posted by Larry Kibbey
WASHINGTON (Reuter) - American Indians began a crusade Thursday to beat back efforts in the Senate to renege on centuries-old treaties governing the relationship between Washington and the nation's 557 tribes.
At issue are two "riders" quietly slipped into a huge government spending bill that would deprive tribes of basic operating funds unless they agree to the changes.
One would force tribes to waive "sovereign immunity" from civil lawsuits -- leaving them open to bankruptcy and unable to operate as governments -- or lose up to $767 million in government funding. Under the other, tribes could be "means tested" and denied federal funds if their income exceeded a certain level.
The author of both, Republican Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington State, says sovereign immunity unfairly shields the tribes from being sued in federal court and asserts they have made so much money from gambling operations that they need no longer receive full federal government support.
"The doctrine places the tribes above the law," Gorton said Thursday. "My provision would restore citizens' constitutional right to due process ... it would not alter the tribes treaty-protected right to self-governance."
But the tribes believe Gorton is pursuing a peronal vendetta dating back 20 years to his time as Washington's attorney general when he argued and lost a key Supreme Court case in which the court upheld Indian fishing rights in the Pacific Northwest.
"The primary sponsor of the legislation is a U.S. senator who has made every effort conceivable to destroy the tribes throughout his career," said Billy Frank, chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
Frank, and officials from almost 300 tribes, have gathered in Washington this month to fight the riders Gorton attached to the Interior Appropriations Bill by exercising a Congressional prerogative known as the "chairman's mark." Gorton is chairman of the subcommittee that passed the $13 billion bill in July.
The Clinton administration has threatened to veto the legislation if the Indian riders survive, although it contains many other provisions White House officials fought hard to have the Republican-led Congress include.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said the measures would overturn almost 200 years of jurisprudence and effect "a sweeping and unprecedented change" in federal Indian policy.
Opposition also appeared to be mounting among lawmakers. California Democrat Rep. George Miller circulated a protest letter Thursday seeking his colleagues' signatures.
"We believe that before Congress overturns two centuries of federal Indian law, these issues deserve to be debated in a public hearing," he said.
The only Indian in the Senate, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado Republican, has said the two provisions would be passed only "over my dead body."
The independence of Indian tribes is part of a deal formalized in many separate treaties under which tribal governments ceded almost 100 million acres of land, as well as fishing and hunting rights, in exchange for federal support.
There are about 2 million Indians living in the United States and 557 federally recognized tribes. Seventeen states have no recognized tribes within their boundaries.
Despite the perception that Indians have struck gold from gambling interests, they are still among the poorest people in the nation with the poverty level for children on reservations more than twice the national average and an unemployment rate almost three times that of other Americans.
A recent report by the General Accounting Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, found that 10 tribes took in more than half the $1.6 billion received by Indian reservations from gambling.
Almost 200 tribes have gambling operations.
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