Tribal Sovereignty is No “Loophole”

Ernie Stevens, Jr. at National Indian Gaming Association conference in Phoenix in March 2016. Photo by Levi Rickert

Ernie Stevens, Jr. at National Indian Gaming Association conference in Phoenix in March 2016. Photo by Levi Rickert

Guest Commentary

Published  August 3, 2016

WASHINGTON, DC – I am writing to respond to one of several articles that have been authored recently by Naomi Schaefer Riley in her attempt to generate interest in her new book.  Riley had recent articles published in the Wall Street Journal (July article “The Loophole Economy Is No Jackpot for Indians” and a May article titled “Changing an NFL Team’s Name Won’t Fix Indian Schools”), the Atlantic (July “One Way to Help Native Americans: Property Rights”), and the New York Post (July “How Protecting Tribal Sovereignty Hurts Victims on the Reservation”).

Riley claim that the federal government has created a “loophole economy” for Indian tribes based on gambling ignores history and the basic facts about tribal governments in our federal system.  Like tourists before her, Riley asserts that re-examining the status of Indian trust land and cutting back on federal regulations will cure all of Indian Country’s problems.

Riley’s ideas are misguided and dated.  Her premise that “Native Americans hit the jackpot when a 1988 law ensured their right to run gaming” ignores history and fact. Indian gaming is an exercise of inherent sovereignty acknowledged in the U.S. Constitution.  It is not the result of a federal legislative gift.

The United States Supreme Court, in 1987, affirmed more than a decade of Indian gaming operating under tribal government laws. One year later, state governments and commercial gaming interests pressed Congress to enact the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to restrict tribal sovereignty and allow states to influence certain Indian gaming enterprises.

Riley’s proposal to re-examine the Indian land system to convey individual property rights is a dated re-run of the failed federal policies of Allotment and forced Assimilation of the late 1800s.  These policies resulted in the loss of more than 100 million acres of Indian lands, the taking of Native children from their homes, and the suppression of tribal religion and culture.

Riley’s solutions for Indian Country are not-so-veiled plans to return to these policy failures.  In short, she blames tribal sovereignty and culture for the economic and social issues facing Native communities.

Tribal sovereignty – the power of Native people to decide locally how to govern our lands – is the foundation of tribal economic growth. This foundation must be strengthened not attacked.

Tribal governments-working with Native entrepreneurs-are exercising sovereignty to start a diversify enterprises that go far beyond gaming and contracting. The Native enterprises that Riley tags as “loopholes” – Indian gaming and contracting – serve as anchors for many tribal economies. These enterprises generate revenues that provide health care, housing, services for our seniors, and education for our children. These acts of self-determination must be fostered.

Riley correctly asserts that Indian Country is over-regulated. Tribal governments are burdened with federal regulations not imposed on state or local governments.

We do need meaningful improvements in federal laws and regulations that respect Indian tribes as governments and strengthen tribal sovereignty, not rules that weaken tribal governments or local control. Tribal leaders are actively working with Congress to reform laws that respect tribal sovereignty, cut down economic barriers, provide incentives for Native entrepreneurs to start businesses on Indian lands, and provide tribal governments with equal access to tools that other forms of government enjoy.

In the late 1800s, tourists like Riley deemed themselves “Friends of the Indian.” They brought us policy attacks on sovereignty and culture. Sovereignty is our strength. Culture is our identity. Our ancestors fought and many died to protect both. We will not revisit these past tragic failures.

Ernie Stevens, Jr. (Oneida) is the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, based in Washington, D.C.


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