Indian Country to Barack Black Eagle: "Deliver Real Tribal Empowerment"

Robert Odawi Porter

In December of last year, President Obama invited leaders from all 565 federally recognized American Indian nations and tribes to Washington for the second Tribal Nations Conference.  More than one of us wondered what the true purpose of the meeting was.  Without question, credit should be given to the President and his Indian affairs team for convening this event.  Rare is it for any president to convene even one such meeting during his term, much less two and the promise for more.

The Obama Indian affairs team appears to be responding to the priority issues raised at last year’s tribal leaders summit.  Of course, President Obama is not our national chief and it is not his job to decide what is best for us.  We tribal leaders should be providing specific and targeted policy initiatives to the White House to be implemented on our behalf.  Instead, one of our lead lobbying organizations—the National Congress of American Indians—submitted over 60 pages of policy suggestions to the President on every imaginable topic and concern of Indian Country but the kitchen sink.

Which is one reason why Indian Country’s policy voice is weak right now.  With so many policy options thrown at the White House, the Obama team is free to pick and choose which issues are pursued, ignored, or given mere lip service.  This blitz approach typically ends up in a dither over how to get Congress to appropriate more money for Indian programs and pay the bill for past injustices.  Because most Indian nations remain economically devastated from the theft of our lands and sovereign authority, federal appropriations often are the only "economy" in Indian Country.

But have no illusion that taking such an approach does little to change our condition over time.  For an increasing number of Indian nations and tribes, our goal is not simply to maintain the status quo, but to actually improve the lives of our people and make our nations stronger.  Since our first contact with European settlers in our lands, we have largely failed in our efforts to resist their systemic efforts to transfer tribally-controlled wealth to non-Indians.  Tribal gaming has provided a notable departure from this destructive trend, but a long-term solution to Indian economic underdevelopment requires far more bold and ambitious action.

What Indian Country needs is real tribal economic empowerment so we can take better care of our people.  One thing all tribal leaders can agree upon—tribal nations and peoples need more money to sustain and revitalize our societies.  But in a deficit era, we've got to pursue our bankroll in the private sector rather than the federal purse.

Why is more money important to Indians?  Because we need money to crawl out of the hole of 200 years of forced poverty that the United States has inflicted on us by taking our power and authority over our own lands.  If we have money, we have a real chance to resolve problems such as the ill health, domestic violence, teen suicide, and language loss that afflict our tribal societies.

Poor people are confronted with poor choices and we need to improve the quality of life on our territories so our people will have better choices.

So, how can we stem the flow of wealth away from tribal lands and people to non-Indians?  To begin with, reservation Indians should be restored to our constitutional status and be immunized from all taxes.  It is absurd that tribal wealth is sent to the federal government in the form of income and excise taxes only to be sent back in the form of federal Indian program money to support tribal economies.  We should keep that money in our own nations as disposable income or contributions to our own tribal governments.

In addition, income earned and invested on tribal lands by non-Indians should also be immunized from all taxation.  Non-Indians should be given significant tax credits for investments made on Indian lands and additional incentives for energy and natural resource development to convince Wall Street to invest in Indian Country.  Only then will governing tribal nations be able to develop their own tax base and require the hiring, the employ of Native people.  If the United States can tolerate outsourcing jobs to the country of India, it can support in-sourcing of jobs to Indian Country.

Because of the nature of this agenda—to reverse the historic transfer of wealth away from Indian Country—we need a powerful ally to help us.  That ally should be President Obama.  But  he and his Indian affairs team must realize that there is no middle ground when it comes to fighting for real tribal empowerment.  We have many enemies who right now seek nothing more than our continued impoverishment and the destruction of our tribal sovereignty.  We don’t need a timid, “nice guy” approach to these challenges; we need a warrior.

