Saturday, October 18, 2003

Tribal scapegoats

Here's an editorial worth pondering, from Indian Country:
Beware the anti-Indian media message: A twisted story can become legend

The editorial details the way tribal rights -- and the gradual economic recovery of the tribes, largely through gambling operations -- are becoming the scapegoat for the states' budget troubles. Particularly notable was the way the Schwarzenegger campaign demagogued on the issue of Gray Davis' associations with tribal operations in the recent recall campaign:
California tribes are now "it;" suddenly it's open season on Indians, who are getting accused of getting more than their "fair share." Reality: state governments' budget deficits point to a national short-fall of $22 billion in this budget year and $54 billion in the next. Legislators are salivating over Indian money. Both nationally and state by state (California leads in this), voters and legislators have been excusing their own tax bases. Now, they want the Indian tribes, who are just beginning to grow and prosper under their inherent right of self-government, to pay the penalty for their state’s poor choices and often times, poor management.

Particularly noxious, as the editorial points out, was a recent Wall Street Journal piece by Alan Murray that traded in some of the most appalling stereotypes of Indians, not to mention factual misconceptions:
Murray dismisses all of Arnold’s ideas for reducing California’s deficit, "[b]ut one, [it] is step four: Get our fair share of Indian gaming revenue." (WSJ, October 14, "Schwarzenegger Has One Useful Idea: Tap Casino Money"). Every other Arnold idea turns out to be "vague," "fuzzy," "meaningless," except taxing the Indian revenues from tribal gaming. "The Villain," behind the tree," writes Murray, playing on the title of an early Arnold movie, "turns out to be an Indian."

Why must it be so?

Because, "American Indians don’t pay taxes. They live in autonomous regions."

Actually, of course, as the editorial points out, most Indians do pay taxes of some kind or other, and only a portion of the Native population lives on reservations anyway. It is true that a number of those who do live on reservations pay few taxes -- but that is because they continue to live below the poverty line.

I'm familiar with this argument from many years of reporting on tribal issues from various reservations around the inland Northwest (especially the Shoshone-Bannocks and the Flathead-Salish, as well as a more recent stint with the Makah). Whites with barely concealed racial and economic motives (the two are often intertwined, and have been for most of the past two centuries) make similar -- and similarly false -- claims in the various efforts that have been made over the years to eradicate tribal treaty rights. The courts, fortunately, have been the chief bulwark against these efforts.

In spite of the obviously oppressed state of American Indians, the scapegoating of tribes for all kinds of ills has continued apace -- in the Northwest, for instance, they are often blamed for depleted salmon runs, and white "property rights" activists who live on reservations are notorious for taking the tribes to court in hopes of eliminating the tribes' control of their lands.

It probably should not surprise anyone, then, that when Indians actually began climbing out of their economic hole, that their white neighbors would choose to attack them for their success. (It is somewhat reminiscent of the lynching-era phenomenon in which well-off blacks in particular were targeted as "uppity.")

Finally, the editorial raises an important point:
Murray rounds out the article with a continued attack on the tribes’ relationship with ousted Governor Davis, accusing the tribes of buying Davis with a $1 million campaign contribution. Again, the bogus assertion is of something dishonest being done by the tribes, who in contributing to politicians are in fact working within the system as well as they can, just like everyone else in the country. They get labeled as an interest group but in fact the "so-called" interest group syndrome is basically the country’s political system. What Murray calls a "sweet deal" compacts for the tribes were the result of pretty tough bargaining, from a governor who understood that the tribes come backed up with a federally-recognized jurisdiction and governmental sovereignty based on 200 years of agreements, litigation, legislation and continuous case law. Which is entirely proper, because this is the actual history and the only logical positions of Indian tribal nations in this country.

Indeed, this is a rhetorical trick that appears throughout Republican campaigns: Liberal or nonwhite advocacy is labeled a "special interest," while all those corporate contributions from the likes of Enron are just "politics at work."

This scapegoating of a minority group is part of a disturbing pattern that is starting emerge from the California Republican camp now in control of California -- and, as the Murray piece suggests, elsewhere as well. I'll have more on that in the coming week or two.

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