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Native tribes fear new attacks on rights.

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. He produced several lawyers to argue that point, particularly as it affected non-Indians who live on reservation lands.

Rhonda R. Swaney, Flathead Nation leader and a member of Montana's Salish and Kootenai tribes, argued that Gorton's anecdotal evidence of discrimination was the exception, not the rule.

Gorton and his supporters say the tribal courts are biased: They want an appeal in a non-Indian court. Jennifer Coleman, a Buffalo, N.Y., attorney, testified, "Indian governments have been permitted by Congress to claim a degree of sovereign immunity from suit that grossly exceeds that of state or federal governments and that defies the rights of non-Indians affected by the acts of Indian governments."

Contended Swaney, "This committee is attempting to deal with the perception that nontribal members living on or near reservations have no civil remedies because of tribal sovereign immunity. Nothing could be further from the truth" -- because tribal courts often waive immunity on a case-by-case basis.

Ron Allen, National Congress of American Indians president, said, "We come here with heavy hearts, but we also come here with warrior hearts. Indians own only 4 percent of America's land. Is it necessary to chip away further at what they have?"

Gorton, whose action was opposed by committee chairman and fellow Republican, John McCain, R-Ariz., scrapped his proposal for this session but could try again next session.
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Title Annotation:Sen Slade Gorton aims to end sovereignty of Native Americans
Author:Kenney, Nicholas
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 18, 1996
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