Is There a Backlash in the Making?

Charles Trimble

A column from a right wing periodical Town Hall, "No Reservations: The Case for Dismantling the Indian Bureaucracy," gives an excellent example of the kind of stuff that feeds anti-tribal backlash. The lead sentence reads: “If ever a federal agency were a candidate for termination, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) would make for a good choice.”

That opening is not surprising, given the performance of the BIA over nearly two centuries (including the IIM trust funds rip-off), but the rest of the article is a detailed attack on the tribes and tribal sovereignty. The blog feedback at the end of the article gives an idea of the public this trash is targeting, and the impact it has on such yahoos. For example, this comment was typical of responses: “I'm all about reducing the money that goes into the reservations. If they want to be sovereign let them be sovereign. Stop voting in US Elections, don't receive US money. Run your own show and do what you want. Hold your own elections or do what you did in the old days and put a chief in charge. Keep your Indian heritage alive. I'm all for that.”

Carl Horowitz, the author of the column, is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project of the National Legal and Policy Center, an “organization dedicated to promoting ethics in American public life.” Just as anti-tribal groups did in the backlash of 1976-77 with names like Montanans Opposed to Discrimination (MOD) and Interstate Congress for Equal Rights and Responsibilities (ICERR), Horowitz’s organization claims a high-minded aim like ethics to cover its real purposes. He writes convincingly, with facts that he uses selectively to support his logic for dismantling the BIA, IHS and all federal Indian programs, and for discontinuing recognition of tribal sovereignty.

He writes that within the reservations, which he calls mini-nations, tribal leaders enjoy unlimited power, and often use it as a cover for corruption. And that such corruption is widespread in Indian Country, and cites cases in Fort Peck, Tonkawa, Apache, and Cheyenne-Arapaho in Oklahoma, and Southern Paiute in Arizona. These alleged theft cases total $1,158,000, a pittance compared to what was ripped off from American stockholders by such as the Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs in recent years.

Although none of the above-cited cases involved BIA funds, per se, he goes on to say “It isn’t just the Bureau of Indian Affairs funds that have made their way into the pockets of crooks.” Then he cites a GAO report that tells of medical equipment, worth about $15.8 million, being unaccounted for by IHS. Horowitz doesn’t tell what the GAO report suspects may have happened to the missing equipment, but his readers are led to surmise that the Indians stole them, for he goes on to say that “far bigger piles of loot can be made legally in class action suits.” This, of course, leads to the Keepseagle v. Vilsack and the Cobell v. Salazar settlements. “The details of these cases,” he writes, “suggest a well-planned and executed plaintiff shakedown.”

Now comes the usual beef about Indian gaming, in which Horowitz describes the massive revenues from larger casinos on the East and West Coasts as examples of Indian gaming throughout the country. Of the Indian Gaming regulatory Act (signed by President Reagan, by the way), Horowitz says that it “confers monopoly rights upon tribes,” and gives them “immunity from state regulation.”

What a twist on sovereign rights that is. But that kind of spin is what makes people resentful of Indian rights.

Horowitz concludes: “Ending the network of incestuous relationships and accompanying corruption requires that Congress do the unthinkable: Abolish the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service and all other federal agencies that serve Native American interests. These agencies have outlived whatever usefulness they had. Lawmakers also ought to end the practice of formal tribal recognition. Why should Cheyenne, Choctaw, Mohawk or Sioux sovereign ‘nations’ exist within our borders, any more than Dutch, Irish, Italian or Polish ethnic ones? It is one thing for members of a particular tribe to live in close proximity, preferring their own company. It is entirely another for Americans as a whole to be coerced into subsidizing this tribal confederacy, an arrangement that is not only costly, but also corrosive of national identity.”

All this stuff sounds completely reasonable to many people, enemies of tribes as well as some well-meaning people who will see termination as freeing Indian people of their dependency and poverty. And it is people like these who will push their state leaders and Congressional delegations to listen to the likes of Horowitz.

