Walking the path of Retirement  -Honoring a Noble  Career of Service to the Kumeyaay Observations By Nikki Symington

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In 1953, Felix Cohen, the great American Indian legal scholar, lawyer and advocate, opposing the Federal government’s new policy of terminating tribes, wrote the following:

“It is a pity that so many Americans today think of the Indian as a romantic or comic figure in American history without contemporary significance. In fact, the Indian plays much the same role in our society that the Jews played in Germany. Like the miner’s canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, reflects the rise and fall in our democratic faith.”

 In his 1953 article on termination policy in the Yale Law Journal article, “The Erosion of Indian Rights, 1950-53,” he warned, “Americans have a vital interest in Native American self-government and this is not the interest of sentimentalists or antiquarians, but rather an important measure of health of our society.” 
Cohen wrote at a time when the most Americans thought of Indians as a vanishing race, or vanquished anachronisms of American history. 

I became of a fan of Felix Cohen and learned the veracity of his words when I went to work for Indian tribal governments 27 years ago. I am retiring. However, before I recede into the mists of time and foggy thinking, I want to share the remarkable changes I observed between tribal leaders and non-Indians during my years. . I also view the years from 1992-2000 as the highlights of my life and career.  I was blessed to participate the political battle in which California tribal leaders fought to capture the golden ring and secure a better future with tribal government gaming.

History gives us no other accounts like the atrocities and oppression visited about the Native people of the America’s, it also has no other story as moving and ironic as the rise of the tribes from the ashes of poverty throughout the 20th century to surprising wealth and political successes.

My heart sings with the memories, like a canary.  Indeed, it was a time Cohen’s metaphorical canary, not only sang – it crooned. I witnessed the rebirth of California Indians as modern day actors in the American drama, as they struggled to claim their rights to an economic solution to their poverty and social distress. . I am grateful to have experienced Democracy with a capital “D” -- that vague theory Americans purport to honor -- really happening in a way that would have made Cohen proud.

Gaming arose in the 1990s as a moneymaking miracle that was fueling economic life and hope with tribes throughout the U.S.  Federal law required a tribal agreement, negotiated with each state, where gaming could be pursued. These agreements called compacts settled specific and unique terms of types of play, regulation, and compensation, environmental, labor and other factors that varied in negotiations in each state.  Compacts required two parties to compact, and the state of California refused to negotiate for 10 years.

In the early 1990s, Indians simply did not register in the public conscientious.  Isolated on reservation, placed far from urban commercial corridors, the tribal communities, once dependent on agriculture, were withering in poverty and in a death grip of a historic wound. Unable to mortgage their land, and without an economic base to fund their governments, most elected tribal leaders had little to do except oversee the occasional federal grant.  Tribal communities in California were on a downward spiral, and could have ceased to exist in any numbers at some point in the future. 

A very proud and stubborn people, California Indians rarely publicized their circumstances or struggle for dignity and survival. Anything that feels like begging or whining repels them. Indians are not interested in playing the victim card, but are quite painfully aware that fate and America wronged them. Humility is preferred in elected leaders. Public displays of self-importance and self-promotion are considered distasteful. 

Times in the past, when they did cry out, usually over foul play, few non-Indians cared and the media usually got it wrong.  Typically, politically and fiscally underwhelmed, an invisible minority with little voting clout and less money, tribes regularly lost to more powerful forces, unless a court came to their rescue. 
It took digging deep to rise about the wounded spirits and cultural reticence to make an overt, public claim for themselves. For those steeped in the rules of winning and power, politics is a rarified game. For tribal people entering the game, knowing what to do and who to trust outside the reservation world was a daunting and dangerous venture.   Stepping out in the public limelight and provoking a debate on tribal gaming was something initially intimidating, but ultimately empowering.

I can attest to the fact that before San Diego County tribes entered the fight of their lives with the state of California, 99  per cent of  residents were unaware that 17 Indian reservations existed in our midst. I know this because; I was involved with the first polls ever taken to measure public recognition and attitudes about Indians.  The Viejas, Barona, and Sycuan Bands can take credit for forming a committee that was the first political prototype of the tribal campaign to educate the public about Indians, and create stakeholders that would support tribal gaming compacts with the state.

There are no words to express how fortunate I was to work as public relations professional for the Viejas Band. Even more important is the deep gratitude I feel for the trust they gave me. By the way, in those first years, no other tribes or Indian organizations had PR people, or drew from this expertise, except these three tribes.

The three Bands invested in the first steps on the road to political sophistication, beginning with surveys to identify the attitudes of locals toward Indians, and to measure public perceptions about Indian gaming – which at that time did not even include slot machines. They also produced the first television commercial advocating for a tribal state gaming compact, media campaigns urging Gov. Wilson to negotiate, and years of public outreach and preparations to make their case to the voters of California.

The public seemed to be the best alternative to a Governor who refused to abide by federal law and meet with the tribes.  Hence, the Prop.5 gaming compact ballot initiative and vote in 1998.

