In December of last year, President Obama invited leaders from all 565 federally recognized American Indian nations and tribes to Washington for the second Tribal Nations Conference. More than one of us wondered what the true purpose of the meeting was. Without question, credit should be given to the President and his Indian affairs team for convening this event. Rare is it for any president to convene even one such meeting during his term, much less two and the promise for more.
The Obama Indian affairs team appears to be responding to the priority issues raised at last year’s tribal leaders summit. Of course, President Obama is not our national chief and it is not his job to decide what is best for us. We tribal leaders should be providing specific and targeted policy initiatives to the White House to be implemented on our behalf. Instead, one of our lead lobbying organizations—the National Congress of American Indians—submitted over 60 pages of policy suggestions to the President on every imaginable topic and concern of Indian Country but the kitchen sink.
Which is one reason why Indian Country’s policy voice is weak right now. With so many policy options thrown at the White House, the Obama team is free to pick and choose which issues are pursued, ignored, or given mere lip service. This blitz approach typically ends up in a dither over how to get Congress to appropriate more money for Indian programs and pay the bill for past injustices. Because most Indian nations remain economically devastated from the theft of our lands and sovereign authority, federal appropriations often are the only “economy” in Indian Country.
But have no illusion that taking such an approach does little to change our condition over time. For an increasing number of Indian nations and tribes, our goal is not simply to maintain the status quo, but to actually improve the lives of our people and make our nations stronger. Since our first contact with European settlers in our lands, we have largely failed in our efforts to resist their systemic efforts to transfer tribally-controlled wealth to non-Indians. Tribal gaming has provided a notable departure from this destructive trend, but a long-term solution to Indian economic underdevelopment requires far more bold and ambitious action.
What Indian Country needs is real tribal economic empowerment so we can take better care of our people. One thing all tribal leaders can agree upon—tribal nations and peoples need more money to sustain and revitalize our societies. But in a deficit era, we’ve got to pursue our bankroll in the private sector rather than the federal purse.
Why is more money important to Indians? Because we need money to crawl out of the hole of 200 years of forced poverty that the United States has inflicted on us by taking our power and authority over our own lands. If we have money, we have a real chance to resolve problems such as the ill health, domestic violence, teen suicide, and language loss that afflict our tribal societies.
Poor people are confronted with poor choices and we need to improve the quality of life on our territories so our people will have better choices.
So, how can we stem the flow of wealth away from tribal lands and people to non-Indians? To begin with, reservation Indians should be restored to our constitutional status and be immunized from all taxes. It is absurd that tribal wealth is sent to the federal government in the form of income and excise taxes only to be sent back in the form of federal Indian program money to support tribal economies. We should keep that money in our own nations as disposable income or contributions to our own tribal governments.
In addition, income earned and invested on tribal lands by non-Indians should also be immunized from all taxation. Non-Indians should be given significant tax credits for investments made on Indian lands and additional incentives for energy and natural resource development to convince Wall Street to invest in Indian Country. Only then will governing tribal nations be able to develop their own tax base and require the hiring, the employ of Native people. If the United States can tolerate outsourcing jobs to the country of India, it can support in-sourcing of jobs to Indian Country.
Because of the nature of this agenda—to reverse the historic transfer of wealth away from Indian Country—we need a powerful ally to help us. That ally should be President Obama. But he and his Indian affairs team must realize that there is no middle ground when it comes to fighting for real tribal empowerment. We have many enemies who right now seek nothing more than our continued impoverishment and the destruction of our tribal sovereignty. We don’t need a timid, “nice guy” approach to these challenges; we need a warrior.
The heart of a tribal empowerment agenda is rooted in the simple fact that when Indian people exchanged land-for-peace with the American people, we did not bargain for generations of poverty and dysfunction. Nor did we bargain for the loss of sovereign control over our own land and what happens on it. There is no reason why Indian people cannot be as prosperous as non-Indians. But we need bold, aggressive action from President Obama to support a legislative agenda that will begin to remove the non-Indian tax, non-Indian regulation and non-Indian control over Indian Country that continues to sap our sovereign strength and steal our wealth.
If President Obama can wade into fights for trillion dollar bail-out packages for Wall Street and war-fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, I would hope he would be willing to commit a fraction of that effort to helping us repair the 200 years worth of damage that America has inflicted on its indigenous peoples. We don’t want a bail-out. We want our sovereign authority to be fully respected, without exception or dilution, so that all these tax and regulatory burdens are lifted and we can begin to regain our wealth in the private sector economy.
Robert Odawi Porter is the President of the Seneca Nation of Indians.