A Tale of Treaties and Time

Indian gaming is twenty-six years old and for all of that time, its existence has been contentious. That is not surprising as the entire history of Indian tribes with the federal and state governments has been contentious.  Popular myth tells of the first pilgrims stranded alone, hungry and cold in an alien land where they found help and friendship in the local Indian tribes.  It was a short and one-sided friendship; soon the pilgrims had transformed themselves into city dwellers and land hungry pioneers eager to displace every Indian tribe to fill their land hunger and commercial ambitions.

It is an oft told story, but rarely with an eye for historical accuracy; our national narrative is the unfolding of a manifest destiny.  We were fulfilling a grand plan.  To reach our destiny we needed the land of the Indians and we did everything we could to get it.  In our hearts we knew it was best for the Indians; they were uncivilized heathens and we were giving them our god and our culture in exchange for some land.

Generally, the federal government negotiated treaties with individual tribes in which the tribes gave up sovereignty over the major portion of their traditional lands; the land was then held in trust by the government.  The land was exchanged for the protection of the remaining lands and the safety and security of the tribal members. The tribes became “dependent sovereign nations” protected by the government from individuals and from state jurisdiction, but still subject to federal law. Often the tribes were moved long distances from their land, and increasingly as the United States expanded westward tribes were grouped together on a single reservation without regard for language, kinship or culture.   The tribes have spent the years since the treaty period, which differs for every tribe, trying to survive.

When the National Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed, the tribes suddenly had a mechanism not just to survive, but possibly to prosper. Few non-Indians, however, understood the goals of tribes; most saw Indian gaming in strictly commercial terms.   For the tribes, it represented a chance to rise above a subsistence level and begin to provide social benefits to tribal members that most Americans enjoyed. The subtext for most tribes was sovereignty; they wanted to preserve their national identity and sovereignty.  There was, for some tribes, a deeper subtext of reclaiming their former territories.  With the cash flow from casinos, tribes have been steadily buying land and putting it into trust; the Seminole Tribe of Florida has said openly that they want to buy back as much of Florida as they can.

In February, a new story of tribal reclamation appeared; an Oklahoma tribe is buying land in Alabama.  The Quapaw Tribe of Indians was removed from Alabama in 1834 – nearly two hundred years ago; Alabama had been its home for 600 years.  The tribe has not forgotten its homeland, nor in all of those years has it abandoned the desire to return.  The Quapaw has money now earned in its casinos in Oklahoma and it is using that money to begin its trek back home.  Indian gaming has sometimes been called the “new buffalo” because casino revenues have replaced the buffalo as a primary source of subsistence for many tribes.  However, for some tribes it is much more; it is a key to regaining their homes, identity and independence.

An Indian tribe, native to Arkansas, has purchased 160 acres of land in Pulaski County, hoping to reclaim a part of its history in the state. The Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma is trying to figure out the next step to develop the land, including the possibility of a casino…The tribe had property in Pulaski County dating back to before the 1800’s. But the United States government forced them to surrender their lands. Quapaw, Oklahoma is where the majority of the tribe’s 4,500 members are now located…Tribal Business Council Chairman John Berrey says the tribe has a strong business arm in Oklahoma, including a portfolio of gas stations, restaurants, hotel, spa, golf course and two casinos… the group doesn’t have any plans right now to build a casino or anything else in Pulaski County, but he doesn’t rule out the possibility…Berrey reemphasizes he doesn’t know what will happen to the property in Pulaski County, but he says this time the Quapaws are coming back and they are coming back to stay. Hubert Tate, KARK-TV, 2-21-14

It is a strange concept for those of us who believe our nation represents the best of everything; in our backyard are people who do not necessarily agree with us.  The descendants of the tribes that signed treaties with the federal government live where the federal government forced them to live, but it is not necessarily where they would like to live.  In many cases, those descendants have been waiting patiently for centuries to return to their homeland and rebuild their culture.  The good people in Alabama worry that the tribe might want to build a casino in Little Rock and they may well want to build a casino.  But this move is not about casinos, commerce or American culture. It is about an identity and a homeland.


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