The U.S. anti-Indian movement was created out of a white backlash against gains made by Native American nations since the 1960s. The modern movement is the heir to the historic hostility exhibited toward Native sovereignty, treaty rights, and cultural and economic autonomy. It originally brought together white reservation residents challenging tribal jurisdiction, white sportsmen opposing Native treaty rights, and resource interests viewing tribal sovereignty as an obstacle to profit and development. In the decades around the turn of the twenty-first century, it has incorporated gaming interests and anti-gambling groups fearing tribal casinos, animal rights groups opposing tribal hunting, and New Age groups demanding unhindered access to exploit tribal spiritual practices.
At least five major factors motivate anti-Indian groups. The first is the call for “equal rights for whites”—the argument that the increased legal powers and jurisdiction of tribes infringes on the liberties or private property rights of non-Indian residents on and off the reservations. The use of civil rights imagery can reach such lengths that whites are described as oppressed individuals victimized by “Red Apartheid,” and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is invoked in support of an agenda to roll back Native rights.
The second factor is access to natural resources, such as fish, game, land, and water. Treaty rights guarantee some tribes access to resources on their ceded lands outside their reservations. Anti-treaty activists assert that no citizens should have “special rights” to use natural resources (even though non-Indians also can retain property use rights over land that they sell). Natural resource interests oppose sovereignty when it enables tribes to block projects—such as mines or dams—that may harm treaty resources.
The third factor is cultural superiority, which can be exhibited in sports team logos and mascots, the excavation of mounds and burial sites, disrespect of sacred objects, or efforts to restrict Native languages. Native objections to these practices often provoke strong accusations of “political correctness.” The very existence of an enduring non-Western belief system, rooted in the middle of the most powerful Western country, is seen as a fundamental problem.
The fourth factor is outright racism, including not only slurs and violent harassment, but also the belief that Indians are unfit to govern themselves, and are merely recipients of government hand-outs (or passive pawns in government conspiracies). Anti-Indian groups accuse Native people who appear white or African American of using their “blood quantum” only to obtain financial benefits. Most anti-Indian activists deny any trace of racism; their more subtle approach is to romanticize past Indian cultures and compare them to modern Natives who have adapted to Western technologies, presenting Native peoples as “authentic” only if they are frozen in the past, rather than living, dynamic cultures that incorporate outside cultural elements.
The fifth factor is economic dependency. In a rural reflection of the “Welfare Cadillac” myth, reservation Indians are said to wallow in food stamps, free housing and medical care, and huge federal cash payments—all tax-free. (No one has to pay state sales tax on reservations, but otherwise Indians have had virtually identical tax obligations as non-Indians.) The anti-Indian groups condemn tribes if they are poor, but also if they try to pull out of poverty through economic self-reliance, such as gaming.
The modern white backlash was first seen in the late 1960s in the Pacific Northwest, where tribal fish and shellfish harvests form the basis of traditional tribal economies. The backlash portrayed tribal harvests as a threat to the commercial and sport fishing industries (ignoring the threats posed by dams, pollution, and huge trawlers). State of Washington anti-Indian groups mushroomed after the 1974 Boldt Decision ruled that tribal members were entitled to up to 50 percent of the salmon harvest. The leading group, Steelhead/Salmon Protective Association and Wild-life Network (S/SPAWN), was joined by groups such as the United Property Owners of Washington, made up of white reservation residents. They won support among politicians and local communities, as police and vigilantes regularly assaulted tribal harvesters. They lost much support after the State and tribes reached a 1989 co-management agreement, in which tribal and state governments negotiate not only over the allocation of the fish harvest, but over practices (such as logging) that can damage fish habitat.
The Center for World Indigenous Studies stated in 1992 that “individuals associated with the anti-Indian movement now appear to have occasional, if not frequent association with right-wing extremist groups.” The late Washington State U.S. Representative Jack Metcalf provided a bridge between these right-wing networks and groups against tribal fishing and Makah whaling. Anti-Indian activism continued on Washington reservations into the 2000s, most notably by the Citizens Stand-Up Committee, which strongly opposed a Yakama tribal alcohol ban and other tribal regulations. Idaho local and county governments joined in the North-Central Idaho Jurisdictional Alliance to challenge Nez Perce tribal programs to reclaim allotted lands, assert tribal authority, and protect salmon habitat.