My peers argued that jobs and economic benefits to non-Indians would be the message that sold the public.  I always believed that the campaign’s success centered on introducing Indians and the realities of their lives – to Californians.  Moreover, by doing so, we could gently reach the consciences of good people, through historic and modern evidence of tribal tragedy and poverty.  I believed, idealistically, that the voters, fully informed, would want to make right a terrible past that still haunted the lives of Indians, and give the tribes a break with gaming.

They did, and they did.  However, it was the courage, ability and willingness of tribal leaders to step out of their traditional and comfort zones to engage in an expensive, protracted, and sophisticated political campaign that won the day.

Governor Pete Wilson, shocked the tribal communities when he refused to sign the first such compact drawn up by state Attorney General Dan Lundgren in 1993, and stated that he would never allow an expansion of gambling in the state while in office.  It was good news to Nevada casinos, California card rooms, and horse racing competitors.  No one really thought the tribes could or would push back.
But, they did.

In one damning moment, Wilson dashed tribal prospects for climbing out of a couple hundred years of poverty and federal dependency.  However, among the tribes, the vision of standing on their own two feet without being let down by the great patriarch and benefactor -- the federal government -- was growing stronger by the day.   This desire grew more potent as tribal leaders watched tribes, like the Connecticut Pequot’s, reversing poverty and federal government neglect through ownership of a casino.

During the campaign, people often asked me, “Why couldn’t Indians find something nicer than gaming on which to build their future?”  My answer was, “European greed almost wiped out the native indigenous population. Through casino gaming, that same greed is fueling a Native comeback.” Karma is a bitch!
Congress has legislative oversight over tribes and the history of this relationship is such that what Congress gives today, it takes away tomorrow, depending on politics and economics of the time.  The President can also set federal policy, for better or worse, and the courts change the fate of the sovereign right to self-rule on a regular basis. Depending on the loyalty and ideological persuasions of the appointed judicial deciders, courts can help protect tribal sovereignty and support economic independence, bringing the Indians into the 21st Century, or throw them to back to the 18th Century again. It’s always a mixed bag with the courts.
Why is this now, 17-year-old story of that fateful political battle for tribal state compacts in California still important? This political victory should not be forgotten for many reasons, and not just because it was a first.  It’s worthy of a chapter in California civic books – an event of extraordinary boldness and unity never seen before and unlikely to be seen again.  In addition, because the tribal victories came in two significant ballot initiatives in California – a state with one of the largest voting populations and against some heavy weight political competition – Las Vegas, the governor, anti-gambling advocates.

 Respectfully, I submit that the political campaign for gaming is as important as the Indian victory at Little Big Horn.  This event was like no other engagement between Indians and non-Indians.  The campaign revealed much about non-Indian neighbors. We learned that by walking in another’s moccasins, even with our history of genocide, we could deal with our guilt, and open our hearts to the others.  We learned that by giving a marginalized minority the opportunity to be self-reliant, we all benefitted.  I think, we can all agree that in California and San Diego, we inherited good, generous, reservation neighbors.

This political victory was not fought with rifles, and men in Calvary uniforms, against bows and arrows, and Indians with painted faces.  That was how the political fights over rights and power were won or lost at the time of General Custer and Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse led the charge of his warriors, claiming, "It’s a good day to die."  California Indians charged into the state’s complex political landscape, proclaiming, “It’s a good day to live.”  No, the contest over compacts was a story of political sophistication undertaken by a group of people who had never expected to speak up and speak out for themselves.  Crazy Horse won a few battles and eventually lost the war.  California tribes moved a state legislature, convinced a mixed bag of California voters, and eventually the politicians to forever change the public perception that Indians were:
·      Dead and long gone
·      Not well educated
·      All lived on federal welfare and liked it
·      Not very ambitious, or able to sustain long term goals
·      Rarely capable of agreeing on anything
·      Created problems for other Californians
·      And certainly not able to play and win at the sophisticated game of politics

Not only did the Indians earn respect from the political professionals, they caused the public to open to positive possibilities of new relationships.  Tribal leaders were also changed in that compacting process.  They found their potential; became experts, political fighters, and realized two things:  Californians were willing to give them a chance.  For the first time in their history, non-Indians endorsed them as worthy, putting the needs of Indian people first.  Indians discovered in a very public way, they had thousands of friends off the rez. They had tested their own capabilities, resilience, and won.  This was good practice for the next phase of managing and growing gaming resorts and markets. 

The campaign outreach was also good for setting new unexplored attitudes about working with local governments and a new template for winning consumers and friends in the neighborhood.  It was a beginning of the possibility of trust between people from different worlds.

Overcoming years of oppression is difficult for both the victim and the oppressor.  There’s those old ingrained and unconscious racial tendencies that white folks harbor. We don’t mean it, but sometimes, we get in the way of people trying to get free of the debilitating racist cocoon, they inherited. We cannot help giving into an occasional impulse of an ingrained sense of superiority, even when we have the best of intentions.

