Matter of Opinion 12/1995

It's A Matter Of Opinion

by elmer m. savilla
December 1995

Nations in Denial:

Why the American Indian Tribes will disappear by 2075.

Here it is, almost a New year again. Seems the older I get the quicker the year goes around. There is never enough time to address all of my concerns. But I do the best I can. Now - because of recent bad news from Congress on Indian affairs, I took a look at some of my past writings for inspiration. Lo and behold, my crystal ball is still working. Way back on January 2, 1990, I wrote that "the nervous nineties will put tribal governments to a real test of management and political skills. The next few years will not be a time for weak-kneed or timid leadership."

I continued, "Tribes will see support and funds for federal Indian assistance programs dwindle along with other funding levels. The reason will be the massive national debt and the ever present budget deficit." Was I right or what? But I'm an analyst and that's what analysts do. At that time, the federal debt was around $2 Trillion. Now it is almost $5 Trillion. How time and money flies.

Sadly, no one took heed of my warning and the leadership has turned out to be exactly weak-kneed and timid. Two things I like to do is study history and then contemplate what it means to the future. Here we are now with tribes dangling on the brink of termination and assimilation - yet their leadership does no more than write letters to the president and holler "We're sovereign" or "I have a treaty." In the politics of today that and 50 cents isn't enough to get you a cup of coffee. Without action, the treaty or sovereignty claim is worthless.

What Indian tribes are fighting against now is not a political party, or Dole, Gingrich, or even Clinton. What they have to fear is a federal policy that is being almost imperceptibly formed that has no place in it for Indian treaties, least of all for nation's within a nation. Another attraction is that there is so much juicy Indian land and resources going undeveloped and untaxed.

Listen closely to what Clinton and the two political parties say and pay attention to their actions and not to promises. It's time to fight on your own terms or forget it and be careful in the clinches of negotiations. John F. Kennedy had a saying worth heeding. He said about negotiations that one has to start with the idea that, What's mine is mine, and what's yours is negotiable."

Unless God has other plans, I won't be around to see the actual process used, or the end of federal recognition for Indian tribes on the day they become tax paying residents of the county and state. But I will look down from above (I hope) and sing a song of lament while strumming on my harp.

This leads me to a story, part fiction, part real history. A look at the past and a peek into the future.

This then, is a factual account of political and sociological conditions that have occurred to this point in time and how they will affect the status and future of the Native American race. Of course the future for now is fiction.

Chapter One: Hypothesis.

Imagine two generations in the future, say 2075. A college student is researching the disappearance of a race that was once known as Native Americans or American Indians. Apparently these indigenous Indian tribes of the United States began disappearing as entities sometime in the early 21st century around 2020. Now, in 2075, there were no tribal governments, no Indian reservations, no full-blooded natives, and their descendants were now entirely assimilated into mainstream America.

What would this student researcher find in the history books and archives that would help to understand what sort of calamity or tragedy had happened that would wipe out the traditions and culture of an entire race of people who had apparently enjoyed a form of limited sovereignty, self-government and freedom since long before the formation of the republic. Their sovereign power at one time was unquestioned and had been recognized and acknowledged by every foreign power which had set foot on this continent. How could such a sovereign group simply disappear "without a shot being fired?"

The student researcher had earlier studied the rise and fall of similar native groups of the Americas. The Anasazi, Inca and the Aztec societies had also disappeared long before. But preliminary study had suggested that this time, the case of the disappearing Native Americans, was different. This time, it may have been self-inflicted. Their actions, and in some cases failure to take action, may have led to their extinction. What will the history books and records tell this researcher in 2075?

That chapter of history, not having been yet written, can have a different outcome - but failing direct action by Native Americans, now - the outcome seems fairly certain to be as described herein.

Chapter Two: The close of the 20th century.

As 1995 came to a close, the existence of American Indians was being threatened. They had become an endangered species after 219 years of suffering the vacillations of United States Indian policies which had ranged from genocide to paternalism. But underlying whatever policy came into vogue, the purpose was always to relieve the Indians of their land and to do away with them as political units either through force or by assimilation. The United Stated was now close to achieving that goal.

Earlier, in October of 1994 through what he called a Contract With America, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, announced what amounted to an all-out attack on senior citizens, the nation's poor children, and on American Indians, by cutting funds for their social programs while giving tax breaks to the wealthy. The weapon to be used was the federal budget. During the next few months Republican congressmen began slashing program funds in preparation for transferring the programs to the states. This was done in complete and illegal disregard of the special status of Indian Nations and their treaties with the U.S.

Only a few had recognized that the design of the Contract On America, coupled with the concept of a New Federalism, if fully carried out, would lead to the impoverishment and eventual termination of the Indian Nations. Although some Indian leaders said they knew what was happening, collectively no public acknowledgment was given to Republican motives.

