Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: E-Letter To Erin Montgomery And The Weekly Standard Re: "This Land Is Your Land?"

Your article, This Land Is Your Land? is one of the most biased, under-researched, and misleading that I can remember reading in The Weekly Standard and although it is a stand-out in the history of my reading of your magazine, unfortunately it is par for the course where the subject of Native Americans is concerned, when covered by reporters who don't care to even speak with the principals involved. You should be ashamed of yourself.

Not only can I reasonably question your qualifications as a journalist; I can even wonder aloud about the larger contradictions your article reveals when its contents are juxtaposed with the conservative ideology that the editors of The Weekly Standard claim to uphold. Specifically, I am thinking of your editor, William Kristol, and the premium conservative pedigree that he represents (his father Irving Kristol, is deemed as an architect or "godfather" of the neoconservatism philosophy). It is interesting to see how some view the complex evolution from pure conservatism to neoconservatism, a process which involves The Weekly Standard. Perhaps your stance on Native American issues represents a new frontier, or at least an emerging phase in the intellectual movement.

But you are not alone, I have for a long time noticed the hypocrisy exhibited by many conservatives and neoconservatives as it relates to their penchant for rhetorically lauding entrepreneurship and capital formation, except when it takes place in the ethno-centric context of a "Black community" (never mind that at times very "clannish" Jewish, Italian, Irish, Korean and Chinese communities are praised for their rugged individualism, work-ethic, and do-for-self mentality when pooling their economic resources together for ethno-centric economic development) that may not wish to wave the American flag, as an indication of overt patriotism, as they repair their damaged community.

But more recently, I have been getting a thorough education as to how Native Americans also expose the intellectual bankruptcy of similar ideologues, or at least the moral inconsistencies of the supposed ideological adherent. The controversy over the National Bison Range is a case-in-point.

Instead of conservatives and libertarians rallying around the idea that Native Americans should take over responsibilities currently held by the federal government as a step toward the revered "privatization" that they supposedly celebrate; they would rather hide behind the pathetic and fallacious arguments of pseudo-"conservationists".

Imagine that. The same groups that pooh-pooh environmental interest groups as "wackos" have decided to hug-a-tree and feign an embrace of interest groups that "worship" animal, plant and insect life; rather than support a sound position maintained by Native Americans that seemingly would be compatible with the espoused political ideology of many Republicans and conservatives of note. I could only muster an incredulous but knowing smile when I learned that a leading conservative-U.S. constitutional-centered political party in Montana, known for making arguments against the pervasive influence of the federal and state government, is opposing the Indian tribes on the issue of the National Bison Refuge issue.

What do you suppose is at the root of White conservatives preferring to side with groups that they lampoon over the issue of global warming and pollution, rather than with Native Americans who are exercising the principle of self-determination, and in the process, decreasing governmental regulation and making a show of economic enterprise? I never thought that exercising the "Theodore-Roosevelt Republican" option would lead to this.

You write, "Susan Reneau, the Missoula, Montana-based author of 19 conservation and hunting books, hosted a June 3 public hearing on the issue. "Tribal leaders actually admitted [during the hearing] that they were thinking of increasing tourism at the National Bison Range by paving a parking lot--even though it already has an entrance--and building a gift shop," she said. She fears large chunks of habitat could be eliminated...."

God forbid, that Native Americans would decide to move beyond the historic one-dimensional economy approved for them. Yesterday it was beaver furs, today, the one-industry "rule" barely accepts the right of Native Americans to run a casino on their own land. But despite that implication, there is another, that may be even more insulting. The implication of the arguments put forth by the conservationists is that Native Americans are less-sensitive to the environment than other groups.

You can't be serious nor credible for letting that argument pass, unchecked.

Anyone who has done even a little bit of history on tribal belief systems can inform you that Native Americans are not only "concerned" about the environment like many Whites - they actually believe that they have a spiritual connection with the creation. You should look at how the White Christian missionaries sought to stamp this out, labeling it a pagan practice. Better yet, look at how the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) focused on erasing these elements from tribal belief systems last century. And of course, there are the Rockefeller-family funded groups (religious and secular) that did the same in order to ease the way for family business interests to obtain land rich in mineral resources in the South Western portion of the U.S.

