Native Tribes Fear New Attacks on Rights

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- The Senate hearing fell quiet. Chief Jesse Taken Alive of the Standing Rock Sioux was speaking in his native tongue defending Native American tribal sovereignty.

Members of 50 tribes from more than 20 states were on Capitol Hill Sept. 24 to oppose a proposal offered by Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., to end that sovereignty. Gorton's proposal as a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is one more move what Native Americans see as a series of attacks on their rights nationwide.

Last year Gorton unsuccessfully sponsored legislation to eliminate federal assistance to Washington's Lummi tribe if they asserted their rights to Fraser River water. Recently, New Mexico's Mescalero Apaches lost a bid in federal court to keep their casinos open. And a rider attached by Sen. John H. Chafee, R-R.I., to the Sept. 30 budget package (a package Congress had to pass to keep the government running) prevents Rhode Island's Narragansett tribe from exercising its gaming rights.

Frequently these attempted and actual changes in federal Indian law occur before many Native Americans realize what is happening. Bishop Donald Pelotte of Gallup, N.M., a Native American, told NCR, "I read five newspapers a day. They sure haven't given (Gorton's sovereignty attack) much publicity out here." Pelotte's diocese, which includes seven tribes and is more than 50 percent Native American, has the largest Catholic Native American population in the nation.

More than 150 Native Americans were on hand for the hearing on Gorton's proposal. Gorton claimed that what was at stake is the inability of those with grievances against Indian tribal court rulings to sue in a higher court. …