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Thursday, September 4, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nation's Tribes Gather To Combat Gorton's Ideas On Indian Sovereignty

Seattle Times Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Last year, when the Nisqually River flooded over its banks at Franks Landing and destroyed a grade school for Indian children, tribal and school officials turned to the state's senior senator for help.

And Slade Gorton delivered, they say, aggressively securing $1.8 million in this year's federal budget to rebuild the Wa He Lut Indian school, a kindergarten and middle school for 60 Native Americans from around South Puget Sound.

"I can say that unless Slade Gorton had taken an interest, there would have been no money for this school," said Superintendent Tom Keefe.

But at the same time Keefe was telling his story earlier this week, 230 tribal leaders from around the nation were heading to Capitol Hill to defend themselves, they say, from the latest barrage of anti-Indian policy proposed by the man many Native Americans have come to call the "new General Custer" - this same Sen. Gorton.

Yesterday, the National Congress of American Indians convened an emergency meeting across the street from the Capitol solely to combat Gorton, a Republican, and two proposals he attached to a spending bill, proposals they claim are discriminatory and would seriously erode the Indian right to self-governance.

One measure would cut off nearly a half of the federal money that flows to reservations unless tribal governments agree to waive sovereign immunity from civil lawsuits. The other seeks to distribute federal money to the 557 reservations based on need, potentially denying aid to some of the wealthier tribes, which have profits from casinos and other business ventures.

"The only reason we are all here is Senator Gorton," said Henry Cagey, chairman of the Lummi Nation near Bellingham, motioning toward a banquet hall filled to standing-room status with tribal leaders. "He will take any chance he can get to attack our sovereignty. If anything, he has become more hard-line and anti-Indian and devious in his attacks on us, and he's been fighting us for as long as anyone can remember."

First as a state representative, then as attorney general and now as a U.S. senator, Gorton consistently has opposed the state's Indian tribes as they have attempted during the past three decades to assert their unique legal rights. Most notably, as attorney general in the 1970s, he fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court the landmark ruling giving Indians a treaty right to a half of the state's salmon catch.

Today, he is routinely called an "Indian fighter." His seeming obsession with Indian policy is linked by some to a grudge he allegedly carries for losing the salmon court case.

When it comes to the nation's 2 million Indians, Gorton often is considered a racist at worst, an uncaring elitist at best.

But is he really any of these things?

As his latest proposals spark yet another uproar in Indian country, Gorton increasingly is faced with a question by critics and supporters alike: Why are you continuing to fight this fight?

Some of those who know him well, including some of his fiercest opponents on Indian policy in the Senate, say Gorton is motivated not by some visceral dislike for Indians but by a deeply held conviction that federal legal policy toward Native Americans is unfair and elevates some rights of Indians above non-Indians.

"This is not some personal vendetta of his," Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said yesterday shortly after bashing Gorton's proposals at the Indian Congress meeting.

"He has a philosophical, intellectual difference with me and many others here about the nature of Indian treaties and what the federal government's responsibilities to the tribes should be," he said. "I think the treaties are very clear. They are solemn agreements in which we got their land and we agreed to treat them as nations as well as help provide for their health and education."

Gorton said yesterday he does not want to cancel the treaties or eliminate the tribes' status as sovereign nations. He only wants civil rights and due process to exist equally both on and off the reservation.

To illustrate the point, today Gorton was joined in a news conference by Bernard Gamache, the father of 18-year-old Jered Gamache, who was killed three years ago in Toppenish when his car was broadsided by a Yakama tribal police cruiser. The family cannot sue the tribe for damages in a state or federal court because the tribe has sovereign immunity.

"Now is that fair?" Gorton asked yesterday in a Senate speech. "If you are injured by a New York City policeman, you can sue New York City. But if you are injured by a Yakama tribal policeman, you cannot sue the tribe."

New York City and most other governments long ago waived sovereign immunity in such public-safety cases as a way of balancing the power of government with the rights of individual citizens.

Gorton said later he is a firm believer in the right of Indian tribes to self-government and self-determination, but that Indian governments cannot be permitted to act in a "totally lawless fashion" and not be held responsible.

"I just don't see how that is a racist view," he said. "I think cries of racism are an escape from having to argue the merits."

Tribal leaders, however, seem as eager to argue the merits of Gorton's proposals as they are to question his personal motives. Forcing tribes to waive legal immunity is discriminatory because Congress does not force non-Indian governments to do the same, speakers at the Indian Congress meeting argued. And if Congress starts adjusting federal aid to tribes based on profits from casinos or other business ventures, why doesn't it also cut back on aid to states that run successful lotteries, they wondered.

The notion that Gorton has intellectual or legalistic motivations for limiting the tribes' sovereign powers does not translate well in Indian country, where the cultural identity of the people is tightly wrapped up in the treaties their ancestors signed and the independent "nation" status they gained as a result, Indian leaders say.

"It's like he's trying to take away who we are," said Cagey of the Lummi Nation. "He never makes any effort to understand us, or to try to work to make the relationship better. He just wants to end the relationship."

The Senate's only American Indian, Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, yesterday highlighted Gorton's unrelenting approach when he noted how the senator placed the proposals into the Interior appropriations bill without any comment or public hearings or assessment of their potential impact.

"I told him he could have a hearing, but he chose to do it this way," Campbell said. "On something this big, there should have been a hearing."

Keefe, the Wa He Lut school superintendent and former staffer for Sen. Warren Magnuson, said he almost never agrees with Gorton or his methods but does not believe the senator's Indian policies are racist.

"For him, the part about sovereignty is just another legal argument, and the part about limiting financial aid is his conservative desire to get the tribes to wean themselves from federal dependence," Keefe said. "It's very consistent with his approach to a whole range of issues that have nothing to do with Indians."

Despite the pressure from fellow politicians, including a threatened filibuster by Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and a threatened veto by the Clinton administration, Gorton vowed yesterday to fight on when the Interior appropriations bill reaches the Senate floor next week.

He said the charges of racism don't bother him, although he seemed frustrated that he has become the Indians' Enemy No. 1.

"I have always supported Indian tribes when it comes to their health and educational opportunities," he said. "What this is about is whether rights also carry with them responsibilities, such as supporting yourself and coexisting fairly with the rest of society.

"It's an uphill struggle for me, but I'm generally content on matters of principle to present the arguments and let people think about them. More often than not, the better argument will carry the day."

Danny Westneat's phone-message number is 202-662-7455. His e-mail address is: dwes-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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