The New Red Power

The most dangerous Indian in America is an imp-voiced Blackfeet named Elouise Cobell. According to President Bush's Bureau of Indian Affairs director, Neal McCaleb, Cobell's assaults had so "taken their toll," he had to step down on Dec. 31. It was the latest victory for the Montanan some have called the Rosa Parks of Indian Country.

Cobell's one-woman siege of Washington began six years ago when she filed one of the largest class actions ever brought against the feds. She alleges that in 125 years of leasing Indian lands to miners, loggers, ranchers and farmers, the government has lost or stolen up to $137 billion in royalties belonging to as many as 500,000 Indians. She is almost certainly right.

Officials under the Clinton and Bush administrations responded to her suit by shredding files, lying to judges, and retaliating against her--for example, by cutting off cash to Indian Country. Cobell fired back in court, and in 1999 U.S. district judge Royce Lamberth held Bruce Babbitt and Robert Rubin, Clinton's interior and treasury secretaries, in contempt, issuing steep fines and wicked verbal bruisings. Last September, McCaleb and Interior Secretary Gale Norton met the same fate. Lamberth has even threatened to jail Norton.

Not bad for a Montana Indian who grew up with no electricity, an outhouse and a creek for running water. Cobell's rise and her defeat of McCaleb are apt markers of a new Indian activism that is at once imposing and not imposing enough.

The new Red Power comes from three sources. Litigation, as Cobell has shown, can be a potent catalyst. In addition to exposing a BIA rotten with neglect, her case has inspired similar suits for federal bungling of tribal accounts and has brought rare ink to reservation distress--an old story that is little covered but remains achingly fresh for the 51 percent of Indian Country living in poverty.

The judiciary, however, is a fickle friend. Rightists on the Supreme Court have eroded the two bases of Indian legal strength: tribes' state-like sovereignty and the federal duty to care for Indians.

"If this trend in the court's rulings continues," Senate Indian Affairs Chair Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) told tribal leaders in early 2002, "you may still have governments, but they will be governments in name only."

In December the court heard two cases--U.S. v. White Mountain Apache Tribe and U.S. v. Navajo Nation--in which Bush's solicitor argued for razing part of the government's historic duty as fiduciary trustee for Indian lands. If the court agrees, future Cobell-like suits for financial redress could be mooted. In response, the nation's largest tribal consortium, the National Congress of American Indians, is mounting a drive to convince Congress to roll back Supreme Court decisions--no small task given a Congressional mood toward Indians that ranges from apathy to antipathy.

To better the odds for such efforts, tribes are relying heavily on a second source of strength: casino money. Most tribes have no casinos, and of those that do, most net only enough to keep the doors open. But some have done well; a few spectacularly, like Foxwoods on Connecticut's Mashantucket Pequot Reservation--yearly gross $10 billion.

In 2000 tribes spent roughly $750,000 of such riches against Congress's most loathed Indian hunter, Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.). Gorton's narrow loss to Maria Cantwell sent an NRA-style message that crossing tribes can be hazardous to one's electoral health.

The message is not limited to Republicans, who are by no means alone in disrespecting tribal sovereignty. The November loss of swing-state senators Jean Carnahan of Missouri and Max Cleland of Georgia, both Democrats and both opponents of tribal gambling, may have depressed progressive America, but the casino Indians who gave to their opponents mourned little. Indeed, 2002 marked the first time gambling tribes gave a majority of donations to Republicans: 56 percent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, up from a mere 21 percent in 2000.

Native Americans have also found the power of their franchise. Though just 1.5 percent of the American whole, they make up as much as 11 percent of Western states that teeter between Republicans and Democrats (and 19 percent of solidly Republican Alaska).

Fifteen years ago, led by the Northern Cheyenne group Native Action, Montana's Indians began changing themselves from the nation's worst minority voters to the best. In 1992 their high turnout gave Clinton the state and saved liberal Congressman Pat Williams. Last November they elected seven Indians to a statehouse that until the 1990s had sat one.

Tribes in other states are emulating Montana, including in South Dakota, where Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson survived a squeaker last month thanks to a drive that registered thousands of Indian voters. For the moment, tribal votes, unlike tribal donations, are soundly Democratic. But that could change if Indians are not rewarded. In the Southwest, the Indian vote for anti-gambling Democrats has dropped from the usual 90 percent to the high 50s. And in South Dakota, Native agitator Russell Means is already urging Indians to dump Sen. Tom Daschle in 2004.

The combined clout--money, votes and lawsuits--"allowed tribes to defeat several attacks in Congress in 2002, particularly where gaming money was involved," says Acee Agoyo, editor of "Attempts to tax tribal lands and tribal casinos, even to study tribal casinos, went down."

Tribes were also strong enough to bloody Secretary Norton when she tried to privatize BIA schools, and again when she wanted to create a new agency to oversee Indian accounts without tribal input. Interior withdrew both efforts in disgrace (though in late December the BIA-reorganization plan was resurrected, to great tribal outcry; its outcome remains uncertain). Taking the fall, McCaleb tarred tribes as anti-reform, and reporters ignorant of Indian affairs too often agreed. But as Elouise Cobell says, "What's happening here is an entire race of people that has been ignored is learning to reclaim its power."

Yet powerful as the fights against paternalism and malfeasance are, they are essentially defensive. Marshalling offensive strength--the power, say, to win humane funding for the Indian Health Service, whose per-client budget is one-third of Medicare's, or for tribal colleges, funded at half their authorization--will take many more election-day hits. A few more justice-minded justices wouldn't hurt either.

Stephen Hendricks has published in the Boston Globe, DoubleTake and Seattle Weekly. He lives in Helena, Montana.


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