Since you have decided to serve as a shill for the "conservationist" groups; I see no need to repeat their account of things. So, rather than quoting Native Americans second-hand (you merely refer to an Associated Press quote and a Washington Post quote of a tribal leader) as you did, I decided to speak with the "other half of the story" directly. I presented the crux of some of the issues of concern some have with the idea of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai (sometimes rendered "Kutenai") tribes managing their portion of the National Bison Refuge, to two Native Americans: Anna Sorrell, Director Of Support Services for The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes; and Jacqueline L. Johnson, Executive Director, of the National Congress Of American Indians (NCAI)

The salient points of the referred to arguments in your piece are essentially: 1) the negotiations between the Department of The Interior and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes have taken place in private 2) The tribes are self-regulated and can enforce their own laws and therefore, once in charge, will exclude non-Indians from decision-making and participation in any broader coalition concerned with the refuge 3) The implication that the tribes are not professional, competent, or emotionally stable and will somehow not be able to focus on properly managing the Refuge; but rather will engage in acts of cronyism and racism on non-Indian Fish and Wildlife employees (as you wrote: "My personal view is that this will only lead to more problems and lots of hard feelings over time," says Terry Z. Riley, director of conservation at the Wildlife Management Institute. Under tribal management, Indian Americans will be given preference for jobs, a prospect that has many envisioning the harassment and firing of non-Indian employees. "[Tribal members] may isolate the few fish and wildlife employees already working on the refuges," Riley predicts. "They can make life miserable for federal employees and their families."). 4) Tribal management will lead to disrespect of the natural habitat.

Here is what Anna Sorrell, Director Of Support Services for The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, told me yesterday:

The arguments being made against us by these groups are very interesting and peculiar. You have to be careful in how you look at them from a national perspective, because in the state of Montana our record of conservation is excellent. These groups here in Montana know that. The people at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service won't even question our capacity to manage the Range. And we have a terrific record, already documented, in how we have partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We are already part of the management process, so we have a thorough background in how to do this and so we see no need to apologize for naturally looking to give opportunities to Indians who are qualified for jobs and whom we can further train. And no one has done more to preserve and conserve habitat and animal life here than us. We have gone to court to protect native animal life and water flows endangered by in-stream fishing. And there is no other single program designed to protect those flows on the entire Range but ours. We are the only group on the entire range that has its own fishing biologist. Our tribe has over 1100 employees and hard tribal dollars have been invested in preservation. Anyone who cares to look would know our record of preservation and our deep connection and relationship to the environment. We are not doing this for a commercial profit. We are a sovereign government and this management negotiation comes out of a mandate of the United States government. We will manage the area according to plans that Fish and Wildlfe approve of, that have been developed by a wide variety of entities. We are not asking for title, and the U.S. government will have approval of the management plan that we would execute."

In response to the primary arguments in your article, Jacqueline L. Johnson, Executive Director, of NCAI (National Congress Of American Indians) told me:

All of a sudden these groups have come out against the tribes. But there is no factual basis supporting their opposition. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Indian tribal areas are widely-known to be some of the better-run areas. This is well known. They "compact" and have done well working with other groups in Montana. Usually there are always questionable issues, relating to something like this. But no one questions that in terms of experience, quality, and skill, the tribes will do better than anyone ever has in terms of management. And as for the charge that the negotiations between the tribes and the government aren't open or transparent: what company do you know of in America that has open contract negotiations with the government? Tribes believe that they are sovereign. Others simply have a hard time accepting that concept and fact. They (The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes ) are entitled to appropriate private discussions with the government. As for concerns that somehow tribal management will increase pollution or endanger life with its management - The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes are very conscientious about the land because they place a high value on the area and resources. Native Americans are always thinking about the next 7 generations ahead of them. It would be natural for them to be concerned about the species in the areas where they are.


