Nation/World


Gorton Targets Indian Sovereignty Little-Known Measures Would Take Funds From Tribes If They Oppose Radical Changes

THURSDAY, AUG. 28, 1997

With little debate and no public hearings, a Senate subcommittee last month approved two measures that would knock out some of the oldest principles in how the nation’s 554 American Indian tribes are governed, and deprive them of basic operating funds if they do not agree to the changes.

Little noticed in Washington, where they were buried as riders on a spending bill already freighted with the fate of the National Endowment for the Arts and money for new park lands, the proposed changes have caused a furor on the reservations.

The tribes say Congress is trying to strip them of sovereignty because of a perception that Indian reservations are prospering with casino gambling - disregarding the fact that the vast majority remain among the poorest places in the nation.

The architect of the riders, Sen. Slade Gorton, who has had a 25-year running dispute with Indians, says the measures are part of a campaign to force a fundamental change in Indian affairs.

“I find nothing in any Indian treaty that says they must be continuously supported by the federal taxpayers,” said Gorton in an interview. Gorton is chairman of the Interior Appropriations subcommittee, which passed a $13 billion spending bill last month that contains the Indian riders.

The Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe stand to lose millions of dollars under Gorton’s proposal.

Ernie Stensgar, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council, said the action was typical of Gorton, who “is operating an agenda of political genocide against American Indian tribes.”

More than half of the tribe’s annual operating budget, or $6.5 million, is at stake, said communications director Donna Matheson. Such cuts would hurt education, social services, courts, police, fire management and other services.

Leaders from the National Congress of American Indians will meet next Wednesday to discuss the appropriations bill, Matheson said.

“It’s very frustrating for the tribes,” she said. “Instead of making headway toward economic self-sufficiency, over and over again the leaders are required to go to Washington, D.C.”

In addition to the Indian riders, the spending bill past in Gorton’s subcommittee last month includes many provisions dear to the Clinton administration.

Bracing for a showdown, the Clinton administration has threatened to veto the spending bill if it contains the Indian measures. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt called it “one of the most radical and unjust of a stream of recent congressional proposals,” which would “overturn almost two centuries of jurisprudence.”

One of Gorton’s measures would force tribes to waive sovereign immunity from civil lawsuits or lose up to $767 million - nearly half of the entire budget for daily operations on land that 1.4 million Indians live on or near. Under the other rider, tribes could be denied federal money if their income was above a certain level.

Without sovereign immunity, the tribes say, they could face bankruptcy by lawsuits and would be unable to operate as governments. And subjecting them to income requirements, or what the government calls means-testing, would be singling them out, they say, because other city and state governments do not have to go through such tests for their share of federal funds.

“If Senator Gorton would ever be willing to come to a reservation, he would see very clearly that most tribal governments are barely getting by as it is,” said John Blackhawk, chairman of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. “These two riders are outrageous. They are a total departure from the government-to-government relationship the tribes have always had with Washington.”

Though Babbitt has said he would recommend a veto if the riders are left in the bill, both items are entwined in a package that contains $100 million to keep the National Endowment for the Arts alive and $700 million for environmental purchases such as a gold mine that threatens Yellowstone National Park, and a huge grove of ancient redwood trees that could be logged in California.

“I’m defending them on the NEA and land acquisition, so it would not behoove the administration to come after me on the these issues,” Gorton said.

The only Indian in the Senate, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a R-Colo., has also thrown down a gauntlet on the measures, saying they would only be passed “over my dead body.”

Sovereign immunity and basic federal operating funds are not subject to shifting political winds, Campbell wrote in a letter to Gorton, but are “a result of solemn promises made by the United States to tribal governments in exchange for Indian lands.”

When the full Senate takes up the Interior spending bill next month, Gorton and his supporters are counting on the fact that 17 states have no recognized Indians tribes within their boundaries. Also, Gorton said, the time may be ripe to force a significant change in the long-standing status that Indians have had as nations within a nation.

“The irony is that the very concept of sovereign immunity is descended from English common law,” he said. “And it’s an anachronism.”

Indian governments, as well as federal and local agencies, often evoke the immunity status as a way to guarantee that projects like sewage systems or road construction go ahead without the threat of financially crushing lawsuits. Individual Indians can be sued in federal court, but the tribes themselves are generally protected.

The tribes say they are under assault by Gorton and others in Congress because of a perception that they getting wealthy from casino gambling.

“This is straight-out an attempt to get rid of tribal governments,” said John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians. “In order to do that, Gorton and others are playing off a perception that a whole bunch of tribes are getting rich off gaming. In fact, only a handful are making any money at it.”

A report in December by the General Accounting Office found that 10 tribes took in more than 50 percent of the $1.6 billion received by Indian reservations from tribal gambling. Only about one-third of all American Indian tribes have gambling centers. Unemployment on the reservations is more than three times the national average, and 38 percent of all Indians aged 6 to 11 years old live below the poverty level.

Supporters of Gorton’s measures say they resent the power that Indians have over non-Indians on or near reservations. They say it is very hard for someone who is not an Indian to win redress in tribal courts.

“By being able to claim immunity from suit, tribes are not fully accountable in court for their actions - like all the rest of us in America are,” said Barbara Lindsey, president of a property rights group in Washington state, in a recent statement sent to Gorton.

The Indians say Gorton has longstanding animosity toward the tribes, bordering on a vendetta, which dates to his days fighting Indian fishing rights in the Pacific Northwest.

“Before, he was just going after one or two tribes, but now he’s launched a broad attack on all the tribes,” Dossett said. “As a result, Indians have stopped being able to accomplish anything positive in Congress and are just fighting all these defensive battles.”

Gorton responded that he has won more cases in the Supreme Court against Indians than he has lost - and so did not feel a need to even the score. They are angry at him now, he said, because he is trying to break up an old system that many Indians have grown too comfortable with.

“Crying racism is the last refuge of a group of individuals who can’t argue on the merits,” Gorton said.

The tribes are particularly angry that on a matter that could so radically change the nature of Indian governments, there have been no hearings, no debate, no field trips to reservations. It is similar, they say, to how Congress tried to rewrite environmental laws last year using legislative riders.

“We see this as an abrogation of treaties,” said Debra Doxtator, chairwoman of the Oneida Tribe in Wisconsin. “We gave up vast amounts of land in return for sovereignty and certain obligations by the federal government. Now they want to throw that out. It would be devastating to us. Yet, we aren’t even consulted.”

Gorton said he thought his legislative riders would prevail when the full Senate takes up the spending bill next month. But even if they did not pass, he said he would continue to use his position as chairman of the committee that oversees spending for the tribes to overhaul Indian affairs.

“These are matters of principle for me,” Gorton said. “Indians are citizens of the United States. They should be governed by laws of the United States as everyone else is.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THE PROPOSAL U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington has proposed measures that would force tribes to waive sovereign immunity from civil lawsuits or lose millions in operations money. Tribes also could be denied money if their incomes exceed certain levels. Those provisions were proposed in riders to a $13 billion spending bill that passed the Senate Interior Appropriations Committee last month.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Timothy Egan New York Times Staff writer Julie Titone contributed to this report.

This sidebar appeared with the story: THE PROPOSAL U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington has proposed measures that would force tribes to waive sovereign immunity from civil lawsuits or lose millions in operations money. Tribes also could be denied money if their incomes exceed certain levels. Those provisions were proposed in riders to a $13 billion spending bill that passed the Senate Interior Appropriations Committee last month.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Timothy Egan New York Times Staff writer Julie Titone contributed to this report.


 

Click here to comment on this story »