The failure of American Indian Tribal Governments to take strong and immediate actions to protect their future as Indian nations revealed a potentially fatal condition: Denial of the danger.

Chapter Three: Denial.

This "denial" was manifested twice in 1995. Fifty elected tribal leaders had gathered in Washington, DC in September, and again in early November at San Diego. In Washington, DC, the emergency meeting was billed as a beginning for a National Unity Campaign to Uphold Treaty Commitments and Ensuring Fulfillment of Trust Responsibilities. In what seemed to be a deliberate ploy, the leadership skillfully avoided any talk of treaty rights or the trust. Instead they were co-opted by congressional aides to do nothing but lobby Congress. This soft pedal approach accomplished nothing, except to spend scarce money, an estimated $200,000 for travel and per diem expenses.

In San Diego, 150 leaders and approximately 600 delegates, all members of the National Congress of American Indians, met supposedly to address the efforts of Congress to "terminate" them by deep cuts in appropriations which, if carried out, would make it virtually impossible to operate as local governments. Their strategy was again the same standard answer to political threats: lobby, lobby, consult. They completely failed (or refused) to recognize that this time things were different. The 104th Congress, under the influence of big corporate business, was meaner and more determined than any previous Congress had been. Standard strategies would not work this time.

Both times they came from Washington, DC and San Diego in deep denial of the situation, failing to address the threats to their existence in spite of pre-meeting tough talk. Example: One week before the San Diego meeting, America's EAGLE Magazine was told by an NCAI Area Vice-President that "The Montana and Wyoming tribes are angry. They will come to San Diego with fire in their eyes." By the time of the meeting their fire had turned to cold ashes. In a letter, gaiashkibos, then the president of NCAI, told delegates that "...we must rise in the face of adversity and speak with a united voice. The future existence of our people is in our hands." Sadly, these were empty words with empty meaning.

Because of elected leadership failing to act in a timely manner, the prospects for survival as Indian nations became a lost cause. There was no fight left in Indian leadership. In contrast, most of Nature's smallest creatures will fight their fiercest when cornered and threatened with "termination" (death) and would usually survive when the attacker is surprised with the ferocity of its counterattack. To do the unexpected is one secret of survival.

What the Indian leadership had done is to throw themselves on the mercy of politicians by talking of compromise, more lobbying, registering new voters, and forming Political Action Committees (PAC's). At this stage, they were already acting like mainstream American citizens and not as a sovereign people. They failed to realize that PAC's were always of more value to political incumbents than to the citizen members. This seemed to say "We accept the situation. We are no longer sovereign Indian Nations and we bow to the will of American politicians. We willingly join your political system."

Denial of a serious life-threatening situation is very dangerous. Like when an alcoholic says, "Not me. I can quit anytime I want to, therefore I am not an alcoholic." Or a diabetic in denial will say, "I'm only a borderline case. I am not diabetic." Even after a doctor tells them "there is no borderline." Like pregnancy, either you are or you aren't. When denial sets in, the problem runs rampant and unless it is checked, death (termination) will surely result.

The elected tribal leaders were left with two options. 1. They could accept the eventual termination of their special status and prepare their people to become ordinary citizens of the U.S., or 2. They could demand their proper sovereign status and enforcement of treaties and agreements. Option 2 would have solved many of the nit-picking problems of plenary power, jurisdiction, the trust responsibility, and taxation. More importantly it would have placed them outside of the federal budget process and guaranteed the survival of Indian nations into perpetuity.

Because of inaction, the drift was more toward Option 1. It has to be understood that only a few tribal leaders were making the decisions for everyone else. Out of a total of 554 federally recognized Indian tribes, less than one-third that number attended NCAI conferences. Breaking that down further, less than half of that number would vote on the issues. The people that really mattered, the grassroots people living on Indian reservations knew almost nothing of what was happening in the political and policy arena. Although they clamored for more information, their focus was sometimes blurred by other immediate issues of everyday living.

In 1973, after a review of history and congressional policy, a small group of tribal leaders had called for an affirmation of tribal sovereignty and the U.S. trust responsibility for Indians. It seemed apparent to this small group of forward-thinkers that rather than merely accepting the smooth words of politicians, it was necessary to have the U.S. recognize in writing and proclamation that the sovereignty of the Indian nations was absolutely still in place, that treaties and agreements made between Indian nations and the U.S. were indeed the law of the land, and that this was spelled out in the U.S. Constitution. Because of those documents the U.S., in 1776, had accepted a trust responsibility in perpetuity for Indian nations in return for land and resources.

The small group felt that for the understanding of everyone concerned, it was necessary to define the extent of that sovereignty and the parameters of the trust responsibility. Until these issues were known and accepted, they believed, Congress could and would exert its will on Indian people. Until this was done, they knew that Indian leaders were whistling in the dark when declaring "We are sovereign."