One of the characteristics to a great many articles on both Blacks and Native Americans that focus on disputes with White Americans is that they totally minimize and diminish the real historical context in which a current event takes place. Your article is no different as you only mention in passing how Theodore Roosevelt dealt with the Kootenai and Salish, and how the land now referred to as the National Bison Range was obtained by the United States government. Historians widely agree that the Kootenai tribe is the oldest group of Indians in what is now known as Montana. Archaeologists write that Native Americans first inhabited the area 14,000 years ago. The Salish are said to be a more "modern" group of Indians that joined onto the Kootenai. There is an important body of history between Native Americans and Whites in that part of the world that is essential to understanding the controversy in Montana today. Without that context, one can easily be led to believe that this issue is about something other than the historic relationship between Whites and Native Americans that has been marked by mistrust. Anna Sorrell, informed me of more of the context in which Theodore Roosevelt "conserved" the National Bison Range:

Yes, to understand the controversy of today you even have to look at what President Roosevelt did in a much larger historical context. Nobody disputes our history in this part of the country. We essentially reserved what is now Western Montana. Altogether it was 1,250,000 acres we claimed. But the Allotment Act (The Dawes Act or General Allotment Act of 1887 signed by President Cleveland) forced individual Indians to have plots of land that had previously been held collectively. But the U.S. government did not divide the land entirely among Indians, as individuals. There were areas arbitrarily deemed to be land that was "surplus" to Indian needs, that went to non-Indians as homesteaders. We were deprived of much of the land that was originally agreed to be ours. Many people point to the land that Roosevelt supposedly "purchased"; and we did receive some financial compensation, but there were never two willing parties engaged in a purchase and sale of the land in that area that now includes the National Bison Refuge; and that (amount of money) certainly did not make up for what happened during the Allotment Act.

You should study the devastating impact that the Allotment Act had on Native Americans throughout America. It is the precursor to the controversy over the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) mismanagement of the Native American trust funds. Consider Theodore Roosevelt's obtaining of 18,000 acres of land from the Indians at $1.56 per acre. Any reasonable person reviewing the history of Native American land in Montana and how the issue of property rights was handled through The Allotment Act would have to agree that to frame the current controversy over the National Bison Refuge purely in terms of "conservation" is not only uninformed but it may be intellectually dishonest. To me, it is apparent that these conservationist groups in Montana (many of whom have worked amicably, hand-in-hand with the Confederated Kootenai and Salish tribes in the past) are being used as fronts to produce a cover story that serves a much larger agenda, and one that you allude to.

As you mention in passing, there is a great fear that if the Salish and Kootenai are successful in their pursuit of management of the National Bison Range it opens a Pandora's box of sorts as there are 41 national wildlife refuges and 34 national parks that are ripe for management transfers to Native Americans.

But in light of history, would that really be such a horrible thing?

I have a map of the United States that I frequently look at, which shows, as dots on the landscape of this country, federally recognized reservations, off-reservation trust lands, and state reservations - of Native Americans. And each one of these dots on a map represents a historic problem between Whites (in the private and public sector) and Native Americans that has a painful legacy bearing on the quality of life for tribal members today. A positive step toward repairing this problem, in my view, would be to consider granting Native Americans management transfers in all areas where national refuge areas and parks are on tribal land. You could even justify doing so on conservative, neoconservative, and libertarian grounds, if you cared to be ideologically consistent. And there are others who could advocate for the same, according to their various worldviews. For example, as an economist, I can easily make arguments in favor of how such an initiative would make Native Americans major players in the tourism industry, attracting financial and human capital to their valuable physical capital, helping to move tribes beyond poverty and an accelerating reliance on casinos for economic development.

I know that the Salish and Kootenai tribes don't have a glitzy Madison Avenue public relations firm on retainer to get your attention; nor do they even have a website to make their case and cause known to the American public. And it is obvious that some of the tribes' worst enemies are taking advantage of that fact. But you, as a respected professional journalist can overcome that deficit in convenience. No matter what your conclusion on the matter, you still should have more thoroughly included the views of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in your article.

Be careful in how you handle the native people of this hemisphere, as there is a saying, "justice never sleeps". Perhaps it can become a guiding principle, for relations between the United States Government and all Native American tribes, as well as reporting on the subject.

You never know who (or Whom) is reading what you write.


Cedric Muhammad

Tuesday, July 29, 2003