Reflections about Jack Abramoff
by Ernie Stevens, Jr.
Chairman, National Indian Gaming Association

A few days ago, I was passing time on a flight by reading various editorials from newspapers across the Nation responding to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal when a question came to me. Why does this seem so familiar?

Not that we haven't been treated to hearings, in depth discussion, editorial opinions, promises by politicians to change things about lobbying, but something more primal. The history of land claims, jurisdiction and stereotyping of Indians were factors but the question was more elusive. I got the feeling that some things never change. Yet, even that wasn't enough.

As the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association I travel extensively, which often results in reading newspapers, magazines, as well as Congressional reports, inquiries from NIGA member tribes, requests for information and interviews, and time to think about what I'm doing and where we are headed as Indian people.

Often I am left to discern, with my staff and advisors, what the present priorities are, hence the reflection with which I opened this piece.

My family has always been involved with decision-making in Indian Country at both the local and national level. As a boy and young man I had a front seat to activism in Indian Country and the inner workings of the Federal government at the Department of Interior and the Senate. In these areas I saw and learned two incarnations of Indian activism: direct confrontation and deft political maneuvering. Later, studying Oneida history in college, I learned that one of my ancestors was a signatory to the Oneida Treaty of 1838.

So, I guess you could say that participation in Indian issues is in my blood and ancestral memory. These were lessons that have stayed with me throughout my career and give me a perspective on today's issues facing Indian people.

In the 1990s, as a councilman at home I learned how modern tribal governments work, the issues they face and their accountability to Indian people. It wasn't always pretty but it was necessary to experience. When I became the chairman of NIGA, my past training was accelerated to include direct communications with both houses of Congress and various departments of the Executive branch such as the Department of Justice and the National Indian Gaming Commission which was created in 1987 with IGRA's passage.

After starting with a rocky history, the NIGC has become a connecting point with tribes under the leadership of NIGA. In one year, IGRA will be 20 years old. A look at some of the old headlines and talking with some of the Indian people who fought the passage of the IGRA suggests that there is a similar background today with the media's focus on spinning the Abramoff scandal into the fault of gaming tribes that needs a Congressional fix. Unfortunately, some of the proposals seem to be solutions in search of a problem.

NIGA and other national Native organizations are working hard to ensure that the true facts are brought to the public eye.

Some opinion editorials have demanded closure of a "loophole" in federal law which they claim tribes have been exploiting to make campaign contributions. The reality is that the infamous "loophole" just doesn't exist.

In an unusual move, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) issued an advisory on February 2nd to wire services and editors to set the record straight. The FEC explained that Indian tribes are "treated the same way as a number of other types of organizations, such as partnerships or certain limited liability companies, both of which are also not subject to the $101,400 limit imposed on individuals."

The FEC also clarified that under federal law, political candidates, parties and committees must disclose contributions from tribes, as they do all ether contributions, on their regularly filed disclosure reports. There is simply no loophole.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on February 8, 2006, to examine this issue. The FEC again stated that tribes' contributions are covered under federal law, and that there is no loophole.

The Committee also learned that in the 2004 Election Cycle, the $7 million in donations made by tribes amounted to one-third of one percent of the more than $2 billion in contributions made to federal elections Nationwide.

The fact is that big corporations make the bulk of campaign contributions. For example, the retirement industry spent $184 million on the 2004 election. Health Care organizations spent $73.8 million in 2004. And the Commercial Banking industry spent$31 million during that same cycle. These facts showed that tribes are not the problem, abd have not given large amounts “in comparison to others" to federal campaigns.

The response has been to deflect the focus from the unlawful activities of Abramoff to the conceited attacks blaming Indians. Organized anti-Indian groups are not a new phenomenon. It's easy to see how our rights and religions were undermined by erstwhile politicians abetted by some of the media.

Slowly, my feeling of dejavu grew into enlightenment.

The fact is that Indian tribes have been able to participate in the political process as a result of managing their economic successes and being taken seriously. American Indians were the last to be granted the right to vote. Congress passed the Native Voting Rights Act in 1924. The law was enacted during the era of allotment and assimilation, and was intended to further erode the status of tribes as governments.

However, it provided us and our tribal governments with a voice in American politics. Yet, it was not until we controlled the wherewithal to directly employ professional advisors that we have been able to make our voices heard in a meaningful way. Voting is the right of individual citizens and our small populations have made our voting blocs insignificant.

Still, this is a significant right that we support and, in fact, have adopted in our governments today. (Many States ignored the law and barred Indians from voting until as late as the 1960s.)

The history of Indians in America is alive in the work that has descended upon us from our ancestors. So, Indian consciousness of federal, state and local politics is not a surprise but a responsibility that ties us to our ancestors and makes our survival in 2006 as much of an issue as it was in 1906, 1806 and 1706.

Indian tribes must not allow themselves to be twice exploited as a result of Abramoff's crimes. More than any other group in America, it is imperative that Indian tribes exercise their right and duty to participate in the political process, because there is no other group of Americans whose lives are so impacted on a daily basis by the actions of the Congress than are Indians. Congress's power greatly affects tribes; meaning healthcare, housing, education, natural resource protection, law enforcement, judicial systems, roads, water and sewer–everything that takes place on our reservations is affected by federal policies, regulations, and laws, independent of gaming. The inherent power of tribal governments is not something the federal government gave Indians. Instead, it is the lawful right, retained by tribes, through treaties, to be self-governed which is fully recognized under the U.S. Constitution by the U.S. Supreme Court.

So, why the rush to blame and "fix" the Indians when there isn't an Indian scandal to fix? That's a question that tribal leaders, and other responsible citizens, should demand be answered. It is also a question that our Representatives and Senators should ask themselves. And, by the way, where are the investigative journalists when they could really help shed light on this farce? Indian tribes did not invent the system but we have learned to effectively participate in it. Notwithstanding generations of abuse and neglect, Indians have endured, adapted and survived. Gaming has provided a means for us to become pro-active at home, in our economies and in the political system by making our voices heard. Perhaps more than any other group, Indian tribes strongly support true lobbying reform. Yet reform must be systemic and it must be fair.

In the meantime, I want to make one thing clear: We will not sit idly by to be twice exploited and we will not quietly play the scapegoat.

© News From Indian Country March 20, 2006