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Editorial: Mississippi Hiding

"You have to be ruthless. You can't be nice to these people."
-- C. Bryant Rogers, outside counsel for Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. June 22, 2005.

The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians are an American success story. After years of being disregarded by the federal government, the tribe took matters into its own hands, turning the reservation into an attractive place to do business long before Indian gaming became a reality. A casino eventually came along in 1989, making the Choctaws the third largest employer in the state of Mississippi.

This story of success, from poverty to prosperity, is one worth telling. But now that the tribe is under scrutiny for freely giving millions to non-Indian lobbyists and so-called activists, the Mississippi Choctaws don't seem to want to share anymore. Chief Philip Martin, the tribe's highly revered and respected leader, is nowhere to be found. After facing no questions from the committee, C. Bryant Rogers, the tribe's longtime outside counsel, rushed his colleagues out of the hearing room in hopes of avoiding reporters' queries.

Which leads to the $15 million question: What do the Choctaws have to hide?

Tough luck finding out. Even though the tribe's witnesses at yesterday's Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing went out of their way to point out that their lobbying and public relations activities are "lawful," they aren't letting the American public know about these activities, citing some very vague and unspecified "First Amendment" rights.

Could it be that the tribe is ashamed to admit that it associated with the likes of Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed? These Republicans were more than willing to take millions in tribal funds -- just as long as it was "scrubbed" clean so that no one would find out that it came from a tribal source. Trouble is, someone actually bothered to find out.

"Sometimes that's called laundering but that has a criminal connotation," Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) dutifully noted.

It's more likely that these GOP activists were too embarrassed to be associated with tribes because, as everyone knows, Indian gaming is toxic. Ralph Reed can't get away faster from the tribe after it was disclosed he accepted $1.15 million from the Choctaws. And when's the last time you heard Grover Norquist defend tribal sovereignty?

"I'm sure there probably were concerns or public perception concerns about ... not being associated with a tribe or with a gaming tribe," Nell Rogers, the tribe's planner, observed.

So where does that leave the tribe? After all, the tribe knowingly spent millions in order to "shape public opinion," as Chief Martin's testimony-in-absentia stated.

Or could it be that the tribe is ashamed to admit that it may have worked to undermine the self-determination of other tribes, a right that the Choctaws exercised so very well on their path to success? Documents and phone scripts released by the committee yesterday indicate that tribal money was used to "shape public opinion" against the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians in Louisiana, the Tigua Tribe and Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas and the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi in Michigan.

Did the Choctaws fund any of these efforts or similar campaigns against the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, whose sovereignty is under attack by Christian groups and state officials in Alabama? Thanks to a special agreement with the committee that keeps certain tribal documents out of the public record, we may never know the answer.

Committee Exhibits:
Part 1 | Part 2

Witness List/Testimony:
Oversight Hearing Before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on the In Re Tribal Lobbying Matters, Et Al (June 22, 2005)

Relevant Links:
Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians -