Indians in Vermont disliked Howard Dean enough to oppose his presidential run. Members of the Abenaki Nation, which had squabbled with Dean over state recognition, made a point of supporting Wesley Clark over him. But now Dean is pro-Indian and feigns anger that Republicans have been “stealing from Indian tribes,” as he put it in a recent interview. Always ready to accuse Republicans of exploiting minorities, Dean sees an opening in the Abramoff scandal to push his minority politics.
Dean, however, fails to see that Indian gambling lords aren’t exactly a sympathetic minority. Jack Abramoff scammed scammers. Indian gambling lords aren’t strangers to deceit and double-dealing. Why did those poor innocents in the Coushatta Tribe hire Abramoff? For the noble purpose of driving another Indian tribe’s proposed casino into the ground. Abramoff did nothing for the tribe? Not true; he helped them mistreat fellow Indians.
Indians mistreating Indians is an old story. Yet Indian history repeating itself in a corrupt modern context is not a point mansion-dwelling tribal chieftains dare acknowledge. Instead, they speak of Abramoff as the “contemporary” face of historic European exploitation of the Indians and hope to milk this scandal for as many political points as possible. Coushatta tribal-council member David Sickey, laying it on pretty thick, told the Washington Post last weekend that in “the 17th and 18th century, native people were exploited for their land. In 2005, they’re being exploited for their wealth.”
Would that comedian Phil Hartman were still alive to adapt his “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer” routine to the sophisticated shakedown artists who populate Indian tribal councils and can play naive victims at the drop of a hat. According to the Washington Post, the exploited waifs of the Coushatta Tribe are raking in $300 million a year. “Something for nothing” describes their existence as much as that of the lowlife lobbyists they hire. Members of the Coushatta Tribe receive fat checks for doing nothing except manipulating the system as victims even as they elbow out Indians from other tribes.
Perhaps in the years ahead Congress will have to compensate the Jena Band of Choctaws for “exploitation” at the hands of the Coushatta Tribe. There is no bottom to the absurdities of Indian casino politics. The fallout from the Abramoff scandal, instead of increasing sympathy for these casino hucksters, should outrage the public into ending their racket. From coast to coast, Indian casinos are a shameless monument to the most cynical minority politics. Money sloshes back and forth between tribal leaders (who live not on dismal reservations but in posh neighborhoods; one chieftain for a northern California tribe lives in a southern California mansion) and the pols who receive Indian campaign contributions after they agree to let these phony casino “reservations,” which are invariably discovered near interstates, blight their states.
I’ve lost track of the number of these scams in California. But a few years back Time reported on a couple of the most audacious ones, such as the time a woman formed a three-man tribe with her two brothers by dragging a trailer onto a spontaneous reservation in the Palm Springs area. This entitled the suddenly jump-started “Augustine Band of Cahuilla Mission Indians” to build a casino and receive federal aid. In no time the woman was receiving $1 million from Washington for “tribal government,” “housing,” and “environmental programs.”
Tiny tribes spread in California as people learned they had Indian blood, and the supposedly hallowed land of their ancestors was the last place these operators wanted their “reservations,” as those spots were annoyingly far from highways and gambling populations. Bay Area Democratic Congressman George Miller once snuck an amendment into a bill which allowed descendants from the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, a tribe that had disappeared in the 1960s, to reassemble for the purposes of enriching themselves off a casino built near San Francisco. The Upper Lake Band of Pomo Indians, upset that their reservation was an onerous two-hour drive from Sacramento, demanded that politicians relocate it closer to a freeway.
That these makeshift Indian tribes end up with low advocates like Jack Abramoff is no surprise. They deserve each other. If Howard Dean wants to play the Indian card, fine. The more public attention that is drawn to this bipartisan racket of mendacious minority politics the better.
–George Neumayr is a writer living in the Washington, D.C., area.