In the Upper Midwest, the 1983 Voigt Decision affirmed Wisconsin Ojibwe (Chippewa) treaty rights to harvest off-reservation natural resources, particularly through the traditional practice of spearfishing. Some sportsmen decried what they saw as the tribal “rape” of the fish resource, vital to the local tourist economy, even though the tribes never took more than 3 percent of the walleye. Protect Americans’ Rights and Resources (PARR) and Stop Treaty Abuse (which marketed “Treaty Beer”) organized protests at northern lakes during spring spear-fishing seasons. Protesters chanted taunts such as “timber niggers,” carried signs reading “Save a Spawning Walleye, Spear a Pregnant Squaw,” and threw rocks, bottles, and full beer cans, documented by media coverage and Midwest Treaty Network reports. Spearers’ vehicles were assaulted, pipe bombs were exploded, boats were blocked or swamped, and snipers fired rifles and high-powered slingshots. Hundreds of Witnesses for Nonviolence monitored the harassment and violence, which slowed after a 1991 federal court injunction.
At the same time as the fishing rights conflict, mining companies began moving into Ojibwe ceded territory, potentially endangering the fish. After Wisconsin’s anti-treaty movement collapsed in 1992, the Midwest Treaty Network initiated a dialogue between the tribes and sport-fishers, forming an environmental alliance that in 2003 stopped the proposed Crandon mine at Mole Lake. Similar unlikely alliances growing out of treaty conflicts have also defeated harmful projects in other states.
Opposition to Ojibwe fishing in Michigan has developed since the 1979 Fox decision upheld treaty rights on the Great Lakes. In Minnesota, Proper Economic Resource Management (PERM), Mille Lacs Tea Party, and the White Earth Equal Rights Committee have challenged Ojibwe jurisdictional rights in federal court. In Illinois, the white backlash centers on cultural/religious issues, such as Native efforts to change demeaning team mascots and to preserve burial sites.
In the Great Plains, land and water disputes erupted between the tribes and white reservation residents in the 1970s. The result was the formation of Montana groups such as All Citizens Equal and the Citizens Rights Organization; other groups organized in the Dakotas and Nebraska. Whites live on the parts of the reservations that were heavily allotted (privatized and divided) from the 1880s through the 1920s. Majority-white counties within some reservations have voted to secede, and thereby diminish the tribal land base. One Nation United (in Oklahoma) has become a leading anti-Indian group in the 2000s by bringing together oil, agricultural, and other business interests to oppose tribal jurisdiction and taxation, gaming, and contributions to political candidates.
Anti-Indian groups tried to coordinate their efforts as early as the 1970s, through the Interstate Congress for Equal Rights and Responsibilities, succeeding in the 1990s with the formation of the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance (CERA). CERA’s advisory board reflects participation from groups in at least twelve states, with leadership rotating among the states. It meets annually to lobby Congress to modify or abrogate treaties, limit tribal regulations affecting non-Indians on the reservations, and roll back tribal gaming rights.
The 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act permits tribes within states that practice Class III gaming (such as a lottery) to develop casinos. Some antigambling groups and white gambling interests (including Donald Trump) have targeted Indian casinos without opposing the state gaming that make them possible. The success of a handful of tribal casinos (close to cities or tourist centers) has fed a myth of “rich Indians,” though other tribes with and without casinos have not prospered. This myth of tribes “taking over” local economies threatens government aid to all tribes. Like European Jews of the medieval era, who had agriculture virtually closed to them, Native nations have been denied control over their land-based economies. Left with few other development options, both groups have been scapegoated for engaging in unpopular financial practices such as moneylending or gambling.
Anti-Indian advocacy has been carried out by other national issue-based organizations. County governments have lobbied against tribes taking trust land off of local tax rolls. “Wise Use” (or anti-environmental) groups such as the Alliance for America claim that tribal jurisdiction threatens private property rights. A few environmental and conservation organizations have opposed tribal land claims over parklands or recreational areas, or opposed tribal governments pressured into accepting toxic projects. Some archaeologists and anthropologists also strongly defend their professional “right” to dig up and display Native people’s ancestors and sacred objects.
Anti-Indian movements have been countered, sometimes successfully, by pro-Indian movements of Native Americans and their supporters, who educate non-Indians about tribal histories, cultures, and legal rights, expose the racial double standards behind anti-Indian groups’ agendas, and reveal how these groups may be fronting for corporate interests. Supporters assert that Native sovereignty not only benefits the tribes, but through protecting the environment and local economies, it can also be good for America.
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