Regulatory Updates

The Days of Silence

Ernest Stevens, Jr.
Ernest Stevens, Jr.

Ernest Stevens, Jr., Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association

I've written a number of times about how far Indian Country has come in the past 25 years, always remembering that much more needs to be done. But I would like to reflect further back to the journey that our ancestors endured in order to place our current situation in better context.

Many know that Indian tribes were independent governments with flourishing economies long before the Europeans “discovered” this continent. After contact, the nations of England, France, and Spain all entered into treaties with tribes in order to maintain peace and build trade alliances to benefit from tribal economies.

When the United States was established, it too entered into treaties with tribes for these same reasons. The U.S. Constitution acknowledges Indian tribes as one of three sovereigns that the federal government deals with on commerce-related issues: “Foreign Nations, the Several States, and the Indian Tribes.”

However, the Constitution did not acknowledge Indian tribes as citizens, and did not afford tribes representation in Congress. Only state governments were afforded congressional representation and the state governments' land interests directly conflicted with those of Indian tribes.

To put it simply, tribes had no voice. In the ears and eyes of Congress, we were silent. With no right to vote, and no representation before Congress, the United States imposed the destructive policies of removal, allotment and assimilation, and termination. These policies caused the taking of hundreds of millions of acres of tribal homelands, the massacre of millions of our ancestors, and the devastation of tribal cultures and economies.

In addition, during these days of silence, Congress established an entire Title of the United States Code of laws that applies only to actions on Indian lands. These laws and subsequent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court further stifled the ability of tribal governments to help their communities. Tribal lands were encumbered. Tribal governments were prevented from taxing transactions on their lands. Tribal citizens were subjected to federal prosecution for on-reservation crimes. These and many other federal laws continue to plague tribal communities today.

In 1924, Congress passed the American Indian Citizenship Act, which granted the right to vote to all Native Americans. However, because state governments controlled polling stations, many states barred Native Americans from voting as late as the 1960s. Nevertheless, this Act generated a voice for Indian tribes and with it a chance for positive change.

It is no coincidence that the federal government, during this same time (the 1960s) altered its policy on Indian affairs from termination of tribal governmental status to support of tribal self-determination and strengthening tribal governments. Indian tribes throughout the nation began to strengthen their voice.

In the 1970s, the Report of the American Indian Policy Review Commission convinced the U.S. Senate to establish a committee dedicated solely to Indian Affairs and the concerns of tribal communities. Tribes had a door to knock on, on Capitol Hill, and an ear to bend to express the concerns of the growing voice of Indian Country.

In more recent years, a number of tribal economies have been rebuilt to the point where tribal government budgets can afford to appoint representation to petition and educate Congress about tribal community concerns. A handful of tribes have made contributions to federal elections. These tools represent additional avenues of strengthening the voice of Indian Country before Congress – tools that state and local governments and every industry in the nation use to communicate with Congress.

While tribes are just beginning to participate, they have played no major role in the campaign process. For example, in 2004, tribal contributions amounted to one-third of one percent of the nationwide total made to federal campaigns. Big industries like pharmaceuticals, securities, healthcare and others make up the bulk of federal campaign donations. In addition, Congress itself is responsible for a large portion of contributions. Many congressmen have established leadership Political Action Committees, or PACs, through which they can aide the campaigns of other congressmen to strengthen their friendships and build alliances.

However, this system is far from perfect. Scandals involving allegations of criminal acts by lobbyists and several congressmen have Capitol Hill scrambling for reform. Most reform packages include more disclosure for lobbyists and Congress, restrictions on gifts and travel from lobbyists, post-federal employment restrictions, and possibly limits on pork spending.

Those charged with crimes include the former Majority Leader, a congressional appropriator, and current and former congressional staff members. The facts are clear that this is a lobbying scandal, not a tribal scandal. No Indian tribe or tribal official has been charged with a crime. However, some media outlets and misguided politicians have proposed legislation to prohibit tribes from contributing to federal campaigns, again silencing the voice of Indian Country. These proposals represent the worst form of scapegoating.

Indian Country will not stand silent. The federal government plays too major a role in the daily lives of reservation citizens to go back to the days of silence. After all, we know well what can happen when you have no voice.

Ernest Stevens, Jr., is Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association. He can be reached by calling (202) 546-7711 or visit www.indiangaming.org