The California Nevada Indian Gaming Association, now the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, was the vehicle under which tribes unified for the compacting battle.  I relished, the first time all the non-Indian consultants were asked to leave the room so tribal leaders could discuss the future course of action, without our interruptions and influence. I saw that as a necessary step in exerting their will and self-confidence, cutting the last vestiges of the patriarchal umbilical cord.  They knew we generally meant well, but held on to a good level of distrust learned from their past.  Indian history teaches that even well meaning Europeans did not always serve the tribes well throughout history – forced assimilation being one example.

I confess to my own struggles, as an experienced professional and highly opinionated woman, to tell people what they need to do or think, versus my desire to nurture independent thought and identity.  I must admit, as many can attest, I didn’t always achieve my goal.  For the campaign, overcoming hundreds of years and generations of inbred (purely rational) mistrust of non-Indian people, professionals, and the media, and even those on their side, was one of the greatest personal challenges they faced.

My hope was to see tribal people step into their own lives, reclaim their rights and government, and place in today’s world.  I saw that happen.  I am hoping that Indian businesses and governments will not replicate ours, but be a new mix of tribal culture and tradition combined with modern marketing and governing practices.

 Finally, my friends in Indian Country gave me the greatest gifts anyone can have absolute, ecstatic moments of career and personal satisfaction. My eyes still tear and my throat chokes when I remember election night for Prop.5, at Viejas Casino.

On November 3, 1988, the Indian compact initiative for gaming passed by over 62 percent of the vote.  Something important shifted that night in Indian Country.  A silent and boisterous cry, “Yes, we are back,” rang through numerous victory parties, and resonated in many a soul.

That extreme challenge of taking on the state and courts to win their compacts was good preparation for the skills tribal leaders would need to expand and protect their sovereign governments. It toughed and prepared them for the new experience and rigors of business management, not to mention opening their reservations to non-Indian visitors. It also mellowed some of their own stereotypes and prejudices about non-Indians. 

With souls reeling from years of poverty and isolation and all that comes from both, for the first time in their lives, the narrative between Indians and their oppressors shifted.  Thanks to California voters, who declared overwhelmingly in favor of Prop 5 and Prop 1A – changing the state constitution to give Indians the right to gamble on tribal lands – Indians felt that their neighbors were, at last, willing to share something of value.  California voters gave tribes a pass, a valuable economic tool, to become independent, take care of their own and become self-sufficient.  It was miraculous, given how much money was at stake, and the negative aspects of gaming.  I like to believe, like the Grinch, thanks to the efforts by tribal people to win their future; our hearts grew from three sizes too small and mean, to generous, leaving the cowboy in the dust, cheering for the Indians.

Finally, I always ponder the miracle of the actual compact negotiations between Gov. Gray Davis, the state Legislature, and 80 tribal governments.  You can factor in the number of attorneys, lobbyists, and public relations-types like me, who were there staking out territory and intellectual bragging rights.

How was a good agreement born out of six weeks of negotiations in a single room?  I suspect, 10 years of sharing disappointments and achievements, a core of people, Indian and non-Indian had became family.  The aspects of the shared history, emotions, and disagreements and respect led to a bond much like a marriage.  Raw emotions, anger, and frustration were recognized, honored, forgiven, and forgotten.  There was hard-wired focus in the end -- a beacon pulling us forward --the compact – life for a dwindling civilization.  Like a marriage bond, our campaign connections, history and common goals, kept us hanging together despite often-bitter disputes.  

Absolutely, the California political battle for gaming deserves a place in history. For once in America, American Indians took on past prejudices, state government, courts, and the political system to win an economic advantage.  It’s a feel good story, bringing good things, and better relations to communities with tribal neighbors. More than an inspiration for tribal youth, the story is a good lesson of how marginalized and poor people everywhere, given the chance, can successfully win their share of the American dream. In addition, it’s an example of how the majority, the rest of us, benefit by encouraging and inviting this type of change and empowerment among all people in our country.

Felix Cohen also said, “We are all irritated at the sight of those we have wronged.”The “twinge of national conscience,” he continued, “showed itself most deeply “in a desire to believe that the Indian is, either physically or culturally, a dying race, unable to utilize white man’s civilization, and therefore an obstacle in the road to progress.”

Today, I can say, “Hey Felix, we got over it.”   In 1998 and 2000, California voters said, “Indian folks you got a bad deal: it’s time you got a break!"Go for it!”

I always believed, and still believe in the goodness of the American people, especially those blue-state California voters.  Thanks go also to the California tribes for what has progressed between non-Indians and Indians since gaming.  Because of my experiences on the road to Indian gaming, I can hold onto my belief in the goodness of people against the rising tide of anger and racism, taking hold in America.   

Finally, the best part, I signed on for a job and got a family – a large, boisterous, funny, and loving family.  Now, I have memories that will inspire and warm my spirit for the rest of my life.