Sovereignty for Rent?

Charles Trimble

I don’t recall what Nevada tribe it was in the early 1970s that had submitted a proposal to the BIA for financial assistance to buy a bordello. The prospective business was a place akin to the infamous Chicken Ranch that inspired creation of the book and hit Broadway production “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” With the possible exception of some of the “civilized” tribes in the Bible belt, Indian Country was not scandalized about the prospect. At any rate, the blue-nosed bureaucrats at BIA declined the proposal.

The tribal Chicken Ranch business would not have caused too great a stir because it would have been legal in Nevada; and, paraphrasing the ad, “what happens in Nevada stays in Nevada.”

But a new questionable prospect that concerns me these days involves some tribes that are engaged with loan sharks in check cashing and usurious lending businesses, allowing those non Native sleaze bags to circumvent state laws.

According to a NPR report, the states of California, New Mexico, West Virginia and Colorado, are in legal fights with Internet-based payday lenders who argue that they are immune from regulation because they are tribal enterprises. They flaunt sovereign immunity, although there are questions as to whether they are really in the ownership and control of their host tribes. The question is are they merely renting immunity from the sovereign tribes that claim them as tribal businesses? If so, it is rotten to the core and taints and weakens the sovereignty of all tribes. Even if the tribes really do own the businesses, it still stinks. It’s like having a pimp in the family; he shames everyone, but you can’t disown him because he is family.

I’m not a blue-nosed bureaucrat, and I do understand sovereignty and the right of tribes to exercise it. And I do understand the poverty and powerlessness that tribes have endured over the past centuries. And I understand that now they are empowered – by their own confidence, mainly – to use their powers and immunities, they try by any means possible to make up for much time lost in poverty and powerlessness. And if they want to use their powers and immunities in reckless pursuit of money, it is the tribes’ business and no outside interest can tell them what not to do. I respect that.

Nevertheless, this type of business is fodder for those forces that still argue that tribes are not up to the standards of discipline and law for sovereignty and self-governance. Instead they are seen by many as havens of corruption and lawlessness, and fronts for sleazy businesses. These are the things that could feed a backlash; and as I have written before, even if our sovereignty is secure, those forces could make it most difficult to exercise it for the good of our people.

For example, anti-tribal forces could push Congress to just extend the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act’s requirement for state-tribal compacts for other non-gaming businesses. Or ultra-conservative budget cutters could use the excuse of not wanting to promote state law circumvention by subsidizing the payday lenders through the tribes.

In my keynote address to the NCAI annual convention three years ago, I noted that NCAI should serve as “a family of nations” in which the tribes can talk candidly about sovereignty, for example: What it is and what it can be. And I noted “There is great dignity in sovereignty, and great discipline is needed for its preservation. The powers of sovereignty could bring arrogance and overconfidence on the part of our leaders, especially when they are promised great wealth by outside lawyers who want to use them. And sometimes, pursuant to greed, the envelope of sovereignty can be pushed to the limits of its destruction. These are things that can be broached, discussed, and perhaps even controlled in a family setting.”

The dignity and decorum of tribal sovereignty should be carefully nurtured in the public eye.

There can be another anti-tribal backlash, and although our sovereignty will likely prevail ultimately, the fight can be very costly, in terms of policy, economies and rights of the tribes.

Charles Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association, and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. He can be reached at cchuktrim@aol.com. His website is iktomisweb.com.

