A resurgence of anti-tribal sentiment is threatening to reverse the gains that Indian tribes have made during the last decade. Tribal gaming successes and growing political influence have added new fuel to the rhetoric of national groups such as United Property Owners (UPO), which would prefer that reservations dissolve and Indians blend into the great American melting pot.
Regional anti-sovereignty groups, like the Citizens Stand Up! Committee around the Yakama Reservation, are holding meetings in Indian country, advising members to resist all forms of tribal jurisdiction. They are mainly comprised of non-tribal property owners who feel federal Indian policy gives tribes special advantages.
Stand Up!, a member of UPO, brought its message to St. Maries, Idaho, at its Northwest Roundup last weekend. The meeting attracted people from around the Northwest who contend that tribal governments are nothing more than race-based special interest groups. Their criticism is not racially motivated, they say, but aimed at bad government.
Tribal government tactics are excessive and oppressive, according to the UPO winter newsletter, written by Executive Director Barb Lindsay. Tribes are tax avoiders and their economic enterprises are a cancerous growth. Indian governments are radical and tyrannical. They are self-destructive extremists. Casinos are out-of-control monopolies that lead to a plague of abuses. Tribal efforts to protect air and water quality are too aggressive. Their leaders hurt their own people as well as their neighbors.
Nevertheless, Lindsay wrote, UPO has always maintained utmost respect for all cultures, and a belief in equal opportunity for all.
A new tactic is to assert reservations are much smaller than most people believe. For example, they say only about 20 percent of the Coeur d'Alene Reservation, established in 1891, is still in existence.
The eyes of the Coeur d'Alene people cloud over with worry at those words. To them, that talk is racist at its core, because they ceded more than 4.5 million acres of their aboriginal territory so they would be left alone to survive on their remaining land, which was promised to them by the federal government.
Anti-sovereignty groups are taking their message to county prosecutors, legislators and attorney generals, and the heads of federal agencies such as the departments of the Interior and Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency.
"We truly are quickly reaching the tipping point on federal Indian policy as more and more elected officials, members of the media and millions of citizens across America are waking up to the pressing need for reform," Linsday wrote.
Her Redmond, Wash., group claims members in 40 states representing more than 200 civic groups and governments. The newest include the North Central Idaho Jurisdictional Alliance, which asserts the Nez Perce Reservation is "diminished;" Thurston County Supervisor Teri Lamplot and Bainbridge Concerned Citizens. The North Idaho Citizen's Alliance (NICA), which sponsored the Roundup in St. Maries, is another new member.
NICA formed to protest the Coeur d'Alene Tribe's activism in various natural resource issues. They objected when the Supreme Court affirmed that the tribe owns parts of Lake Coeur d'Alene and the St. Joe River within reservation boundaries. The state of Idaho had erroneously laid claim to those waters for more than a century. Many alliance members own waterfront property with docks and balked when the tribe sent them bills for the encroachments.
Benewah County Prosecuting Attorney Doug Payne, who also suspects the reservation is diminished, recently announced his intention to represent dock owners as a private attorney in a lawsuit against the tribe. On the other hand, he believes the two parties should respect each other's dominion and forge a mutually beneficial partnership. He says he would like to create a model for dealing with multi-jurisdictional confusion on reservations.
The question of tribal jurisdiction over non-Indian reservation property owners resonates throughout the nation. The situation is rooted in the federal Allotment Act of 1887, which was to speed the "civilization" of Indians by giving them land to farm. Reservations were carved into 160-, 80- and 40-acre parcels and divided among individual Indians to till, whether they wanted to or not. Everything not allotted was considered surplus. The 1909 lottery in Coeur d'Alene opened the Spokane, Coeur d'Alene and Flathead reservations to thousands of white settlers.
At the time, Congress thought tribes would vanish, so it did not anticipate the multi-jurisdictional quagmire its allotment policy would create today for the descendents of those settlers.
The legal uncertainties tear at the fabric of American democracy, which is based on equality for all, Lindsay wrote. The policies are unfair and biased, she said.
That is not news to Native Americans, upon whom unfair policies have been forced for centuries. Many were made without the voice or vote of the Indian people, who were granted citizenship in 1924, then denied the right to vote in some states until the 1960s.
The Allotment Act broke all treaties and agreements that promised perpetual rights to what little land was left after reservations were created.
The Bill of Rights notwithstanding, Indians were not allowed to leave reservations without permission, and practices such as traditional dancing and medicine were outlawed five years later.
Even when rights were acknowledged, they were often ignored. For example, in 1907, the court recognized tribes have reserved water rights on their lands. In 1973, a Congressional water commission criticized the government's failure to protect those rights.
A 1926 survey recorded the failings of previous policies. Most Indians were extremely poor, in bad health, without education and not adjusting to the dominant culture. That led to reforms such as the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which promoted tribal self-government. Allotment of tribal lands was halted and 12 laws that kept Indians virtual prisoners on reservations were repealed.
In 1968, the protections of the Bill of Rights were extended to Indians. In 1982, tribes were given permission to develop mineral resources on their property. Before that, they could only collect royalties from leases, many of them unfair, long-term arrangements set up through the Interior Department, which botched the accounting. That same year, Indians were given some say about radioactive waste dumped on their lands.
In recent decades, tribes have lost ground in conservative courts, but made headway with executive and congressional policies that increased opportunities in natural resource management, gaming and self-rule. It is these gains, with their attendant improvements in health care, employment, education and social services, which the anti-sovereignty forces seek to dismantle.
The Indian people, whose land base is under assault once again, view this as a frontal attack on their nations and families, and therefore on their very survival.
Estar Holmes is a reporter for the Gazette-Record in St. Maries, Idaho.