Tim Giago: Rich tribes still not helping poor ones

In order to write this week’s column I must do a 180-degree turn in my thinking about Indian casinos. I do not make this change in thinking lightheartedly.

I visited Indian casinos in South Dakota, Nebraska and Oklahoma over the past two weeks to get a feel for the impact they have on the Indian communities. For the most part the feeling was good. There were jobs, money going out into the community, improvements in infrastructure, and a general sense of well being. But the most prevalent sense I came away with was a new and genuine feeling of “respect” from the non-Indian community.

That’s right. R-E-S-P-E-CT! Aretha Franklin sang about it. Respect is a word an Indian could never expect to hear in the towns bordering their reservations. But it is amazing the amount of respect that money can buy. Those ragtag Indians scraping by on little or nothing now have an abundance of cash in their pockets. Or at least some of them do. Those casino dollars now make the Indian people much sought after consumers. They can now buy new furniture; clothing, automobiles, appliances and they can now open bank accounts.

I recall that not too long ago when I owned a weekly newspaper one of my advertising sales people went into a local carpet store to solicit an ad for the paper. The haughty sales manager quipped, “Oh, I didn’t know Indians had carpets in their tee pees.”

From a lady who prepared taxes for the IRS my sales lady heard, “Well, I know that Indians don’t pay taxes,” and from a local new car dealership, “Your readers just don’t have the credit to buy our new cars,” and finally from the manager of an upscale department store, “I don’t think your readers are the kind of people that would be comfortable in our store.” As Rodney Dangerfield used to say, “No respect, I don’t get no respect.”

But my travels to the Indian casinos also revealed that there are still many deep pockets of poverty in Indian country. If there is no population base near their casinos they will not draw enough customers to make their gaming establishments profitable.

I will not make a complete 360-degree turn for Indian gaming because I still see many serious problems. For one, although nearly 20 years have passed since the onset of gaming in Indian country I still do not see a viable effort by the casino rich tribes to reach out to help their less fortunate brothers and sisters on the very poor Indian reservations.

Joe McKay, a 54-year-old member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana, a businessman with a law degree, offers a solution I find to be highly commendable. He proposes a National Indian Gaming Tax to be levied on all Class III Indian gaming operations. The tax would be on gross revenues graduated according to income and capped at 5 percent. The money would be used to fund the Indian Development Trust Fund. The fund would then be made available to tribes without Class III gaming or to those in geographically isolated areas where a casino, even one with a Class III license, does not have the population base to make a profit.

McKay suggests that the funds be assigned according to need in the form of grants and low interest loans for infrastructure development on Indian reservations (water, sewage and sanitation), law enforcement, judiciary, health care, housing and for elderly and child care services. A second but separate program would make funds for economic development available. McKay also suggests that the funds be managed by a Board of Commissioners to be nominated by the contributing and eligible tribes and appointed by the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs.

I differ with him on this point. I do not want to see more bureaucracy piled on to the equation. I would suggest that Ernie Stevens Jr., the head of the National Indian Gaming Association, develop an office within his organization to handle the trust funds for acceptance and distribution. I would also suggest that Mr. Stevens lobby the Indian Affairs Committee to push for legislation to incorporate this tax. And if an outright tax is unacceptable to the gaming rich tribes, perhaps Mr. Stevens can twist their arms to get them to voluntarily contribute money to an Indian Development Trust Fund under the auspices of NIGA.

McKay believes that the extremely poor conditions on many Indian reservations are totally overlooked and distorted by the wealth and prominence of the “new and rich gaming tribes.” Money talks in many ways and when it becomes the main topic for success, the poor tribes without access become footnotes. As it has been since the European incursion on this continent, the ultimate victims of those with wealth, or those seeking wealth, are the poor, traditional indigenous people still trying to retain their inherent values.

My 180-degree turn is based upon the single word “respect.” But those new and wealthy Indian tribes must also learn the true meaning of that word. They must learn to respect those Indian people that fought and died without surrendering their culture, traditions, language and sovereignty so that they, the rich tribes, could enjoy the benefits of the unlimited wealth afforded them by their casinos.

McClatchy News Service in Washington, DC distributes Tim Giago’s weekly column. He can be reached 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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