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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

Indian? We have our reservations

Sunday 2 September 2001

When June Hegstrom was growing up in Georgia, her mother shared a dark family secret. "She told me that our family was Cherokee, and that I should always be proud of my heritage. Then she said, `Don't ever tell anybody'."

These days, Hegstrom, who now sits in the state legislature, is perplexed by the same problem that worries her Mohawk friend, Nadine Horne, head of the Recognised First Nations Advocacy Group: There are just too many Indians -- and chiefs.

The problem has nothing to do with rising fertility rates, which haven't been rising at all. No: as usual it is wampum that is the root of all evil.

Thanks to a series of landmark court rulings that recognised tribal reservations as "semi-autonomous sovereign nations", Indians -- at least those with good lawyers -- have been handed a licence to print money.

The key is casino gambling, which recognised tribes are allowed to host on their reservations. The trick is being recognised, which is why Horne and other Indian traditionalists are up in arms about the proliferation of so many spurious blood brothers.

In Georgia, for example, the state has backed three purported Indian "tribes" in their efforts to obtain recognition from federal authorities in Washington, despite the deep sceptisism of anthropologists. To Horne, the claimants were "like extras from a John Wayne movie, white people playing the part of Indians".

Ethics and morality aside, who could blame the Georgians for being jealous after seeing what has been taking place in New England? According to a 19th-century diarist, the Pequots and other tribes of Connecticut numbered no more than a handful of pathetic specimens by 1830. By 1980, the self-proclaimed "last of the Pequots" was an elderly woman living in a mobile home on a patch of marshy, mosquito-infested bog. When she died, so would the tribe. That was when a miracle of sorts took place. A series of legal victories that obliged Washington to honor the treaties generations of Great White Fathers had been only too eager to ignore saw the last of the Pequots inundated with offers to erect a casino on her swamp.

Midway between Boston and New York, the Foxwoods casino now claims to be the world's largest and most profitable. Meanwhile, the Pequot population has risen, somewhat mysteriously, to better than 700. Asked how a visitor might recognise a member of the tribe, a croupier just laughed: "Look for the white guys in the biggest cars."

Down in Texas, the Kickapoos are multiplying. Before casino gambling was legalised, the tribe was down to 200 members, most eking out a wretched existence in a collection of hovels near the Mexican border.

"People drive up all the time and talk to us about how their grandmother was a Kickapoo," says tribal leader Robert De LaGaza. "Seems like everybody's grandmother is a Kickapoo these days."

In 1992, when Bill Clinton was asked if he would support an Arkansas tribe's casino application, the soon-to-be president struck a moral pose and responded that "gambling is a lousy basis for an economy".

A year later, Clinton was telling a reporter for a reservation newspaper that "gambling is a positive economic tool". What changed his mind? Surely not the donations pouring in from Indian gambling interests?

The irony of it all is that the same laws passed to help Indians may end up hurting them.

"The real danger with all these new tribes," says attorney Dexter Lehtinen, who represents a bona fide tribe in Florida, "is that opponents of Indians will say there are too many tribes able to exercise these rights, and so the doctrines of sovereign immunity and Indian control over their own land should be abolished."

Rob's comment
Aside from minor stereotypes like "too many chiefs" and "wampum," the main problem is the misleading impression given here. Yes, court rulings have declared Indian nations sovereign—but the first rulings on that point came 200 years ago, not recently. Yes, some wannabes have tried to get recognized as tribes without merit—but other groups have fought for recognition for decades, long before casinos were an issue. Yes, relying on gambling may hurt Indians—but poverty and unemployment definitely hurt them.

The overall tone of this essay is stereotypical even if no particular line is. The implication is that most Indians are trying to hoodwink the BIA and the courts so they can enrich themselves. Some Indians and Indian wannabes may be doing that, but many, many aren't.

If people with Indian grandparents have tried to become enrolled because of gaming revenue—well, so what? That only confirms an obvious corollary: that there was no advantage to "being Indian"—i.e., to being insulted, abused, or ignored—until casinos came along. Now that that's changing, it's small compensation for the centuries of injustice.

Since all tribes have their own policies for determining membership, Franklin needn't worry about being inundated with Pequots or Kickapoos. If an Indian tribe sees an advantage to letting people in (and diluting its per capita income), it'll do so. If it doesn't see an advantage, it won't.

Wannabes proposing new tribes won't succeed unless they pass through an arduous federal recognition process. That process is designed to screen out false claims. So far it's blocked too many genuine tribes, not too few phony ones. So again, Franklin needn't worry.

Related links
The facts about Indian gaming
The essential facts about Indians today

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