The heart of a tribal empowerment agenda is rooted in the simple fact that when Indian people exchanged land-for-peace with the American people, we did not bargain for generations of poverty and dysfunction.  Nor did we bargain for the loss of sovereign control over our own land and what happens on it.  There is no reason why Indian people cannot be as prosperous as non-Indians.  But we need bold, aggressive action from President Obama to support a legislative agenda that will begin to remove the non-Indian tax, non-Indian regulation and non-Indian control over Indian Country that continues to sap our sovereign strength and steal our wealth.

If President Obama can wade into fights for trillion dollar bail-out packages for Wall Street and war-fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, I would hope he would be willing to commit a fraction of that effort to helping us repair the 200 years worth of damage that America has inflicted on its indigenous peoples.  We don't want a bail-out.  We want our sovereign authority to be fully respected, without exception or dilution, so that all these tax and regulatory burdens are lifted and we can begin to regain our wealth in the private sector economy.

Robert Odawi Porter is the President of the Seneca Nation of Indians.

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gamma's picture
Thank you for writing this editorial. I couldn't agree more! It is important to mention that there is a school of thought that says that if Indian country builds up substantial wealth, say in terms of stocks, then those stocks will be strategically devalued by America in order to dilute our wealth. Investing in cash or bonds or similar instruments is not a good idea for the same reason. The best investment is to buy up millions of acres of vacant lands (after providing for the basic needs of our Indian people, of course).
redbirdcurry's picture
I pray that Indian people will awaken to the fraud that Mr Obama is. What has he actually done for Native America? Nothing! If you think he is going to do what he says, talk with other people who have had their dreams, ideas, and programs thrown to the curb. obama wants your natural resources, and he will sell it to the highest bidder, including foreign nations. Please open your eyes.
redbirdcurry's picture
Obama will be redistributing all our wealth to the banksters, wall street, and his european financers. He is a creature of wall street and is not your friend. He is only using you!
thunderstone's picture
thats all good and all,but how do we handle the crooked tribal chiefs that spend the money on them selves NOTHING CHANGES IN THAT WAY...THE PEOPLE STILL END UP WITH NOTHING
thunderstone's picture
WE ARE the second poorest people in the world second only to Hatti... our tribal chiefs don't care. they live in fancy homes while the rest live in black mould homes,no heat,no running water.every time our chiefs get money they go on a conferences some where,give them selves raise...the same ol stuff..year after year
wanbli's picture
Whose this "we"? We the BIA and IRA Tribal Govenments, the "Oppressors" of this systematic imperialist construct of genocide. You are not us Sir, your "white" and as being white you don't represent any authentic traditional sovereign red nationhood's. ICT you must stop using whites to tell indian people what needs to be done and how to do it, because you also are complicit to the crimes of genocide of your own peoples if you continue in the "white politics" and ecconomic of the most burtal nation that this earth has and will ever no. So, sir stay out of our business or reap the your reward. You sir are a landsquatter! Authentic impowerment is to devest yourselve in this genocidal structure of the United States of America and the ecconomic, political, and religious lies and falsehood's of our white corporate enemies!!!!!!!!!! Wanbli 2011
curtj's picture
Money talks. The neo conservatives and their bought off American government including Obama will not stop the policies of colonialism until all of the natural resources and lands of the Indigenous inhabitants are stolen. our so called leaders are leading a deliberate, pathetic fight just to make careers out of it. No new ideas or plans. No thoughts of going to the indigenous Peoples forum of the United Nations to address the policies of theft and murder that contributes to the genocide of our people. No thoughts of taking the US government to the International Criminal Court for the continuing policies of theft and murder. If they did, they would clarify that the United States refuses to join the International Criminal Court because they'll be held to account for the centuries of invading weaker countries to enable their freebooters and corporations to steal natural resources and lands for colonization. With the enslavement murder and genocide of the Indigenous inhabitants. We're mired down in three quagmires in the Mid East that the British and Americans have manipulated for hundreds of years total. Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. Theft and Murder.
thunderstone's picture
before all this money comes to our reservations, we first gotta stop the flow of money from going in the pockets of many of our corrupt tribal councils and they are many of them.this is where the money stops and the people never see a dime. they continue to live in third world conditions while rich tribal chiefs get new home and go to conferences..