Indian Nations as Interest Groups: Tribal Motivations for Contributions to U.S. Senators

Article excerpt

Abstract

The expansion of Indian gaming has produced significant financial gains for Indian nations across the United States. In response to this influx of revenue, tribes have expanded their political activity, particularly in those areas that are heavily resource dependent. In this article the authors argue that adopting an organized interests perspective enhances scholars' understanding of tribal political activity. To demonstrate this, they study Indian gaming contributions received by senators from 1990 to 2004. The authors apply broadly utilized theories of contribution patterns based on the value of access for a group and the cost of access to a member, focusing on ideology, access, electoral security, and constituency characteristics. The results indicate that tribes respond to all of these factors in ways similar to more traditional organized interests.

Keywords

political organizations, parties, race, ethnicity, politics

Since the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) in 1988, the Indian gaming industry has emerged by 2008 as a $26-billion-a-year industry.1 The resulting opportunity for greater financial resources for over two hundred Indian nations with gaming agreements has provided a new opportunity for Native Americans to influence government policies at the state and national levels. Yet little is known about how Indian nations have utilized these newly available resources in pursuit of political objectives. In this article we argue that we can increase our understanding of the motivations for tribal political expenditures in two ways. First, we apply modified theories of political incorporation and resource mobilization to understand the context of Indian political participation (Witmer and Boehmke 2007). Second, we evaluate this perspective by applying to tribal nations theories developed to explain patterns of contributions to members of Congress by organized interest groups (e.g., Grier and Munger 1993).

As scholars before us have noted, Indian nations are intriguing political actors as they can act as both sovereign nations and interest groups when interacting with government officials (e.g., Mason 2000; Wilkins 1999). In addition, Indian nations are headed by elected leaders who represent the interests of members of the tribe. This is especially important when dealing with off-reservation actors including federal, state, and local governments. While working with off-reservation officials, tribal leaders seek to influence the policy process in a number of different ways including the provision of information, contributions to office seekers, and the mobilization of Indian voters (Witmer and Boehmke 2007).

While gaming is a relatively new issue among more traditional concerns for Indian nations, the potential to address these issues via lobbying and campaign contributions has greatly increased over the same period. Thus, unlike earlier eras of American Indian involvement in national politics, which were marked by limited resource availability, the current era represents a significant departure, suggesting that new approaches may be necessary to fully understand the current patterns of participation. Most useful for this study is a modified political incorporation perspective according to which tribes and American Indian organizations have moved beyond an approach that seeks to have members of the group win elections or serve in appointed positions (Browning, Marshall, and Tabb 1984, 1986, 1997; Warren 1997; Hero 1992). Instead, a number of Indian nations have utilized resources now available following the advent of Indian gaming to pursue an interest group strategy (Witmer and Boehmke 2007; Mason 2000; Wilkins 1999). This increased participation is fairly widespread, with over one hundred different tribes engaging in lobbying or making campaign contributions at the federal level just in 2000. At the same time there exists a tension between focusing on Indian nations' sovereign rights and distinct cultures and viewing them solely through the relatively narrow lens of organized interests in the American political system. …