Indian gaming and mega casinos, sovereignty was described as “a matter not only of sensitivity and legal nuance” but also “the crux of a dispute” (Elinson, Jan. 19, 2007, n.p.).
Tribal sovereignty predates many of the formal laws regarding Native Americans. It is understood as a basic right of a peoples and their nations. It’s a nation’s supreme authority to govern its own citizens and interact with other nations. “Sovereignty connotes political legitimacy and autonomy rooted in self-governance, the freedom and independence of a nation to determine its future. Sovereignty can be both absolute and non-absolute, reflecting the divergence between political theory and the coexistence of nations in the real world. Absolute in its extent and character, the supreme and inherent nature of sovereignty cannot be denied. Yet in practice, the scope of sovereign authority may be limited by mutual concession or by political or legal imposition” (Light and Rand, 2005, p. 5).
In the face of cultural declines, many Native Americans pushed for self-sufficiency and sovereignty in the 1960s to 1970s in the civil rights era. Along with this endeavor were the efforts towards using Indian gaming as an economic strategy to support Native tribal leadership and Native peoples. “By the end of the 1970s, there was growing political opposition to federal support for tribal authority and rights. This coincided with Reagan-era goals of decreasing federal spending, downsizing federal programs, and ‘devolution,’ or increasing state and local control over government services. The Reagan administration’s Indian policy reflected its general approach of reducing reliance on federal programs. Couched as a necessary part of self-determination, President Reagan focused on ‘removing the obstacles of self-government and…creating a more favorable environment for the development of healthy reservation economies’ in order to ultimately ‘reduce (tribes’) dependence on Federal funds’” (Light and Rand, 2005, p. 34).