Termination at the Times?
Competence on Indian issues continues to be in doubt at The New York Times,
going now from simple inaccuracy to a discernable bias for termination.
That's a good conclusion to be drawn from its carelessly damaging report
May 14 on two rulings the previous day from the Interior Board of Indian
The IBIA vacated positive findings on federal recognition of two
Connecticut tribes and sent them back to Interior's assistant secretary of
Indian Affairs for more work. This story was sad enough in itself, but
Times reporter Raymond Hernandez misread it as wiping out their tribal
existence. The headline read "Groups lose recognition as tribes," and in
the body of the story, on the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation and the
Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, Hernandez referred to them only as "groups."
Times editors have not answered our phone calls, so we do not know if this
word choice is a product of the personal inexperience of the reporter or of
some bizarre new style rule from editors higher up. By calling these two
tribes "groups," the Times linguistically and effectively wipes out four
centuries of their recorded history and existence as a people stretching
back millennia. It ignores their quest for federal acknowledgment that goes
back to 1978, when the current procedures went into effect.
We take issue with the Times' reporting perspective on this story. It shows
severe unawareness of these two peoples' recognition by the state, with
reservations predating American independence. (The Eastern Pequot
reservation at Lantern Hill in North Stonington dates to 1683, making it
one of the oldest continuously occupied reservations in the country.)
The Times is reflecting a dangerous trend in the press and some political
circles that threatens all Indian country. Bluntly put, termination
thinking - conscious and unconscious - is back.
The backlash was already there, incited perhaps by envy of some striking
tribal success stories. Indian country's economy is growing at three times
the national rate, and not just from casinos. But the anti-tribal feeling
appears vastly emboldened by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the City of
Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York case. Indian law and media
experts nationwide are saying the court abandoned legal principle because
of emotional fears whipped up by untrue anti-sovereignty propaganda.
State politicians are seizing the moment to bully the tribes. Rhode Island
Gov. Donald Carcieri, through his spokesman, declined to apologize to the
Narragansett Indians for the July 2003 raid on their smoke shop or return
their confiscated property - even after the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals on
May 12 found the raid illegal. He is so far refusing to negotiate the sales
tax issue, as the court urged.
A Connecticut delegation lead by the rabidly anti-Indian state Attorney
General Richard Blumenthal trouped through a Senate Indian Affairs
Committee hearing May 11, supporting a bill to terminate the Schaghticokes
even before their recognition became final. They might be prematurely
rejoicing over the appeals board ruling, which left the question open for
further research, but there is no doubt they will lobby furiously to
intimidate leaderless and demoralized officials at the BIA's Office of
Federal Acknowledgment. New York state Gov. George Pataki has even
threatened to cause the loss of more than 4,000 non-Indian jobs at the
Oneida Indian Nation's Turning Stone Resort and Casino, the one growth
sector in economically stagnant central New York, to force a land claims
(Readers should not discount this warning even though the publisher of this
paper, Four Directions Media, is an Oneida Nation enterprise. The dangers
of the Sherrill aftermath are clear to any independent judgment, and the
Oneida Nation itself has its pitfalls to overcome, including growing
conflicts as well as the temptation to compromise fundamental sovereignty
to cut deals with Pataki.)
The anti-Indian backlash is linked to an obsession with casinos, but the
surging malice comes from a deeper root. The neighbors of the Mohegans and
the Mashantucket Pequots in Connecticut, the Upstate Citizens for Equality
in New York and anti-sovereignty groups across the country see casinos as
the engines of a feared and hated Indian revival. The cash flow from gaming
has allowed tribes to repurchase a land base and give substance to their
sovereignty. The Supreme Court in Sherrill reacted to an imagined, baseless
and unproven threat of "administrative chaos," meaning that a tribal
government might actually make policy that could affect non-Indians.
The reaction among many has been to wish Indians out of existence as
self-governing peoples. It was perhaps a symptom that Times art critic
Grace Glueck, in a recent review of a George Catlin exhibit, observed that
the Mandan Nation he painted is now extinct, wiped out by smallpox in 1837.
This might be news to Tex Hall, chief of the Three Affiliated Tribes -
Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara and president of the National Congress of
American Indians. Mandans have survived to make a vigorous contribution to
Indian country. But the hope for extermination can be seen all over the
It lies not far from the surface in the appeals board's ruling on the
Connecticut tribes. The two judges vacated recognition on the grounds that
the BIA improperly relied on continuous state recognition of the Eastern
Pequots to fill in gaps in the documentary evidence of their existence as a
community and political entity. (These gaps, for the record, ran from 1913
- '29 and 1955 - '73.) It then cited the Eastern Pequot ruling to vacate
the Schaghticoke recognition.
In other words, if you can't produce documents decade by decade, you cease
to exist, even though the same members show up before and after the gaps,
Most people who see a horse run behind a barn and come out the other side
assume he's still a horse when he's out of sight. In fact, according to
Jean Piaget's studies of infant cognition, this is one of the first steps
in human development.
But this argument has the effect of making new recognitions practically
impossible. For all the claims that casino interests are corruptly pushing
to "create" new tribes, the questionable influences we have seen in the
recognition process all come from the other direction. The one clearly
improper contact on record was a meeting between Blumenthal and Interior
Secretary Gale Norton. Some cynics have even suggested that federally
recognized tribes are somehow trying to protect their gaming markets
against new entrants. We refuse to believe it. The termination spirit is a
clear threat to everyone.
The attempts to delegitimize the Eastern tribes trace back to a novelistic
attack on the Mashantucket Pequots written by one Jeff Benedict. Even
though he has been roundly refuted at home, he is making a living by taking
his mis-truths on the road, fooling a few western Indians along the way.
The Benedict-Blumenthal line is becoming entrenched in the mainstream press
simply by constant repetition. The distinguished Times columnist William
Safire soiled his final column for the paper by repeating the lie that
"phony" tribes had won recognition for the sake of setting up casinos. The
New York Times is now embedding this lie in its stylebook.