California initiative may pose problems for state's Indian population

James May
8/29/03

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Lost in the hoopla surrounding California's recall election is a voter initiative that has potential consequences for Indian country. The initiative, known as Proposition 54, seeks to prohibit state and local governments from classifying people by race, with a few exceptions, for data collection and use.

Proposition 54 is the brainchild of controversial University of California Regent Ward Connerly, an outspoken critic of affirmative action programs and guiding light behind the 1996 ballot initiative Proposition 209 which outlawed many state affirmative action programs, but left racial tracking data untouched.

Not surprisingly, civil rights groups are decrying the measure as discriminatory. Several groups have publicly worried about the potential effects that taking racial tracking data out of the picture will have on, among other things, law enforcement traffic stops and the number of minority arrests and convictions compared to the general population.

Proponents of Proposition 54 say that, if passed, the initiative will have little effect on Indian country because the relationship between tribes and the government is largely federal.

However, several prominent American Indian leaders in California say while this is true to a certain extent there are a series of backdoor dangers and consequences that will directly effect American Indians in California.

Diane Schachterle, who works for the American Civil Rights Coalition and the coordinator for Proposition 54, says that since the courts have defined American Indians as political and not ethnic entities, their status will not be effected.

"The bottom line is that federal law outweighs state laws," says Schachterle. "Native Americans have their primary relationship with the federal and not state government."

One major concern for American Indians, who suffer the highest rates of diabetes in the country, is that this initiative would take away tracking data for important health-related studies in regard to ethnic groups.

Schachterle emphasizes that health is one major exception to the proposed legislation and data regarding health-related issues for different ethnic groups would remain untouched.

However, Schachterle concedes that some issues will need special clarification if the initiative is passed such as federal reliance on state and local agencies to gather statistics for federal programs. As a failsafe, says Schachterle, the state legislature can override provisions of the initiative with a two-thirds vote.

If passed, this initiative will most likely end up in the courts and Schachterle says that many of the questions surrounding American Indian issues will be clarified during that process.

Some prominent American Indian leaders, however, do not quite agree with Schachterle's assessment of the issue.

"We have to live in this state, and as a minority people, this will definitely effect us," said Brenda Soulliere, Chairwoman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA) the largest Indian gaming lobby group in the state.

CNIGA Executive Director Jake Coin said that while his organization has not officially taken a stand on Proposition 54, he says that the initiative is riddled with unexpected problems.

For example, said Coin, the federal relationship only covers tribes that are federally recognized and based in California, which only make up a small minority of the total number of American Indians living in California, the state with the largest number of American Indian residents. Coin is himself a member of an out of state tribe.

The 2000 United States Census listed 265,000 American Indians in California, of these it is estimated that no more than 60,000 are from federally recognized California tribes. Coin contends that the vast majority of Indians in California, who are from out of state and unrecognized tribes would be vulnerable to the provisions of this initiative because they do not have federally protected status.

"I think it (Proposition 54) really is no different in how it would effect any other state resident," said CNIGA Communications Director Susan Jensen.

Coin lists several potential areas where the initiative might have negative results for the state's American Indian population. One of these is in housing statistics where information for federal agencies is gathered by the state.

Another problem area is in university admissions. If enacted this initiative would prove to be problematic for tribes trying to track the total number of American Indian students. Professional organizations such as the American Indian Science & Engineering Society (AISES) could potentially have trouble tracking American Indian students on California campuses.

Other areas potentially affected, says Coin, are information regarding American Indians on food stamps, elder care and those on any other form of public assistance.

This initiative could even have adverse effects for proponents of this measure," Coin said. "How do we know that we've achieved parity between the ethnic groups if we don't have the statistics to back it up. It just doesn't make any sense."

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