The lesson of Abramoff for Indians

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It's a tale as old as America: White man's greed crushes native Americans' harmony. No, this isn't about a current film, "The New World," which depicts early 1600s Jamestown, Pocahontas, and John Smith. Rather, the modern-day Indian exploiter was lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

He, like many early European settlers, saw a lucrative opportunity to take advantage of Indians unfamiliar with a world not really their own. Revelations of his fleecing of tribes under the guise of helping them win or protect their gambling joints later led to the exposure of Mr. Abramoff's money influence in Washington. Last week, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy, tax evasion, and mail fraud.

Much of the focus right now is on cleaning up lobbying rules in the nation's capital. But this scandal began with native American tribes being hooked on the dubious promise of happiness from owning casinos, and that needs attention, too.

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In fact, Congress should consider a two-year moratorium on the practice of Indian tribes buying and using land far from their current reservations to develop casinos, as some gambling opponents suggest, to consider ways to stop the ill effects.

This so-called "reservation shopping" is one reason tribes turn to lobbyists and the non-Indian gaming industry for help. "These efforts are being funded by 'shadowy' developers who underwrite the litigation expenses, lobbyist fees, and even the cost of land in exchange for a cut of the profits," James Martin, executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes, told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last spring.

More than 220 tribes have turned to hosting gambling in 28 states since Congress passed a law in 1988 that regulates Indian gambling, along with state laws and court authorization. Political pressures on Congress, the Interior Department that controls Indian affairs, and on state governments to further the interests of Indian casinos is tremendous. The industry reportedly brings in more than $18 billion a year, a strong incentive for tribes - or people claiming to belong to a tribe - to throw money at decisionmakers or those who claim they have influence on decisionmakers.

There's no evidence the Interior Department was influenced by money in designating tribes as official. But suspicions are strong enough after the Abramoff affair that Congress should keep probing such potential linkages. Abramoff claimed he had inside influence at the Interior.

Tribes, too, need to be less secretive about their gambling interests, especially because the impact of new casinos on small communities can be destructive. They must also recognize the mixed blessings of gambling wealth. Casinos did lift income and general welfare for gaming tribes compared to nongaming tribes during the 1990s, according to a 2005 study by two Harvard economists. But the advantage was not huge and Indians still remain far behind the general population in many economic indicators. Much of the gambling profits go to non-Indians, while many tribes are troubled by infighting resulting from this new wealth.

One lesson of the Abramoff scandal should be that native Americans look for other ways to improve their well-being than relying on quick fixes from gambling and slick lobbyists.

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