Don’t blame the Indians for the Abramoff scandal


It is a bitter irony that Indian nations have become scapegoats for corruption in Washington, D.C. In response to the Abramoff lobbying scandal, one newspaper in Montana, the Missoulian, even called for a ban on any tribal contributions in federal elections.

Some perspective is needed. In the 2004 election, contributions from so-called casino tribes to federal campaigns constituted just one-third of 1 percent of total contributions. Indians constitute 2 percent of the U.S. population, yet tribal political contributions made in 2004 were disproportionately low compared to population.

Contributions from tribes allowing gambling were also extremely low if you look at what other interest groups do. In 2004, lawyers and lobbyists contributed 25 times more money to candidates than tribes; representatives for retired people gave 25 times more; real estate interests gave 13 times more; securities and investment gave 12 times more; and energy and natural resource groups contributed seven times more than tribes. Somehow, though, we don't hear any calls to ban contributions from these powerful interest groups whose contributions dwarf those of the tribes.

In any event, Indian tribes are already subject to limits on political contributions, and the Federal Election Commission's limit on tribal contributions is the most stringent that can be imposed. It is the same individual contribution limit that would apply to all Americans — $2,100. It used to be $1,000, but Congress recently raised it. The Navajo Nation, for example, with 255,000 members, can give no more than $2,100 to a federal candidate in an election. With Senate campaigns costing $10 to $37 million, this is the proverbial drop in the bucket. Tribes are also subject to the $5,000 per year limit on contributions to political action committees (PACs), the same limit that applies to all Americans.

The Federal Election Commission does not place an aggregate limit on the number of contributions a tribe can make. In other words, if a tribe wants to make a contribution to five, 10 or 50 federal candidates, it can do so.

Are Indian tribes the only entities not subject to the aggregate limit? Not by a long shot. PACs, limited liability companies, limited liability partnerships, law firms, lobbying firms, cooperatives, community associations, states and local governments also have no aggregate limits on their contributions. Again, we don't hear calls for banning contributions from these other entities.

Tribal sovereignty is unique and arises, in part, because when Columbus set foot in North America the tribal nations had been functioning governments for thousands of years. In recognition of this and as a means to control who could negotiate with tribal nations, the U. S. Constitution contains the Indian Commerce Clause. It declares that Congress has "plenary power" over Indian affairs — another way of saying absolute control.

Indian people's lives have always been more regulated by Washington, D.C., than other citizens. Indians were the last people in the United States to be guaranteed the right to vote; this happened in 1924 — 54 years after the enactment of the 15th Amendment granting the right to vote to other minorities, and four years after women received the vote..

For two centuries, the doctrine of federal plenary power has resulted in devastating consequences to Indian people. Plenary power was used to confiscate Indian lands (allotment acts), to prohibit free exercise of native religions, and to take children from their families and ship them to boarding schools where their mouths were washed out with soap for speaking their native language.

But in recent decades, thanks to successful lobbying efforts by Indian nations, plenary power has meant passage of more enlightened legislation, such as the Indian Self-Determination Act allowing tribes to manage federal programs, the Indian Religious Freedom Act, and the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

What happens in Washington, D.C., is our business, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have every right to make political contributions to federal candidates. As always, we respect and comply with federal laws that govern tribal political contributions. At the same time, we support and urge our entire congressional delegation to enact meaningful lobbying reform that serves all Americans.

James Steele Jr. is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and lives in Arlee, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at