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gamma's picture
Sovereignty huh? Do we even feel sovereign in our hearts? If we felt sovereign in our hearts, we wouldn't have volunteered in the American military at a 250% higher rate than any other ethnicity. If we felt sovereign in our hearts, we won't whip out our CDIB cards to prove our Indian status. If we felt sovereign in our hearts, we would have stopped honoring veterans who fought foreign wars at the start of every powwow and every event. If we felt sovereign in our hearts, we won't be honoring the US flag at the start of every powwow. If we felt sovereign in our hearts, we would stop relying on the Federal government to define us and go back to how we defined ourselves as a tribe before the Europeans got here. If we felt sovereign in our hearts, we would stop discriminating against those Indians who are from tribes that are not Federally recognized. If we felt sovereign in our hearts, we would stop relying on the Fed for ratification. I could go on and on, but hey, if we want to kid ourselves that we are sovereign, then let's do that.
gamma's picture
We need to re-assert sovereignty more strongly and more forcefully! Indian country needs to open its eyes and realize that this pseudo-sovereignty has been given to us by the Fed ONLY because they found that "tribal self-rule – sovereignty – has proven to be the ONLY policy that has shown concrete success in breaking debilitating economic dependence on federal spending programs" (Harvard Kennedy School of Government paper by Kalt & Singer, 2004). Other government economists have found this connection too (see for instance Cornell and Kalt (1992, 1995, 1997a, 1997b, 1998, 2000); Jorgensen (1997, 2000a, 2000b); Krepps (1992); Krepps and Caves (1994) Adams (1999); Dixon, et al. (1998); Moore, et al. (1990); Costello, et al. (2003)). They gave us sovereignty because it saves them money and reduces financial dependence on them. They gave us sovereignty because it led to a boom in non-Indian hirings in the factories and other operations of the Mississippi Choctaw (Ferraro 1998); because of the reduction in unemployment claims from 70% to 13% in six years by the Winnebago Tribe (HPAIED, 2000); because tribes such as Oneida, Choctaw and Mille Lacs have eschewed federal funding after being granted "test" sovereignty (HPAIED 1999, 2000, 2003); because the Jicarilla Apache and White Mountain Apache have shown reduced dependence on Federal dollars after sovereignty (HAPAIED 1999 & 2000); and because of other Federal research that has shown that Indian sovereignty will mean the government will have to spend less on Indians. The Fed looks at us as their "pets" who should be less dependent on them financially. They don't consider us to be true sovereign nations. Our leaders don't realize sovereignty has been "granted" because it saves the Fed money. Our leaders believe sovereignty is real, so we continue to honor the American flag and veterans of American wars at every powwows and we continue to enlist in the US military at a 250% higher rate than all other ethnicities. We continue to define outselves as the Fed defines us. We need to take sovereignty VERY seriously and assert it just as strongly. Indian Country: it's time to grow up!
vanhorn10's picture
I'm going to say that we should grab onto sovereignty and run with it as we see its true meaning to be. Stretch the meaning, test those boundaries, and force it to fit the meaning it should. Tribal leaders are not stupid, they do know what's going on. It was with their cooperation we got this far. Unless you have a real "mafia" going on - we need to quit ripping down our leaders, or we'll ultimately be the death of ourselves. But the article really seems to be to be about being responsible to each other in excercising our sovereign rights. That, is what we should be addressing here. I'm not a fan of the rip off lending either. It takes advantage of those in need. We don't need to become what we depise.
gamma's picture
I completely agree with Trimble here that we should put an end to such questionable practices. No doubt in my mind about that. We need to be good, honest, loving, helpful, accepting, tolerant, decent, upright people. However, Trimble is making an error when he says that such unethical businesses will lead to a backlash. Payday lenders, casinos or other marginally ethical business practices (or even outrageously unethical practices like child prostitution) will not lead to a backlash by itself. There is no causation here. A backlash won't be a stochastic occurrence; a backlash won't be a random occurrence caused by whatever we do. Rather, a backlash will be strategically and carefully engineered so that America gets whatever it wants from Indian nations. The American people are sheeple - an interesting cross between sheep and people; they go in whatever direction the country wants them to go. The sheeple lack the ability to think for themselves and allow the media to manipulate them and steer them in whatever direction the country wants to go. If they want to attack us, they will find a way to attack us, and they will use the media and manipulate public opinion to attack Indian nations. If we get out of the lending business, they will use casinos to attack us. If we get out of the casino business, they will use cigarettes as a way to attack us. If we get out of the cigarette business, they will find some financial scandal which the media will represent as Indian nations bleeding Americans out of their hard-earned money. If there are no financial scandals, they will find some other issue - like the rape of a pretty White girl by a reservation Indian, crime, judicial improprieties, or some other scandal. If there is no scandal, they will "engineer" a scandal or try to "manufacture" an issue to manipulate public opinion against us, and use the opportunity to steal our land or resources or try to get whatever it is they want. I don't want to say anything more. The only solution is complete and true sovereignty, which also means ending once and for all our financial dependence on the Fed and becoming completely self-reliant. Otherwise, it is only a matter of time before we are dissolved into America.

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