The BIA has proven itself ineffective and useless in the crisis against Native Americans in CA. Should this department be cut from the budget in this sequester-era? Fresno State held a forum to discuss the Chukchansi dispute, led by Dr. Kenneth Hansen.
Let me introduce myself. I am Dr. Kenneth Hansen, an associate professor of Political Science here at Fresno State. I was the co-Coordinator of the Africana and American Indian Studies program for three years, and an advisor to the First Nations Indigenous Student Organization. I am also the co-editor of a book entitled The New Politics of Indian Gaming. In my view, the new politics of Indian gaming is a lot like the old politics of influence peddling that we’ve come to know and despise from our state and national governments. Perhaps the thing that I am most proud of during my time on the faculty at Fresno State is that I was invited to give the commencement address at the 2010 American Indian Graduation Ceremony here in Fresno. It was a great experience, and I am thankful to the community for extending the invitation.
Before I introduce the rest of the panel, I’d like to make a few brief remarks. I’d like students and other members of the audience to take away at least three things from tonight’s discussion. One, tribal governments are set up to fail by the federal government. Despite the odds, some actually succeed, which is great for them. But success is not uniform across Indian Country. Two, civil rights violations are running rampant throughout Indian Country, and need to be stopped. And three, the legitimacy crises within tribal communities will only be resolved if we bring everyone back into the circle.
On this date in 1973, a standoff began at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, that lasted for 71 days. At issue was tribal corruption, the disrespecting of elders, and GOON squads running amok on the reservation intimidating people who didn’t follow the corrupt tribal council. The standoff made several people famous, like AIM activists Dennis Banks, and Russell Means, who took his journey to the next world late last year following a battle with throat cancer. Leonard Peltier is still a political prisoner of the US government and will likely die in prison. One year ago, a group of Chukchansis supporting Morris Reid, Dixie Jackson, Dora Jones, and Harold Hammond, took over and occupied the tribal government offices at Picayune Rancheria for many of the same reasons as the occupation of Wounded Knee. That night the tribal government offices became the hotel from hell for elders and their families, as supporters of the faction who refused to give up power, pelted the office windows with rocks, burning logs, and bear spray. The next day a melee erupted outside the building and three people were injured, one of those injuries was the result of a stabbing. It shouldn’t take violence to bring attention to these issues. But it could have been much worse.
I’m not picking on Chukchansi. I’m really not. The situation at Picayune Rancheria is just the latest and most local example illustrating that in 40 years, not much has really changed in Indian Country. Most tribal governments, including casino tribes, suffer from a lack of resources, cronyism, a lack of transparency, and a lack of institutional capacity to do those things that we typically expect most governments to do. When one tribal government behaves badly and gets away with it, others do the same. This matters to the rest of society because it’s not fair that some people have civil rights while others, typically American Indians, do not.
The political situation among the Chukchansi people has grown extremely contentious and relationships between the parties may be irreconcilable. Currently, I see four factions among the Chukchansi people: One faction is led by Nancy Ayala, and her family, the Wyatts and the Ramirezes. They take a narrow view of who constitutes the tribal citizenship, arguing that it should include only those who have direct ties to the Rancheria property. They recently sued the government arguing that they alone should be recognized as the tribe. They lost because they didn’t have standing to sue—sovereign immunity cuts both ways! Other factions see the tribe as being a larger community, including the Reggie Lewis faction, but the Lewis faction seems to think that membership should be confined largely to those living in the foothills. The third group, the Morris Reid faction believes the Lewis and Ayala groups have shown great disrespect to tribal elders and to the electoral process. The fourth group is a rather unorganized collection of disenrolled families and individuals. Until one or more of the three competing government factions sees these disenrolled people as potential voters and supporters, they are not likely to be included in any political process.
Let me take a moment to explain disenrollment. Disenrollment is tantamount to individual terminations. In fact, I think we should call it that. Termination is when the government tells people that they are no longer American Indians. The power to terminate was devolved from the federal government to the tribes under the guise of tribal sovereignty. To me, tribal officials hiding behind sovereign immunity as they discriminate against their own people is akin to southern governors hiding behind states’ rights in opposition to the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Civil rights are rights that government must provide. They include voting rights, as well as due process, and equal protection under the law. Indigenous people who are terminated suffer unequal treatment, a lack of due process, and a cessation of their voting rights; as well as an abrogation of their civil liberties, including private property rights, violations of free speech, association, and religious freedoms. Individual terminations allow tribal politicians to choose their voters rather than the other way around in a kind of Indigenous version of political gerrymandering. We wouldn’t tolerate these kinds of civil rights violations in the rest of the United States, why do we tolerate it in Indian Country?
Thirty tribes nationwide have terminated substantial percentages of their citizenry. Twenty of those are in California. Something like 20,000 people have been terminated and had their civil rights violated. To my knowledge, all those tribes that have terminated members are gaming tribes, but not all gaming tribes terminate their citizens. In fact, in California this has only happened in about a third of the gaming tribes.
This is more than an identity crisis. This is a legitimacy crisis. How can tribal governments claim to be operating under their constitutions, when it is no longer clear who actually constitutes the tribes? How can they claim to be operating constitutionally when they violate the very Indian Civil Rights Act that is included in their tribal constitutions? A constitution is more than a document that describes institutions and procedures. A constitution represents the founding of a society. A constitution represents a community, and is a social contract between the government and that community. What this situation calls for is a re-founding. In other words, we need to hit the reset button.
Seventy-five cents of every dollar provided by the US Congress for Indian Country goes to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (the BIA), which is itself the largest agency of the Interior Dept. If the BIA isn’t going to help out, then why are the taxpayers funding this agency that has done very little but steal and oppress?
Why do we tolerate governance by an agency that sets us up to fail? I have this to say to Troy Burdick and his colleagues at the BIA in Sacramento: General George Armstrong Custer died for your sins. Step up to the plate and help resolve the Chukchansi legitimacy crisis. What might work to resolve this situation could possibly be applied to help solve similar problems in other tribal communities. The federal courts and the BIA need to enforce the Indian Civil Rights Act. And all Indigenous people need to be brought back into the circle. Either we all belong to the circle of nations, or none of us do.
It’s as simple as that. Aho!