Savilla: In a mirror, darkly: Survival vs. casinos
In an article written in 1995, I predicted the demise of self-governing sovereign American Indian tribes to be completed by 2075. I have now reduced my estimate by 25 years. The future does not look too good for tribal governments, and sadly, they will have had a part in their own destruction.
It all started in 1978 when Congress proposed legislation that would give federally recognized tribes the right to conduct gambling on their reservations. Most tribal leaders were elated. They counted dollar signs in their dreams, even though a few straight thinkers warned them of trouble to come.
The legislation was gently-worded, but the devil was in the details. It was pointed out to tribal leaders that the legislation required that if a tribe wanted to operate games of chance, they would have to give up part of their sovereignty to the state wherein the gambling would take place. ''No worries,'' said the tribal leaders. Another innocently-worded clause required them to negotiate a ''compact,'' or a contract, that would control how they operated their ''gaming,'' with that same state.
Again, ''No worries,'' they said, as dollar signs flooded their minds. ''We can take care of ourselves.'' Yeah, sure you can.
It is interesting to see that compacts made today resemble regulation by a state instead of a negotiated agreement. Worse, in California, the new compacts effectively remove any sign of tribal sovereignty, unless ''risk-taking and paying the bills'' is sovereignty. In my mind, there's another point of contention. There are some lawyers who say that states are violating the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution by insisting on compacts in which the fine print regulates tribes' interstate commerce. That's an argument that is ripe for picking.
By 1990, some tribes were profiting, some were not, and some began to complain of their state greedily looking for a bigger share of gambling profits. Meanwhile, the BIA had cut its tribal program budgets almost in half. Tribes began to feel pinched.
In 1987, Interior Secretary Manuel Chavez initiated a Self-Governance Pilot Program whereby tribes would be given large contract funds to ''experiment'' in running local BIA programs. After Self-Governance was on its way, Chavez turned to reducing the BIA staff. The Central BIA staff was cut by almost 50 percent. Chavez then asked two dozen tribal leaders to be on a committee to ''reorganize'' the organization. Chavez and Wendell Chino, then-chairman of Mescalero Apache, would be co-chairmen. Chino, now deceased, had long been admired for making talks on tribal sovereignty and protection of treaties, but things began to change. In 1991, the committee's Final Report was delivered to Congress, and it put the final touches on the funeral for what had once been the BIA, as tribes knew it.
As if to deliver the final ''coup de grace'' to what had been, several dozen tribal leaders attended the 1996 Democratic Convention held in Chicago, Ill. When the chief of the Oklahoma Cherokee got his turn to speak to the convention delegates, all but about 50 delegates left the hall. The chief gave his talk in obvious embarrassment.
Later that night, the tribal leaders met and unanimously agreed that ''in order to survive, we must join the political mainstream of this country and make our voices heard.'' Sovereignty took a big hit. So the next, and perhaps the last, chapter in the demise of once-sovereign tribes holding empty treaties will come during the next four decades.
The principal reason for the successful termination effort by the United States is the willingness of tribal leadership to listen to the temptress, Lady Luck, who threw money at their feet, saying, ''Pick it up. It's yours for the taking. Build more casinos. Make them bigger. Size matters.'' To those leaders, apparently sovereignty has a price.
American Indians are not known for their willingness to plan for the future. Politicians know this well, but we don't know our own selves. Few tribes, if any, have a 20-year or even a 10-year economic growth plan. I know of one tribe that was handed a golden opportunity, but has failed to draft even a 4-year plan.
The government has always prodded tribes to get on the road to termination. They did this because it has always been on their agenda. And we always knew it. But knowing the government's plan, how did tribes get on this road to perdition? Well, for one thing they refused to believe the words of politicians who many times made clear their intentions for tribes.
In 1881, Sen. George H. Pendleton of Ohio - a one-term Republican senator - succinctly described his intentions thusly: ''Our constitution and our laws were passed for the control and the government of white citizens, and not for Indian tribes.'' He spoke a litany of reasons why Indians could not continue their way of life, concluding with, ''The Indians can no longer fish and hunt [for subsistence]. They must either change their mode of life or they must die. That is the alternative. There is no other. Indians must change, or they will be exterminated.''
One of the principal reasons given by Congress for the General Allotment Act of 1887 was, ''A desire to replace tribal culture with white civilization.'' The Board of Indian Commissioners said, ''This act will place Indians on an equal footing with other citizens of the country.''
If Sen. Pendleton's words weren't enough to put an official Senate stamp on the mood of Congress, in December of 1901 President Theodore Roosevelt delivered the ultimate approval by speaking words that have persisted down to our own time:
''In my judgment, the time has arrived when we should definitely make up our minds to recognize the Indian as an individual and not as a member of a tribe. The General Allotment Act is a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass. We should now break up the tribal funds, doing for them what allotment does for the tribal lands; that is, they should be divided into individual holdings.''
The most recent example happened in 2006, when Sen. John McCain drafted legislation that would only pay pennies on the dollar for missing trust funds, and eliminate the government's trust responsibility for Indians. It would also terminate many tribes. This from the man who wants to be your next president.
For another thing, tribal leaders refused to listen to the advice of Sen. Daniel Inouye, a real friend of American Indians who consistently told them, ''Use your sovereignty to protect your treaties. Believe me, it is all you have to save your people.'' This from a man who knows the inner workings of Congress. They should have listened. Hear me. He did not say, ''Save your casinos, it's all you have.''
Elmer M. Savilla, Quechan, is the former executive director of the Inter-Tribal Council of California and of the National Tribal Chairmen's Association. He resides in Virginia.