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US Indians Fight for Sovereignty

They often clash with state, local governments on taxation, other economic issues

DURING an April meeting with more than 500 American Indian leaders at the White House, President Bill Clinton vowed to ``honor and respect tribal sovereignty.'' His statement brought prolonged applause from the tribal leaders.

The president, however, cannot prevent individual states and local governments from challenging sovereignty, and tribes continue to skirmish with state and local jurisdictions on matters ranging from taxation and environmental issues to fishing rights and gambling.

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Like semi-independent island nations, 545 federally recognized tribes compete for jobs, money, and business opportunities. Each tribe has its own goals and objectives, which often clash with the jurisdictions around them.

Last year, the Oklahoma Tax Commission lost a decision in the US Supreme Court over levying taxes on members of the Sac and Fox tribe who live on tribal lands. The state wanted to collect income taxes and vehicle taxes from tribal members, but the high court disagreed.

``There has always been tension between state and tribal authorities on sovereignty issues,'' says John Echohawk, director of the Native American Rights Fund, a Colorado-based group that provides legal services to tribes. He says that as tribes push for gambling and environmental rights, sovereignty becomes more contentious. Despite the current battles, Mr. Echohawk sees hope for the future. ``We are seeing more negotiated settlements of jurisdictional issues and more building of tribal-state relations.'' He says states and tribes are beginning to realize that they must co-exist.

Since 1979, when the Seminole tribe in Florida opened a bingo hall, gambling has become big business in Indian country. Last year, tribal-owned casinos took in some $6 billion, and state governments are eager to get a piece of the action. The state of Texas won a decision in the US Court of Appeals last month that prevents the Tigua tribe from expanding their casino operation near El Paso. Gov. Ann Richards has called such casino-gambling operations a ``cheesy way'' to make money. The Tiguas say they will appeal the ruling.

The state of New Mexico has also refused to allow Indian casinos to expand. Tribes there have filed suit against the state under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. State officials say they plan to fight the issue all the way to the Supreme Court. A similar case involving Alabama and Florida is already before the court.

Some states have found it easier to cooperate rather than fight. In Connecticut, where slot machines at the Foxwoods Casino on the Mashantucket Pequot reservation are taking in over $1 million a day, the state is profiting handsomely. Last year, Gov. Lowell Weicker signed an agreement with the tribe that guarantees the state will not allow non-Indians to run slot-machine operations.

Doug Twait, commissioner of corporate affairs for the Mille Lacs Band of the Chippewa tribe in Minnesota, calls sovereignty the tribes' ``greatest asset.'' He points out that almost a third of Indians live in poverty and that tribes must exercise their sovereignty if they are to reduce their dependence on the federal government and develop self-sustaining economies.

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Mr. Twait said Grand Casino Mille Lacs provides about $1 million a month in revenue to the tribe, which it has used to build two new schools and a clinic. However, proposals pending in the state legislature could allow slot-machine gambling in bars. The Mille Lacs tribe and other Minnesota tribes are fighting the proposal because it will reduce their profits. ``In the eyes of tribal leaders, this is part of the same historical pattern,'' Twait said. ``Anytime Indian tribes have had access to resources, whether it's timber, water, wildlife, land, or now gambling, the white culture has always sought to take it away.''

The storage of hazardous wastes is also an issue. In Mississippi, Choctaw tribal leaders continue to negotiate on a hazardous waste dump. In New Mexico, the Mescalero Apache tribe has plans for a nuclear waste storage facility. Both projects have garnered widespread opposition from state and local authorities as well as environmental groups.

Fred Peso, vice president of the Mescaleros, says he doesn't look at the project as a test of sovereignty, but as ``a private business enterprise.''

Hunting and fishing rights have also been a focal point of state-tribal disputes. In Minnesota, the Mille Lacs tribe continues to fight for the right to extend tribal hunting and fishing rights onto three million acres of non-reservation land. A federal court has given the tribe initial approval for the expansion. A final decision won't be rendered until 1996.

Scott Strand of the Minnesota Attorney Generals office said the Mille Lacs gave up their right to hunt and fish in a treaty they signed with the government in 1855.

In Montana, anti-Indian groups have called for an end to all Indian sovereignty rights. However, treaties with Indian tribes are protected by the US Constitution, which calls treaties ``the supreme law of the land.'' Because of that, Indian-law experts don't see any diminution of tribal rights in the offing.

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