A Looming Threat to Sovereignty?

Tribal gaming today has been a success story ever since the 1987 Cabazon vs. State of California Supreme Court ruling that set the stage for the development of today’s modern gaming entertainment complexes we find on reservations throughout the United States. California sought to impose state laws and regulations on Indian reservations to control bingo operations, which were often a tribe’s sole source of revenue. This state challenge was brought forth under the guise of preventing infiltration of organized crime, but the California Supreme Court determined that the state’s interest did not justify state regulation in the light of the compelling federal and tribal interests and that state regulation would impermissibly infringe on tribal government. In my humble opinion, it was about California’s (any state’s) lust for other people’s money all along.

Wealth now generated by Indian gaming is catching the attention of state legislatures who are desperate over how to handle state budget shortfalls. These budget shortfalls are a result of foolish financial mismanagement by the states and the federal government and are in no way a problem caused by tribal governments and certainly not the responsibility of Indian country.

The problem with success and making money is that people will inevitably try to take it from you by whatever means. Challenges to tribal sovereignty have been a common issue for tribal governance to deal with ever since the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, but today the attacks on it are becoming more frequent, more subtle and more sophisticated. The tactics being employed by some of our politicians and certain special interest groups are tasteless and un-American. Shamefully they are promoting anti-Indian attitudes by presenting the false perception that tribes are granted special rights not provided to all Americans. This is just simply not the whole story and presented this way makes a false and misleading point to say the least.

The existence of sovereign rights for tribes on reservation land isn’t a bonus or a gift. It is only a remnant of greater rights once held and not much of a consolation either. We must take into account the whole picture when viewing the relationships of tribal governments to federal or state governments. False perceptions about the actual legal and political status of American Indians feed the desire to use the courts as a way to solve governmental problems.

The relationship between the United States and Indian tribes is based on and built upon the doctrine of trust responsibility. The nature of this relationship has been affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court time and time again. The courts believe the principle has long dominated the government’s dealings with Indians and proves the undisputed existence of a general trust relationship between the United States and the Indian people. The trust doctrine is fundamental to federal Indian law. Almost every law enacted by Congress in the last 50 years involving Indians and tribes has found its support in the federal government’s trust obligations.

This means that there is a government-to-government relationship between the U.S. government and each Indian tribe, and that the United States has a trust responsibility to each tribal government that includes the protection of the sovereignty of each tribal government.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government is attempting to alter its trust relationship with American Indian tribes by shirking its responsibility of social and economic support to them. This will eventually force tribes to deal with the state governments to receive welfare benefits and other social services for tribal members. This, if allowed to occur, will dramatically alter the historical, legal and sovereign relationship between tribes and the U.S. government.

In the end, it’s always about money, and the current economic climate is leaving a lot of politicians hungrier than ever for other people’s money.

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