Flexing their newfound political muscle, several hundred Native American leaders are on Capitol Hill this week to fight attempts to cut their federal payments and undermine their unique right to govern themselves.
Buoyed by support from the Clinton administration and a number of senators, tribal leaders have launched an all-out campaign to kill the two provisions offered by Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., in the Interior Department’s 1998 spending bill.
Gorton, who has clashed frequently with Native Americans, is asking that tribes with higher incomes be stripped of their federal aid, which comes to them under long-standing treaties. Indians say Gorton’s proposal is a back-door attempt to chip away at the phenomenal success a few tribes have had with gambling, even though most tribes still suffer from extreme poverty.
Gorton’s second provision would require Indians to renounce their immunity from lawsuits in U.S. courts or lose $767 million, nearly half of what the government gives the nation’s 554 tribes each year. Generally, lawsuits brought against tribes must be tried in their courts.
“The tribes will tell you there is an obligation on the part of the government to pay them in perpetuity regardless of how much money they make,” said Gorton. “I, on the other hand, believe self-determination carries a certain responsibility of self-support when self-support is possible.”
As for making tribes subject to suits, Gorton said: “Tribal sovereignty will in no way erode by giving citizens the right to bring civil suits before an impartial court. And what of the erosion of the constitutional rights of United States citizens currently denied due process?”
The two provisions are caught up in a bill heading for a vote by the full Senate. The bill also includes $700 million for environmental programs and $100 million to keep the National Endowment for the Arts operating.
Five years ago, tribes would not have been as forward about their affairs. But attacks on their sovereignty and business enterprises, along with their much-publicized contributions to non-Indian political causes, have made them savvy lobbyists.
“What Sen. Gorton is doing is outrageous,” said Kurt BlueDog, a Minneapolis lawyer who represents tribes from the Midwest and West. “I mean, this should not have even been on the radar screen. What is he thinking?”
Earlier this week, the tribes set up a command center at a hotel near the Capitol to plot their strategy. They’re asking senators to reject Gorton’s measures, and they’re running large newspaper ads asking Congress to “Honor America’s promise.”
It appears to be working.
On Wednesday, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said he will probably move to strike Gorton’s provisions from the bill. And he thinks he has the votes.
“The responsibility for sovereignty we have now accorded tribes and the constant enacting of statutes to promote their economic development is what’s at issue,” said Daschle. “This legislation would undermine their opportunities pretty dramatically.”
Indian leaders don’t dispute Gorton’s belief tribes should help themselves. Rather, they argue he has no right to meddle with the financial and legal system the federal government set up as payback for land, minerals and other natural resources it took from Indians years ago.
Furthermore, tribes argue stripping them of federal dollars would amount to means-testing.
“The tribes’ position is state and local governments are not subjected to means-testing, so why should they be?” said Chris McNeil, an attorney for the Mashantucket Pequot tribe of Connecticut, which owns one of the most profitable gambling casinos in the country. “They feel this is a discriminatory move that would impair the special relationship between them and the government.”
A December General Accounting Office survey found more than half of the $1.6 billion received on reservations from gambling went to only 10 tribes.
And according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 71 percent of wage earners in Indian country make less than $9,000 a year. On some reservations, the unemployment rate is as high as 65 percent.
Even the poorest tribes, which stand to gain more federal money under Gorton’s proposal, say the senator’s plan is the wrong one because it attacks tribal sovereignty.
“We were promised federal assistance through treaties in exchange for what they took from us,” said John Steele, president of the Oglala Sioux nation of Pine Ridge, S.D., the poorest reservation in the country.