Indian people feel more confident than ever before in our sovereignty and our self-governmental rights, and in our unique trust relationship with the United States. And we are right in feeling that way. We should feel secure in the confidence that our firm belief in ourselves provides.

Our leaders, we hope, will never knowingly surrender our sovereignty, and it can’t be taken from us. But those who resent us can get Congress to enact laws that would make it damned hard or virtually impossible for our tribes to exercise sovereignty for the people. That’s what I fear in backlash.

I don’t know if anything is being done by our advocate organizations to even talk about backlash. But I think it would be wise to prepare ourselves to address such a movement in its early stages if it should come, for the political atmosphere today is right for such an eventuality.

Charles Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association—forerunner of the Native American Journalists Association—in 1970, and served from 1972-1978 as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians. He can be contacted at cchuktrim@aol.com. His website is www.iktomisweb.com.

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temporary's picture
Charles Trimble cannot and should not be trusted. He was also the founder of the American Indian Press Association. What is good for the media is bad for America and awful for Indians. Don't ever trust media boys like Charles Trimble. They are wasichus with the interests of wasichus at heart. I note that his current piece merely repeats the trash and hate that was spewed out by the right wing Town Hall without trying to rebut all of the arguments raised in the original article. But I agree with Trimble's conclusion that "it would be wise to prepare ourselves to address such a movement in its early stages if it should come, for the political atmosphere today is right for such an eventuality." The best way to prepare is to realize that the enemy, when it attacks, will attack us from within our nations.
shunka's picture
I want to address the question about dismantling the BIA and IHS. I worked for both organizations and over the years felt some of the most dedicated and hard working federal employees worked for these organizations, for the good of tribal members. In 2002, I transferred to the Office of the Special Trustee (OST) who at the time was headed by Ross Swimmer. My job was management analyst for the division of Trust Records. To my dismay most of the work researching and putting together reports were being done by contractors. I asked management why aren't we as employees being trained to do what the contractors are doing? Not being the only employee at OTR to question this, an investigation was launched by a Federal Judge in charge of the Cobell case, who appointed Alan Balarain as the Special Master to investigate OST. The backlash from management at OST was to move the office of Office of Trust Records (OTR) to Overland, KS using the rationale that trust records were better protected in this underground facility. Ironically the National Record Archive Administration (NARA) already had the trust records being sent to the underground facility under their jurisdication. What happened was the employees who had called for an investigation then were given the choice of transferring to Kansas or losing their positions. Most of these employees were NM residents and did not want to relocate. I did transfer, my home is Cherokee, NC and I was not as tied to Albuquerque, as the rest of the employees. In Kansas, OST implemented the same practice, everything of importance in dealing with trust records given over to contractors. My point is management of OST was proven to give out no bid contracts over and over to a contractor they have a special relationship with. This management team is still in place at OST, when is this office going to come to the light of day, concerning mismanagement? When are Indian leaders going to stand up for the good things about the BIA and IHS and have the courage to turn the spotlight on OST who was supposed to correct all the things, that had been done incorrectly with the BIA management of IIM accounts? OST needs to be disbanded give the funds to the BIA and IHS, lets hear it for transparency of what is going on with the agencies that have such an impact on our daily lives!
davidquincy's picture
Back in March 2000, I was in a MPA program at Portland State University, I accepted a job with DataCom, a Indian owned company that had been contracted by the BIA. My job was to research and recomend corrections, the majority of the research was looking at probate records and corresponding computer records. Mistakes had been made going back to the Mid 1800's. For example two persons with similar Indian names would pass, the one persons heirs would recieve all of the land interests of the other person. Individuals would have the same enrollment number as others, or would have two or more enrollment numbers, or the wrong enrollment number. There was a period covering 30 years (a BIA employee's career span?) where numbers were backwards ie...4321 instead of 1234; My point here is, were their qualified federal workers that could have done the work the contractors were doing, yes, but the work the contractors did was done in a professional, metholdical way that more then met the requirements of the contract awarded. I also know that these contracts were awarded in compliance with the Federal Acquistions Regulations (FAR). I do agree that transparency is needed.

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