Indian Racism: The Uses of Indian Imagery
in the Political Process
Katherine A. Spilde, Ph.D.
at the 11th International Conference
and Risk Taking,
Vegas, NV, June 20, 2000
morning, my name is Katherine Spilde and I am the Director of Research for the
National Indian Gaming Association, or NIGA. NIGA is an association of 168 Indian
Nations who operate various forms of gaming facilities in the United States.
As the representative of these Indian Nations, NIGAs mission is to protect
and preserve the general welfare of the tribes striving for self-sufficiency
through gaming enterprises in Indian Country.
research at NIGA allows me to travel to reservations throughout the United States
to study the impacts of Indian gaming on Indian and non-Indian communities. I
am here to tell you that gaming in Indian country is a great success story. Today
I plan to share with you two different aspects of that story because, like many
stories of success, it is also a story of jealousy and conflict. And in this
case, the jealousy and conflict threaten the success.
an introduction, I would like to give you a sense of the current political landscape
in order to provide some context for my remarks. Indian gaming has become a major
economic development strategy for many tribal governments in the United States.
Since the early 1980s, 198 tribes have established 326 gaming facilities in 24
states. Tribal gaming revenues are having a profound impact on the lives of many
Native Americans. Tribal governments are revitalizing their communities by investing
in housing, health care, education programs, language and cultural revitalization
programs and numerous other community projects.
of the unprecedented social and economic success of Indian gaming in some parts
of the country a political backlash has emerged at all levels of government.
While this backlash takes many forms, it almost always relies upon misrepresentations
of Indians and Indian gaming. By far the most popular misrepresentation is the
idea that all Indians in the United States are now wealthy.
the Director of Research at NIGA, I field hundreds of questions a month about
Indian gamings history, legal status, and impacts from researchers, students,
media and the curious American public. While many people call with specific research
questions, a vast majority want to know how much money Indians now have. Specifically,
they want to know how to get some of it, whether through joint ventures or donations
for their cause. And they want to know why Indians continue to receive Federal
money in spite of some tribes success with casinos.
today I am going to share my insights about the uses of what I have come to call "the
Rich Indian image." The title of my paper, Rich Indian Racism, captures
what I have come to understand as the process through which this stereotype of
Indians has consistently been used to justify political positions. Specifically,
I am going to explore the current uses by policy makers of the American fascination
with the idea that all Indians are now wealthy.
presentation today will do three things.
- First, I will
describe Rich Indian Racism by sharing my personal experience with its use to
justify policies that are blatantly anti-Indian.
- Second, I will
contextualize the image of the Rich Indian in the history of Federal Indian policy,
showing how the process of creating images of Indians is not new, but an on-going
process with changing stakes.
- Third, I will
tell you how and why Rich Indian Racism resonates with so many non-Indians, especially
intent today is to give you information that will allow you to see beyond the
simplistic images and stereotypes that clutter the debate about Indian gaming
and tribal sovereignty and give you a more balanced view of the effects of gaming
on the lives of those who benefit from it. So I will conclude with a few basic
facts that capture a richer sense of the experience of tribal gaming in the lives
of real people---people who are always more interesting and more complicated
than the stereotypes created about them.
Bit of Background
I start, I want to tell you where I am coming from and how I formulated the "Rich
Indian" argument in the first place. My interest in Indian Gaming started
long before my job with the National Indian Gaming Association. I grew up on
the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota, where my parents were teachers.
Because of my background, I know what things were like for many Native people
before gaming. During the 1970s and 80s, when I was growing up, the
unemployment rate at White Earth was over 80%. It is difficult to describe what
80% unemployment looks like, especially in todays economy. I know that
statistics do not generally move people, so that number may have little meaning
to someone studying Indian gaming today, someone that never went to an Indian
reservation before gaming. But conditions were bleak and many White Earth tribal
members lived off the reservation because of the difficulty of making a living
on the reservation.
