Is Indian country doing its best?
All Indian country observers agree that argumentative attacks on tribal sovereignty are mounting. From the Wall Street Journal to TIME Magazine, to the Schwarzenegger campaign, to the dozens of state-by-state situations, the talking heads and the opinion pages reflect a growing attitude that freezes in on where Indian country is moving.
Most of the intention is self-serving and most of the attacks are uninformed, unfair and stereotypical. There is disdain for the understanding of the clear but complex legal and political positioning of tribal bases in the American body politic. There is little sympathy these days for the history of great loss. The rise of tax-protected businesses, particularly in oil and tobacco products, has motivated great jealousy among the competition in the same fields. Ever more sophisticated anti-sovereignty networks continue to grow as a result, some of which are generating and passing (New York state) legislation to destroy the tribal advantage. Freedom from taxation on reservations is seriously damaged as a result. Then, too, the gaming explosion that has muscled some tribes to be regional powerhouses with national clout is attracting the rapacious eye of the state tax men. Anti-Indian proponents seek to fuel into action, nationally, a politicians' charge.
We have paid much attention in these pages to the need to defend our bases. We consistently encourage people to get out their own stories. We survey Indian country and we see much that is refreshing and creative. We also see much leadership action that reflects sacrifice for the people. Nevertheless we wonder: is Indian country truly doing its best? Is the leadership and are the people pressing their intellectual, moral and political capacity to the fullest? Are we using our resources in ways that strengthen our peoples and help us to be the very best defenders of the beauty of our cultures and of our continued survival as distinct peoples?
o Are you fully educating your tribe to the bases of tribal rights in North America? There appears still to be a serious need to enhance the work with the young people. Just as much as grinding poverty, the effect of new-found wealth in some tribes has many elders worried. Ours was a struggling generation that fought dearly for better education and better economic conditions. Just 30 years ago, young Indian people were nearly out of sight and out of mind. Education, such as it was, worked to de-tribalize our young people. This has changed greatly and many of our young people have much more access to schools, tribal colleges and university programs. There is a long way to go, but the improvements are obvious. Indian-controlled education has become the banner. Each and every child in each and every Native nation must be fully educated and socialized to defend his or her people and the rights of American Indians generally.
o Are you doing everything possible to employ Indian people, whether from your own tribe or not? Particularly the economically well-heeled tribes must do everything possible to provide professional opportunities for Indian people - young, mature and elderly. Native enterprises need to fill up with well-trained Native people. Indian country must implement a national, intense, hire-Indian, affirmative action program, in every phase of employment. To do nothing less is to squander the remarkable opportunity that now presents itself for the next generation.
o Are you fully educating Team Members at your enterprises? This is hugely important. Each and every employee at tribal enterprises - Native and non-Native - must be deeply educated to the bases of American Indian tribal rights retained and those determined under federal law. These can be in the form of compulsory workshops and round tables and easy to access information tools, including newsletters and video.
o Are you educating your clientele? An estimated 30 to 40 million individuals pass through Native enterprises each year. Most have only the slightest idea they visited an Indian establishment, much less have an opportunity to hear and read and see materials that tell the Indian side of the story of Indians in America and, again, explain simply and succinctly the special relationship tribes hold within American legal frameworks. This is a largely squandered opportunity. (We often complain here that many tribal hotels will provide complementary copies of USA Today and other newspapers but not of an Indian newspaper). Every client in this way should leave the enterprise with an improved idea of the tribal political and historical positions.
o Are you getting full bang for the buck through philanthropy and buy Indian programs? Philanthropy at its best means using your wealth to do good in the world. Many tribes give away large sums of money to projects and local municipalities. But much of this giving is disorganized and without adequate public messaging. We urge tribes that do give money away to organize themselves into formal national foundations. As formal foundations, tribes can sit at the table with the large and great foundations of the world and help inform what to do, who to fund and what they should pay attention to, all based upon community experiences and knowledge of what works and what doesn't in Indian country. All influence in the world is not vested in politicians. The minds and hearts of the public can be approached in myriad ways, and formal foundations can make a big difference.
o "Buy Indian" is key. We see rifts developing between the big land tribes of the Plains and the big casino tribes. A serious effort, perhaps funded by a far-reaching Indian foundation with no economic incentive of its own, could certainly organize the purchase of meats and other foodstuffs and products to supply the huge markets of the big Indian enterprises. Our refrain is: no tribe left behind.
We are greatly interested in news of Native tribes and communities who are active in any of the above concerns. Let us know what and how you are doing to create a true and lasting and indivisible process toward Indian unity. Ultimately, such a unity, forged from common agreement and real experience, will be the only element that can withstand the mounting attack that threatens to destroy the hard-won place of American Indian sovereign self-government. But let us also not serve as our own worst enemies.