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Shawn Vestal: Fox talking head short on facts about tribes

Coeur d’Alene Tribe Chairman Chief Allan wrote a letter to Fox News complaining about comments made by John Stossel.
Coeur d’Alene Tribe Chairman Chief Allan wrote a letter to Fox News complaining about comments made by John Stossel.

Chief Allan has heard it all his life.

Why do you Indians get so much help? Free this, free that, a check every month. Why do you have it so good?

“My whole life, everywhere, going to elementary school, going to middle school, going to high school, going to college … I always heard, ‘Why do you guys get all that (funding)? Why do you get those monthly checks?’ ” said Allan, the chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

And so, when Allan heard Fox News bloviator John Stossel’s piece, “Freeloading Doesn’t Help the Freeloaders” – about the negative effects on tribes of the government’s “help” for them – it chapped his hide. Stossel didn’t mention the fictional monthly checks, but he managed to drag out every other element of the arguments Allan’s heard all his life.

“It’s totally wrong,” said Allan – for whom Chief is a name, not a title. “It’s not freeloading. We have contracts with the U.S. government; we traded millions of acres of land.”

Allan fired off a letter to Fox, asking for an apology and trying to set Stossel straight – though Stossel, whose attacks on “freeloaders” often focus on the rapacious, conniving poor and not, say, G.E., likely isn’t all that interested in getting things straight.

But Allan said he sent the letter because he’s had a goal since taking over as tribal chairman six years ago: “a promise to my kids and myself to do a better job about educating the community.”

Stossel refers to billions in programs for tribes and Indians as though they were unrelated to the contracts Allan refers to – the treaties, which the government used to take tribal land. One suspects that Stossel might take them more seriously if the situation were reversed, and the tribes were trying to get out of some obligation that benefited prosperous, cranky, “no-nonsense” white men who can’t stop complaining about their taxes.

“No group has been more ‘helped’ by the American government than American Indians,” Stossel said. “Yet no group in America does worse. … Indians would be better off without government handouts.”

Of course that’s what this is about. What’s best for Indians. Stossel offers some “evidence” that he’s right about this: He mentions one nonrecognized tribe in North Carolina, the Lumbees, whose members have had some business successes, and some of whom want nothing to do with federal recognition or federal dollars.

Well, there you have it. Proof.

A lot of times, in other contexts, people who are concerned about business, markets and freedom revere contracts.

The continual breaking and dishonoring of treaties is one of the uncomfortable parts of the country’s history – like top-down genocidal campaigns and massacres of women and children – that complicate our Fourth of July narratives. But these were deals the government made, and the government “help” Stossel so disdains is what would be known in any other context – boardrooms or banks, say – as “obligations.”

Stossel asked why there is a Bureau of Indian Affairs, given that there’s not a Bureau of Puerto Rican affairs? Or Irish Affairs?

See? There is such a thing as a dumb question. Allan’s letter to Fox Chairman Roger Ailes answers it eloquently:

“Perhaps if Mr. Stossel had bothered to educate himself before asking such a disparaging and misleading question, he would have learned that, unlike Puerto Ricans, Black Americans or Irish Americans, Native Americans share a unique relationship with the federal government called the Federal Trust Responsibility. This fiduciary duty arose from contractually binding promises made to Tribes in exchange for the hundreds of millions of acres of land ceded to the United States government during the nation’s movement westward. Stossel intentionally misleads viewers to believe that the ‘help’ the tribes receive is some gratuitous benefit provided to one minority over another. However, it is, in fact, a requirement under the terms of treaties and executive orders. 

“Had he bothered to research Native American history, Mr. Stossel may have also learned that U.S. military campaigns ordered to forcibly remove Indians from those lands, did so with lies, deception and ultimately by slaughtering our men, women and children. Maybe next time Mr. Stossel decides to recklessly rant about government waste he won’t choose the department effectively mandated by Congress to remedy the aftermath of state-sponsored genocide.”

Allan has not heard back from Fox, and he’s not holding his breath. I tried to contact the network flaks, and Stossel himself, without success.  

But, since Stossel offered the Lumbee, those flourishing free-market North Carolinians, as his “evidence,” let me offer my own “evidence” – what the heck; let’s call it “proof” – that his entire premise is incorrect: the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

At its casino and other operations, the tribe is one of the biggest employers in North Idaho. It’s responsible, directly and indirectly, for some 4,000 jobs, according to a 2010 study. Its operations contribute $12.4 million in taxes.

They’re federally recognized and doing well.

Must have been all that help.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@

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