White Earth nation started building a casino in my hometown of Mahnomen, MN while
I was away at college. After it was built, I moved back home to study the impact
of the casino while working on my Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of
California. Basically, Anthropological research can be described in four words, "go
talk to people." So I did. And I was surprised at the consistency of peoples
opinions and remarks about the casinos impact at White Earth. In a nutshell,
many non-Indians in the area thought all the Indians were rich. Meanwhile, the
Indians consistently talked about how good it felt to finally be working, to
be able to live back home. They were not rich, they were employed. That is a
crucial distinction. The striking thing about the opinion of the non-Indians
was that there was no evidence that the tribal members were wealthy
people drove new cars or built new homes...typical signs of wealth. So the idea
that Indians were rich simply did not match the facts. I began to wonder what
the non-Indians were really saying by insisting tribal members were rich. What
was behind their remarks about Indian wealth? What kind of code was this?
of Images in my Dissertation
the same time I was doing my ethnographic research, in other words, while I was
out talking to people at White Earth, I was also analyzing the history of Federal
Indian policy. The basic argument in my dissertation was that popular images
of Indians have historically worked in two ways: first, popular images of Indians
silence real Indian people. And second, popular images are used to justify harmful,
anti-Indian Federal policies. My research took me back to the Federal Indian
policies of the 1820s and I found a connection between these policies and
the popular Indian stereotypes of their day. For example, in the 1820s
when Indians were portrayed as savages, Supreme Court Justice Marshall ruled
that Indian people could not rightfully care for or own their own land. And in
the 1830s, when Indians were stereotyped as childlike, that image justified
the creation of a so-called ward/guardian relationship between tribal governments
and the Federal government. When Indian nations were portrayed as uncivilized,
the Federal government imposed constitution-style governments onto Indian nations.
I think you can see a pattern emerging here
I got to Washington, D.C. and began doing political work, first as a staffer
for the National Gambling Impact Study Commission and later at NIGA, I realized
I was a witness to a contemporary piece of this long-running project of creating
images of Indians for political purposes. In some ways, both of my political
jobs are simply an extension of the fieldwork I started in my hometown. At times,
I feel like I am doing anthropological research on Capitol Hill that can strengthen
the theories already developed in my dissertation. In Congressional hearings,
newspaper articles, and the many research calls I referenced earlier, I continue
to hear people speak about the "Rich Indians" in spite of the horrific
conditions that exist in many parts of Indian country and the incredible unmet
need among tribal nations, a need that Congress is keenly aware of. In many ways,
the opinions of many policy makers mirror those of the non-Indians in my hometown.
What I mean by that is that many policy makers continues to embrace one reality
(that Indians are rich) in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Why
and how do they do this, why is the rich Indian image dangerous?
the Image Works/Why it is Dangerous
the stakes are much higher in Washington, D.C. than they were in my hometown
in Minnesota because policy makers can codify these false stereotypes in policy
that is harmful to Indian people. The Federal government has an enormous amount
of power over Indian affairs and each year more and more anti-Indian legislation
is justified on the idea that Indian nations are now rich. I fear that "Rich
Indian racism" is ultimately targeting the very foundation of tribal governments
tribal sovereignty. The question is how the Rich Indian Image works today to
justify anti-Indian policies. I will argue today that the image of the Rich
Indian works in two complementary ways: first, it is to call into question
the economic need of tribal governments and second, it is used to question their
authenticity as real Indians.
first way that "rich Indian racism" can be used to undermine tribal
sovereignty is by insisting that Indian nations do not deserve sovereign rights
because they are not really Indian anymore. In this argument, non-Indians equate
authentic "Indianness" with poverty and create a distinction between
so-called rich Indians and some romantic real Indians. By this logic, once a
tribal nation acquires wealth, they cannot be real Indians. Perhaps the most
egregious example of this notion is the recent book by Jeff Benedict about the
Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation of Connecticut. In his book, the author argues
that the Mashantucket Pequots fooled Congress into recognizing them as an Indian
nation and he goes as far as to recommend that Congress consider rescinding the
Pequot Nations Federally recognized status. Clearly, the author and his
supporters believe that the Pequots cannot possibly have the most successful
casino in North America and still be authentically Indian. When asked if he would
have written the book if the Mashantucket Pequots were not running a successful
casino, the author answered "no." This use of the Rich Indian image
is the epitome of Rich Indian racism, wherein supposedly rich tribal nations
are no longer sufficiently different from other Americans, or not suffering enough,
to deserve sovereign political rights.
an anthropologist, I find there is also a subtle corollary to this use of the
rich Indian image that focuses on the so-called "real" Indians. That
is, "Rich Indian racism" is often combined with quasi-concern about
the threat that Indian gaming presents to "traditional tribal values"---the
paternalistic argument that tribes should resist offering gaming "for their
own good" because it somehow threatens traditional culture. This is nothing
short of ironic considering that in the 1800s the justification for Federal
management of Indian resources was because they were "too Indian" and
not civilized enough. It is a fact that very few people are concerned
about the impact of poverty, or diabetes, or unemployment on "traditional
tribal cultures" and there are very few Federal policies targeting these
conditions, which are ultimately a real threat to Indian naitons. Now, it seems,
having money diminishes a claim to Indian cultural authenticity. As a non-Indian
and an anthropologist, I would suggest that questions regarding tribal culture
be left to Indian nations.