It was a good idea then but the proposal was opposed by a majority of tribal leaders who made up the Board of Directors of the National Tribal Chairmen's Association (NTCA), an organization representing the elected tribal leaders. That small group included Joseph Delacruz, Quinault Chairman; and Elmer M. Savilla, Quechan President.

As a result, at the beginning of the 21th century, year 2000, not one person could accurately describe tribal sovereignty and the trust responsibility. Tribal leaders had allowed the phrases to become empty rhetoric that was used only when advantageous to the federal governments, then forgotten.

By the end of the 20th century, Indian Tribal Governments were in complete denial of the congressional attack on their cherished treaty status from which their government-to-government relationship with the U.S. stemmed. Like a confirmed procrastinator who believes that by not opening ones mail, payment of a bill can be put off indefinitely - apparently so did many American Indian Tribal Governments refuse to look at and acknowledge the real intent of the Congress in that regard.

In fairness, Congress had made no secret of their intent. From time to time, the various presidents and the Congress said their goal was to "break up the tribal mass." They would use legislation and coercion to have Indians select the rope by which they would be hung. In fact, after the genocidal federal policies of the 1800's failed, Congress several times attempted to legislate Indian tribes out of existence.

Each time, Indian tribes had responded in an ad hoc manner and in dis-unity. But there were two notable exceptions. In 1950, Congress was making an effort to "Free Indians from the BIA," and to make them "First Class Citizens." California passed two resolutions asking Congress to terminate Indian tribes. Ironically, the termination bills were being pushed by a representative of Southern California's Mission Indian Federation, which was composed of tribal members. This was a case of "urbanized" Indians pitted against the elected leaders of reservations.

Steve Ponchetti, chairman of the Santa Ysabel Indians, and Max Mazzetti, chairman of the Rincon Indians, organized and united tribal leaders in opposition to the termination bill called HR 7473, which would have terminated 117 Indian tribes. Tribal leaders succeeded in having California rescind their resolutions for termination and the bill finally died.

In 1978, in response to a Republican proposal to abrogate all treaties and terminate Indian tribes, Peter MacDonald, who was then chairman of the nation's largest tribe, the Navajo, called for an emergency meeting of tribal leaders to be held at Navajo headquarters in Window Rock, Arizona. A majority of tribal leaders attended along with representatives of major Indian organizations. MacDonald organized them into a formidable force which caused the Congress to reject the proposal.

These two examples showed what could be accomplished when the will is there. At other times, Indian tribes had been spared by public sympathy and possible mainstream guilt for the massacres and mistreatment of the 1800s and by friendly politicians who recognized the sanctity of treaties and the U.S. Constitution - but with each passing year, the guarantees of the original Constitution disappeared and the memory of mistreatment and recognition of the reason for treaties being made with Indian nations also disappeared until by 1996, few in Congress knew of the real relationship between the U.S. and Indian nations - and worse, Congress didn't want to know.

The piecemeal education of Congress did little to help. They should have been fully informed of what treaties and the Constitution said about the Indian/U.S. relationship. The mainstream of American people knew even less about early American history and came to look on Indian people as being on a form of welfare, paid by the poor taxpayer. In fact, one Secretary of Interior, James Watt, in 1983 describes Indian programs as "good examples of failed socialism."

Too, Indian leaders apparently thought "It's every tribe for itself." The reality which they ignored and continued to deny going into the 21th century is that they were all in the same canoe.

During the early and mid-1800s, extermination of Indian tribes was the official policy of the U.S. Even when religious groups intervened on their behalf, seemingly benevolent legislation and polices often carried hidden agendas. For instance, in 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, which on its face seemed to benefit the individual Indian by allotting him land for his personal use. But it had two devilish purposes: 1. To break up tribal membership, and 2. To break up tribal land holdings

In fact, President Theodore Roosevelt said as much before he signed the Act into law. "The General Allotment Act is a mighty pulverizing engine," he said, "to break up the tribal mass.""...(and) we should now break up tribal funds"... proposing that tribal lands and resources be sold and the funds be distributed per capita. Under Roosevelt, millions of acres of tribally-owned forests and millions of acres of Indian reservation land were taken away by Executive Order. Fortunately, at the time there was still some justice and it was later ruled that President Roosevelt's actions were beyond the power of the Executive office and some of the forests and lands were returned to the tribes.

This should have been encouraging to tribal leaders as one example that just by relying on sovereignty and treaties, much of what had been lost could have been recovered.

(To be continued)

END OF PART I. In our next issue, January 1, we will conclude this fact/fiction story beginning with termination efforts of the latter part of the 1990s and continuing through the confusion and poverty which eventually led to the extinction of tribal entities by 2075. Don't miss this peek into the future by sending us your subscription now.

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