By Steffi Colao
Last Thursday, Robert Odawi Porter, former president of the Seneca Nation, discussed his initiatives for reform of Native American conditions, brought to Dartmouth through the Rockefeller Center. Attorney, scholar, professor, and politician, Porter has devoted his career to ameliorating the political and economic situation of the Seneca Nation, while urging changes for other indigenous nations. He is currently an attorney at Dentons, representing tribal interests in D.C., and he has published Sovereignty, Colonialism, and the Indigenous Nations; a Reader to offer a multifaceted analysis of issues plaguing Native governments today. Although he has been on the forefront of conflicts with the U.S. federal government, Porter seems to have no enemies, approaching the complex troubles of indigenous peoples with healthy optimism and charisma. In his talk, Porter discussed foundational American history before delving into what he sees as the most pressing issues and his recommendations for change.
Porter opened his talk by asserting “Everything about the past is relevant.” In discussing the situation of Native Americans, this statement is especially true, as all current problems are resultant of U.S. Indian policies from the 18th and 19th centuries. Rather than lament the spread of disease, buffalo massacres, and ignored treaties, Porter approaches the past with an “it is what it is” attitude, choosing instead to ask how we can compensate for it now. Aside from the land seizure, which resulted in a checkerboard of small native land rights amidst private U.S. property, one of the most damaging American actions was the creation of one-size-fits-all tribal governments. Imposing “cookie cutter” democracy, these models rejected unique indigenous governing traditions, instead consolidating power into the hands of a few, creating unicameral rule greatly unlike traditional power distributions. Worse, these governments—essentially no more than a counsel with one chairman—were not even autonomous. Every law had to be approved by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. The BIA has effective rule over these tribal governments, a stipulation that can be removed only after up to 7 years of legal battles. There have been some successes as a result of U.S. policy; for example, the Alaskan Native Companies which, after taking economic hits in the 70s, now profit greatly and are a main source of revenue. Nonetheless, Porter made clear that to reform indigenous conditions, the focus must be on changing the damaging laws of the past.
Porter drew a distinction between internal issues and external barriers as areas for change, citing government distrust and a weak labor pool as the most pressing internal issues and geographic isolation and hostility as the external barriers. Due to U.S.-manufactured governments, many Native Americans have no faith in their government. In terms of the labor pool, most tribal nations lack the education and training necessary for certain skilled labor, as most of the driven members go to the U.S. for college and continue to work there. The geographic isolation contributes to desperate business tactics such as online lending, and surrounding hostile American towns further impedes economic cooperation. Tribal nations live in quite astounding poverty, “surrounded by the wealthiest nation in the world.” Startling statistics cite Native Americans as being 2.5 times more likely to kill themselves. One in three live below the poverty line, experiencing five times the rate of national unemployment. Any perceived perks of living on tribal lands, such as not having to pay taxes, are hardly compensation for such conditions.
Therefore, Porter proposed four areas of reform. First, he believes trust lands, which need BIA approval for any leases or developments, should be converted into restricted fee lands, in
which the land truly does belong to the natives. Even the EPA, a U.S. federal organization, has jurisdiction over trust lands, mocking any semblance of autonomy. Porter himself contested this precedent, fighting EPA intervention over a water treatment facility and eventually succeeding in maintaining Seneca sovereignty. Such a story is by no means representative; in fact, such wins are nearly unheard of, which is why land reform is by far one of the most pressing issues. He also recommends intertribal economic cooperation, of which there is little now, and for regulatory reform, he also suggests the reduction of developmental regulations to at least the level of those in the U.S. Wednesday, the Native American Energy Act passed, expediting tribal development of natural resources like oil and gas—these are the reforms Porter urges. Tribal resources are often so stringently regulated they become difficult to utilize, preventing economic self-sufficiency. Finally, in terms of tax reform, Porter proposed tax incentives for investment on tribal lands. Tribal lands are, for natives, tax-free, yet if an American citizen were to buy a cigarette in the Seneca Nation, the Seneca would have to collect U.S. tax. There is no tax advantage, a startling double standard considering a CT citizen can buy tax-free liquor in NH, and the NH storekeeper doesn’t have to collect CT tax. The IRS used to even consider government education and health care programs “taxable benefits” to citizens, as if it were a disguised per-capita distribution of casino profits. Fortunately, this code was changed, but tax reform would still be instrumental in ameliorating tribal economies.
While the amount of work left to do is staggering, Porter did not ignore great strides made in economic recovery, particularly in terms of gaming, but this is not enough to rely on for revenue. Succinctly, Porter asserted the U.S. government should either raise appropriations or allow indigenous nations complete autonomy, money or freedom. The lack of government action is quite appalling despite the near emergency state of many tribal nations; as Porter stated, “We need a plan, and there is no plan.” Once certain tasks are established, it’s simply a matter of government action, but for now, there is no cohesive federal blueprint. Porter sees the future of U.S.-Indian relations as a two-row wampum belt, the two running parallel, coexisting without interfering or intruding. All that’s needed now is a plan to convert the metaphor into reality.