American Indians See Gains in Political Clout

By Tom Hargrove Tribune Reporter
September 16, 2002

WASHINGTON – Long gone are the days that Americans Indians need rely upon, or even accept, promises from federal officials of justice for the tribes for “as long as water flows or grass grows.”

Indians have developed one of the fastest growing and most respected lobbies in federal politics, contributing millions of dollars in “soft money” donations to the electoral process while employing some of the most knowledgeable lawyers and advisers in Washington.

The tribes’ new political acumen was nowhere more evident than in the recent negotiations between the Pueblo of Sandia and federal officials over control of 9,890 disputed acres on Sandia Mountain. The pueblo already has obtained its fundamental goals of guaranteed access to the land, yet is not finished pushing the New Mexico congressional delegation for a few more last-minute concessions.

“We have had to learn very quickly a game that has been played for many, many years,” said Stuwart Paisano, governor of the Pueblo of Sandia. “We use lobbyists to guide us into how things work at the White House and in Congress. They gave us advice on how to protect our own interests.”

The sudden growth in Indian political clout – fueled by dollars raised through casino gambling on tribal lands – has surprised even the most veteran advocates of American Indian rights.

“For a very long time, the tribes were victimized by the political system in America. But there has been a sea change in the way the tribes relate to American politics,” concluded Kevin Gover, a veteran Indian lobbyist and former director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs under President Clinton.

“Most of us have somewhat mixed feelings that it was an issue like gambling that really led to an expanded political awareness and participation among the tribes. On the other hand, we all believe that it’s a good thing that the tribes are more engaged politically than they have been in the past,” Gover said.

According to the current version of the T’uf Shur Bien Preservation Trust Area Act, passed with little objection by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the pueblo will have unrestricted access to the western slope of the mountain, something Indian leaders say they were promised in a Spanish charter dating to 1748.

The pueblo will also have veto authority for any new land uses within the tract, something that Bernalillo and Sandoval county authorities will not have.

“But there are some changes we still need,” Paisano said. “We need guaranteed hunting rights. Hunting for our people is not a sport. It is tied to our culture and our religion.”

The pueblo will continue to push for its agenda when the compromise bill, authored by U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Silver City Democrat, comes up before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, probably sometime this month.

“We initially wanted sole-trust status of the land. But the odds were against the pueblo, so we decided to enter into negotiations. In the political process, you must give something to get something,” Paisano said.

Observers have praised the almost professional attitude the pueblo demonstrated during the eight years since it filed a lawsuit seeking legal claim to the mountain’s crest. It has been a forceful demonstration of new political strength for the group.

“Now we are seeing tribes not just defending themselves, but making forward progress in the political system,” Gover said.

Paisano agreed: “Times for us have changed. Shy of 30 years ago, our language was not English. But a lot more of us have gotten better educations. And revenues to the pueblo have given us a chance for a more level playing field.”

House Republicans in 1999 ordered the General Accounting Office to conduct a study of the apparently growing size and number of political contributions coming from the gambling industry, the fastest growing component of which are casinos operated on Indian-owned land.

“Total contributions from gambling interests to federal candidates and national party committees rose from $1.1 million in 1992, a presidential election year, to at least $5.7 million in 1998, a midterm election year, an increase of about 400 percent,” concluded Bernard L. Ungar, a GAO top analyst for government operations issues.

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics estimates that gambling industry donations soared to more than $11 million in the 2000 elections, also a presidential year, and have already reached $5.8 million so far this year.

Although precise figures for current donations from Indian-owned gambling operations are unavailable, the center’s database shows that political contributions from Indian groups in Albuquerque have grown considerably. The Sandia and Santa Ana pueblos have donated at least $74,500 – much of it as soft money contributions – to both Democratic and Republican politicians and political committees in recent years.

The Sandia pueblo in the 2000 election cycle employed at least two lobbying firms: the small, New Mexico-based law office of Susan M. Williams, a long-time advocate of Indian rights, and the massive Washington-based Smith-Free Group, which the pueblo hired for $120,000.

The Smith-Free Group also represents huge corporate clients like AT&T, HCA Healthcare Corp., the American Petroleum Institute and Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.

The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that the casino and gambling industries spent at least $13.4 million on lobbyists during the 2000 elections.

“This is a game we are still learning day by day because we’ve only been playing it for a few years,” Paisano said. “On the D.C.-level, we’ve been using lobbyists since the late 1990s. At the state level, we’ve used them for about a decade.”

But Gover said he has mixed feelings about the trend, although he is pleased with American Indians’ demonstrated clout over issues like the Sandia Mountain and the massive Indian trust case pending in federal court, which has resulted in contempt-of-court hearings against the Department of the Interior.

“In the old days, the kinds of issues the tribes sought were for simple things like additional law enforcement funding or changes in environmental laws,” Gover said. “But these days, the stakes tend to be higher. Today, we see tribes lobbying more against one another in disputes that arise from gaming issues.”

Often one tribe with fully operational casinos will lobby against a nearby tribe that is seeking to establish gaming halls.

“The tribe with the gaming enterprise can afford to hire the best and most expensive lobbyists while the tribe trying to establish one usually has a well financed developer behind them who can also afford to hire an expensive lobbyist,” Gover said. “So a lot of money gets spent fast.”