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Oh Sovereignty, Wherefore Art Thou?

The quasi-sovereign status of the Indian nations of America has slowly eroded since the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 became the law of the land.
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The quasi-sovereign status of the Indian nations of America has slowly eroded since the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 became the law of the land. The Act made it mandatory for the Indian nations to sign gaming compacts with the state governments wherein their Indian reservations were situated. The tribes, from that day forward, began to surrender much of their status as sovereign nations.

The tribes would only be allowed to establish gaming that was already permissible under current state law. In other words, if slot machines were outlawed within the state, the tribes could not, without extra special permission, introduce slot machines into their casinos.

When South Dakota opened up nearly all forms of gambling for the City of Deadwood, it then opened up the same gaming opportunities for the Indian tribes in the state. However, while allowing the steady growth in the number of slot machines in Deadwood, the state gaming compact restricted the Indian nations to a total of 250 slot machines for each tribe (there are nine tribes in South Dakota). The Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe of eastern South Dakota last week brought a lawsuit against Governor Mike Rounds and the state for greatly diminishing their efforts at economic growth by this restriction.

In New Mexico, in exchange for limited non-Indian competition, the tribes signed compacts that would pay the state no more than 8 percent of its slot machine revenues. These compacts expire in 2015. Seeking a long-term extension of those compacts in order to bring about stability and certainty to their gaming and tribal government operations, the tribes moved to establish new compacts with the state.

The new compacts would extend the gaming compacts to the year 2037. The state will receive a gradual gaming revenue sharing increase to 10.75 percent over the life of the new compacts. The state proposed that the tribes set aside an additional 1 percent of their slot revenues for infrastructure improvements on reservations within the state that do not have casinos. The tribes immediately rejected this proposal. Setting aside a small portion of their casino profits to help the less fortunate tribes in the state was apparently unthinkable.

The only businesses in America that considers losers and the addicted as their best friends and customers are the gaming casinos. And you can take that to the bank.

Charles J. Dorame, Chairman of the New Mexico Indian Gaming Association in an op-ed piece in the Albuquerque Journal, even bragged about the sovereignty the tribes of New Mexico are willingly and gladly surrendering to the state. He wrote, "The proposed compact amendment significantly increases the level of state oversight. For example, state gaming representatives would have access to expanded slot data and the slot machines themselves, to slot accounting systems and to raw, unadulterated data."

He then unabashedly threw sovereignty out of the window with, "The amendment also would require each tribal regulatory authority to submit an annual compliance report to the state and to maintain all records relied upon in preparing the compliance report for review by the state gaming representative. In addition the state would have the right to request any additional documentation and to conduct its own inspection of the Gaming Facility, Class III Gaming activity, individual gaming machines and all records related to the Class III Gaming of the Tribe." Phew! He could have turned over the keys to all of the bathrooms while he was at it.

I wrote an editorial for Indian Country Today newspaper in 1989 when I was its editor and publisher that read, "Why are the tribes submitting to blackmail by the state governments that forces them to hand over their limited sovereignty in order to operate a gaming casino? They should proceed with whatever it takes to build their casinos, including an unlimited number of slot machines, and then tell the state government to go to hell if it questions their sovereign right to do so." I stand by that editorial even to this day. To stand in fear of state government and to sell out their sovereignty, limited though it may be, for a casino, is not only mindless, but also totally untraditional.

If it wasn't for the haste preceded by the greed that caused many Indian tribes to plunge into gaming pell-mell, they would have listened to the warnings of the great tribal leaders like Roger Jourdain of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota and Wendell Chino, the fearless leader of the Mescalero Apache Tribe in New Mexico, who warned them from day one to take their time and to not surrender one more ounce of their sovereignty in order to get into the gambling business. Jourdain and Chino must be spinning in their graves to see tribe after tribe sell out their very souls to build another casino.

To see the tribes of New Mexico eroding and surrendering their sovereignty for 30 more years of state-regulated gaming is indeed a sad day in the history of Indian country and a harbinger of the predictions so sadly rendered by Jourdain and Chino.

(McClatchy News Service in Washington, DC distributes Tim Giago's weekly column. He can be reached at 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 the recipient of the H.L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the class of 1990 - 1991. Clear Light Books of Santa Fe, NM ( published his latest book, "Children Left Behind")

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