Tim Giago: Greed is the new God in Indian Country

A ruling last Friday by the U. S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected arguments by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians that they should not be subject to federal labor laws.

Judge Janice Rogers Brown said in the ruling by the three-judge panel, "Tribal sovereignty is not absolute autonomy permitting a tribe to operate in a commercial capacity without legal restraint."

The ruling was issued in response to a complaint filed by the Communications Workers of America with the National Labor Relations Board. The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians had appealed that ruling favoring the union by the NLRB.

Indian gaming is now a $22 billion-a-year industry with casinos in 28 states that employs as many as 250,000 workers many of them non-Indians. The industry has taken some of the poorest people in America to the lofty realms of the richest.

There has been a long-time fear by the larger Indian nations calling themselves "Treaty Tribes" that some of the smaller and newer tribes would eventually get them entangled in legal battles they were sure to lose. Sovereignty on reservations like the Pine Ridge and Rosebud in South Dakota is a given. These tribes have their own law enforcement and judicial system that operates under the auspices of a legally elected tribal government. The State of South Dakota has no jurisdiction on these reservations whereas in many states, including California, the states operate under Public Law 280 that does give them jurisdiction over law enforcement and other legal matters on Indian reservations within their boundaries. And as usual, this mish-mash of conflicting jurisdictional laws can create widespread confusion.

What impact does this new ruling have on Indian Country? First of all it will give unions the right to deal directly with its members outside of any restrictions placed upon it by the tribes. Now the unions will come under the protections of the National Labor Relations Act.

There are some tribes like the Oneida Nation of New York State, the Mashantucket Pequot in Connecticut, and the Shakopee in Minnesota that have become so extremely wealthy that they almost feel they are above any man-made laws. Henry Duro, chairman of the San Manuel Tribe said, "We are disappointed by the ruling today. We believe that these gaming projects help to fulfill essential governmental functions by providing education, health care, housing, senor care and other key programs. Those are basic governmental obligations that could be impacted by this decision." Does staging multi-million dollar boxing matches and purchasing professional basketball teams and hotel restaurant chains fit in there somewhere?

Now let's take a look at the basic reality of tribal gaming. There are many tribes fortunate enough to be located on or near large metropolitan areas where their casinos can rake in millions of dollars annually. There are other tribes that still rank amongst the poorest people in America by reason of geography or because they have chosen not to get into this mad race to build a gaming casino. The Navajo Nation is still struggling with this decision and the Hopi Nation of Arizona has ruled out the prospects of ever building a casino.

It has been my contention for many years that those Indian nations sitting on top of the extreme wealth afforded them by their casinos should cease taking funds from the federal government that could be better utilized on the poorer Indian reservations. When the Seminole Nation of Florida can spend a billion dollars to purchase the Hard Rock Cafe and Hotel enterprises it makes the people of the very poor tribes wonder why they are still getting federal funding for a variety of tribal programs.

These wealthy tribes can afford to build beautiful homes, construct new schools and hospitals, and to totally rebuild the infrastructure on their tribal lands from the profits realized by their lucrative casinos. Some of the larger tribes such as Pine Ridge and Rosebud are struggling to survive. Unemployment on these reservations can be as high as 75 percent and their populations are nearly 10 times that of the smaller and newer tribes that are raking in millions every month. The wealthy tribes handout per capita payments to their members that often amounts to thousands of dollars every month. To me it is a new dimension in welfare.

I believe it is high time for the Department of the Interior to take a closer look at the financial positions of every Indian nation in America and to come up with a new set of rules, regulations and laws that would drastically decrease federal funding to the wealthy, independent tribes and redistribute those funds to the poorer Indian nations.

Many Native Americans are a little sick and tired of watching wealthy tribes like the Seminole Nation of Florida flaunt their wealth while the majority of Indians continue to live in the worst conditions of poverty ever imaginable.

To suggest that the wealthy tribes give up their federal dollars in favor of the poor tribes is almost sacrilegious in Indian country, but somebody has to say it. As I have written so many times in the past, it is an unfortunate set of circumstances in this country to see the rich tribes become richer while the poor become poorer. But remember, to be rich in money is much less than to be rich in culture and traditions.

The smaller and newer tribes are now getting involved in legal disputes that will impact all of the tribes in America and they are doing so without consulting the larger and more established and traditional Indian nations. The case just ruled upon with the NLRB is one example and believe me, there will be many more that will be even more damaging to the all of the tribes of Indian country. The new casino Indian is rapidly supplanting the older and more traditional Indian. Greed is the new Indian God and where it stops, nobody knows.

McClatchy News Service in Washington, DC distributes Tim Giago's weekly column. He can be reached at P.O. Box 9244, Rapid City, SD 57709 or at najournalists@rushmore.com. Giago was also the founder and former editor and publisher of the Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers and the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the class of 1990-1991. Clear Light Books of Santa Fe, NM (harmon@clearlightbooks.com) published his latest book, "Children Left Behind."

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