addition to undermining Indian identity, the claim that Indians are rich has
also been used politically to argue that "Indian nations no longer need
what they used to need." Within weeks of the passage of the Indian Gaming
Regulatory Act in 1988, Legislation to tax Indian casino revenues was presented
in Congress as a way to balance the Federal budget. State governments consistently
pressure tribes into so-called "revenue sharing" agreements during
their compact negotiations in order to benefit from Indian casinos that are technically
not under state jurisdiction. And attempts by Congress to impose "means
testing," whereby Indian nations would have had to prove they still need Federal
monies, are all founded on the notion of tribal wealth and ultimately call into
question the need and authenticity of tribal governments. These attempts to target
Indian resources also reveal the bias held by legislators that tribal resources
are plenty, and that they are there for non-Indians to share in. Many Americans
seem to think that Indian nations now have too much money, that there is a surplus
in Indian country that should rightfully be shared or relinquished.
the 1880s and 90s many Americans thought the same thing about
Indian land and natural resources. At that time, the same notion of surplus was
used to justify the allotment of communally held Indian lands to Indian and non-Indian
individuals. Under the 1887 Dawes Allotment Act, the Federal government charged
itself with the task of dividing up the communal land holdings on reservations
and allotting all Indians lands to individuals. The Federal Act was nothing more
than a crafty system for alienating Indian people from their land base. After
counting the number of Indians, the Government simply created more land allotments
than there were Indians, declared the remaining allotments to be surplus land
This surplus land, within the reservation, was then sold to non-Indians lands
speculators. In most cases, the so-called surplus land also turned out to be
the best land within the reservation in terms of natural resources. On the White
Earth reservation in Minnesota, 93% of the initial reservation was sold to non-Indians
within 10 years of the passage of the Dawes Act.
the 1990s, "Rich Indian" racism achieves the same ends when non-Indian
policy makers decide what resources Indians need, declare that there is a surplus,
and then target the rest. This strategy has been employed in attempt to deny
Indian nations their treaty rights for hunting and fishing and also to deny land-into-trust
acquisitions to tribal governments. For example, this notion of surplus was a
key argument against Minnesotas Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in their recent
treaty rights case. Local fisherman argued that having a casino job negated the
rights of tribal members to take fish from the lake before the state fishing
season opened since they did not need to go first anymore. "Rich Indian
Racism" was successfully employed by state and local authorities in Minnesota
to deny a land-into-trust acquisition by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux. In that
instance, the local community appealed to the Secretary of the Interior to deny
the Siouxs request based on the assertion that "they could afford
to pay the taxes." The notion of surplus and need is also implied in proposed
Federal legislation that would have required so-called "means testing," whereby
tribes would have had to prove they still needed their Federal monies, which
many Americans continue to think of as welfare, rather than as installments on
an outstanding bill for most of Americas landbase.
in addition to using "Rich Indian racism" to challenge tribal sovereignty
in the two ways I have just described, the Rich Indian image also provides a
convenient distraction from the fact that 2/3 of Americas Indian nations
do not have gaming. Among tribes that do have gaming, profits are not evenly
distributed because they depend on access to markets and most Indian reservations
are in remote locations. The fact is that 22 Indian facilities account for 56%
of the total Indian gaming revenue and on some of the more rural, yet typical,
reservations, gaming facilities act primarily as job centers, not revenue generators.
In light of these facts, Member of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission
as well as many policy makers (and even Andy Rooney) have suggested that the
rich Indians should be doing more to help the real Indians that continue to suffer,
again naturalizing that distinction and simultaneously distracting Americans
from the Federal governments miserable record on Indian affairs. Pretending
Native Americans are rich does not make it so, no matter how sincerely we may
want that to be the case.
conclusion, the one thing I would like you to leave you with today is this: The
belief that all Indians are rich is a political position, not a fact. This stereotype
is dangerous and popular but it is not true! This widespread misperception about
Indian gamings relative success is dangerous because it has fueled
a political backlash in the forms I have just described. It is popular because
it helps alleviate Americas collective guilt about the deplorable treatment
of Americas first nations, and it is popular because it provides a distraction
from the fact that contemporary Native people continue to suffer around the United
truth is that the image can never capture the realities of contemporary Indian
people or that fact of Indian gamings impacts. But images are never meant
to capture the facts, are they? In the case of the Rich Indian Image, perhaps
that is its biggest danger and our biggest loss.