Theodore Custer Abramoff - the Worst Since Little Big Horn

Theodore Custer Abramoff - the Worst Since Little Big Horn

Steven Paul McSloy / Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP
6/17/05

How the Jack Abramoff scandal has done more damage to Indian sovereignty than anything since manifest destiny and the Little Big Horn

Jack Abramoff, more than anyone in recent history, lived out the life of the title character of Warren Zevon’s song, ‘’Mr. Bad Example,'’ who ‘’liked to have a good time and didn’t care who got hurt.'’ One would have to reach back further, though, to Pres. Theodore Roosevelt or even Gen. George Armstrong Custer to find someone who did as much damage to American Indian sovereignty.

Each of these three - Abramoff, Roosevelt and Custer - did the same thing to Indians: they saw Indians had wealth and they set out by any means to get it. For Custer, it was gold in the Black Hills, most recently the subject of HBO’s ‘’Deadwood.'’ For Roosevelt, the greatest proponent of ‘’manifest destiny,'’ it was tribal land; and he made and enforced laws which, in his immortal phrase, were ‘’a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.'’ For Abramoff, it was casino money, the first non-federally handed out dollars most Indian tribes had seen since the days of Custer.

Lately The Wall Street Journal, taking ‘’Mr. Bad Example'’ as its point of departure, has in recent editorials been hammering away at what it calls the ‘’enduring nonsense of Indian ’sovereignty.”’ Confusing the ends with the lack of means, it has taken Indian tribes to task for being poor, yet it has at the same time excoriated them for being wealthy.

One would think, however, that conservatives and libertarians would be the staunchest defenders of tribal sovereignty, as it embodies in reality what they can only dream of on a larger scale: local government, no taxes and no bureaucracy, all based on original intent and the plain text of the Constitution.

What libertarian would not want what George Washington wrote in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua with the Iroquois: the ‘’free use and enjoyment'’ of their lands? What conservative would not say the original intent of that phrase was no taxes, no burdensome laws and no big government control? Instead of championing tribal ‘’governments which govern least,'’ The Wall Street Journal disparages them as ‘’collectivist enclaves within a capitalist society.'’

Greed always gets in the way of principle. Rather than holding up Indian reservations as examples of conservative philosophy in action, Abramoff and his cronies looked at reservations the same way famed bank robber Willie Sutton looked at banks.

The Indians who fought Custer were lied to in the peace treaty - so badly so, in fact, that the Supreme Court awarded them hundreds of millions of dollars for the taking of the Black Hills. Most have refused the money, saying the land can’t be bought, then or now, even though they realize it is unlikely the court will actually order Roosevelt’s face be chiseled off Mount Rushmore.

The Indians victim of Roosevelt’s vigorous enforcement of the ‘’allotment policy'’ were also lied to, as the government never followed through with promises to bring Indian people into the mainstream economy once the land grab was over, leaving them not only poor but now also land-poor.

And Abramoff lied, too. Nobody argues that the Indians were forced to sign the checks, though Abramoff’s work in rigging tribal elections certainly make it that much more corrupt. But Abramoff’s lie was more insidious, and more damning of our larger society. What he told the Indian people, who after long centuries finally had two nickels to rub together, was that if they really wanted to be players, really wanted to once again be power brokers on this continent as they were in the days of the wars and the treaties, that they had to pony up, as Dick Cheney would say, ‘’big time.'’

It is not the Indians who should be blamed for their cupidity; it is we who should be shamed that anyone could believe our society was so corrupt that you could throw $40 million at Congress and still not get a bill passed. Whether it was Wisconsin tribes paying $100,000 for a ‘’Clinton coffee'’ or Abramoff’s clients shoveling cash to the soon-to-be indicted, it all sends up a terrible stink: a smoke signal that says ‘’government for sale.'’ Perhaps the reason the Indian tribes were so willing to believe we are so corrupt is because they have known us and dealt with D.C. for so long.

The Wall Street Journal has written that ‘’the time has come to abolish reservations for the good of the people who live on them.'’ Custer and Roosevelt would agree. The Indian people, of course, would not; but such an expression of popular will ought not be allowed to stand in the way of the ‘’mighty pulverizing engine'’ of the ‘’daily diary of the American dream.'’ It is, however, passing strange to see The Wall Street Journal do what it always decries about liberals: tell people what they ought to do ‘’for their own good.'’ In this regard, Abramoff might come off the Indians’ champion, as he would disagree - but only because if reservations were abolished, his clients would go back to being poor and unable to afford him.

So for Indians, nothing ever changes but the date; and Jack Custer Roosevelt will keep reincarnating with every new form of wealth Indian people hold or devise. It is no coincidence that Zevon’s ‘’Mr. Bad Example,'’ after careers as a carpet salesman, lawyer and hair replacement scam artist, flew to Australia to pauperize aboriginals working the opal mines. Maybe the competition in D.C. was just too tough.

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