Gorton rides again

The senator goes after tribal profits.

Standing in the doorway of the ramshackle house on the Muckleshoot Indian reservation in which she raised nine children, Leona Starr looks across a littered patch of grass at a yellow house under construction. It's nothing fancy, just the kind of nondescript rambler seen on suburban streets everywhere. But it's a world apart from Starr's own house, so worn from its 100-plus years that it seems ready to collapse. It's also a world the septuagenarian Starr and her husband, George, 80, will enter as soon as the new house is done.

The Muckleshoots, thanks to hefty profits from their casino, have built the house for the Starrs—one of several families of elders to so benefit. "They're building it with a master bedroom—something we've never had—a walk-in bathroom, walk-in closet," Starr says.

If the Muckleshoots have become affluent enough to provide new homes for their members, perhaps they needless federal funding. Or at least that's the position of Sen. Slade Gorton, who has tacked a section onto next year's Senate budget bill that would take $12 million away from the richest 10 percent of tribes nationwide and redistribute it to the poorest 20 percent. The measure is a continuation of one of two hotly contested measures (both ultimately shelved) that Gorton proposed last fall. In Washington state, his latest measure would likely take from two tribes: the Muckleshoots and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, which has three small casinos but derives the bulk of its income from timber, ranch and pasture leases, and a newly won share in revenue from Grand Coulee Dam.

Having resuscitated a longstanding reputation for Indian fighting last fall, Gorton has wrapped this measure in a Robin Hood mantle. Having spearheaded a 28 percent cut in federal assistance in 1995, he now worries in a press release that if the method of distributing aid is not changed, "it will continue to shortchange the poorest of the poor in Indian country." Affected tribes, however, say that they're being knocked back down just as they've begun to make good. "For the first time, tribal members have been able to approximate the standard of living off the reservation," says Muckleshoot vice chair Virginia Cross.

Gorton's proposal zeros in on a slice of federal funding called Tribal Priority Allocations (TPA), administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is put at the discretion of the tribes rather than being targeted for a specific purpose.TPA has caught the senator's attention, according to Gorton spokesperson Cynthia Bergman, because of "huge inequities" in a distribution system based on outdated agreements with tribes rather than current needs. Gorton cites a study on TPA currently under way by the federal General Accounting Office, one he initiated last year after his means-testing proposal took a dive, reporting that the six wealthiest tribes combined received more total funding than did each of 16 tribes with no business revenues at all.

Bear in mind that the details of the GAO study are unreliable, as a draft report by the agency concedes. Though it uses financial statements on income that tribes are required to file with the Department of the Interior, the report acknowledges that a number of tribes report only their income from enterprises receiving federal funds, which is why it is hard to pin down the wealthiest 10 percent without enacting more stringent reporting laws—something Gorton also hopes to do.

There is confusion even among tribes about how funding levels are set. "I don't know exactly how they allocate TPA dollars, if it's by population or size of reservation or what," says Colville chair Joe Pakootas, who for years has asked for more TPA funds to administer his extensive 1.4 million-acre reservation.

Tinkering with TPA, however, will have little impact on inequities between tribes, as the GAO report also makes clear, since those funds represent only 10 percent of the $7.5 billion distributed by myriad federal agencies. Analyzing this funding maze is no easy matter—nor is assessing each tribe's needs, which vary according to reservation size, population, natural resources requiring management, degree of self-governance, and so on. Quoting a previous federal report on the matter, the GAO calls the gathering of such information a "monumental undertaking."

Undoubtedly, though, a shake-up of TPA funding would have a huge symbolic significance. It would announce to money-making tribes that they must do more to pay their own way—a message that has the added effect of forcing their sovereignty hand. Gorton, a notorious skeptic about tribal sovereignty, is saying: This is the cost of being your own government.

The underlying assumption is that newly flush tribes can pay their own way. Surely this is true of Connecticut's famously rich Mashantucket Pequot tribe, whose casino has made each of its 150-plus members millionaires. But what of the bulk of casino-operating tribes, whose more modest profits are spread among far more members?

Driving around the Muckleshoot Reservation, a patchwork of six square-mile territories weaving through Auburn, community services coordinator Walter Pacheco asserts that the tribe already pays for 58 percent of its budget. The three-year-old casino, a glitzy turquoise palace netting some $40 million in profits per year, has funded the initiation of the "12.5 percent" housing program—so named because 12.5 percent of casino profits is designated for the program. The program primarily helps tribal members buy their own homes on and off the reservation, often by contributing the downpayment. (Only the tribe's 1,400 members are eligible—leaving out an estimated several thousand Indians from other tribes living on the reservation.) Elders like the Starrs may get their homes for free. The program has gone toward approximately 80 homes, many of them prefabricated and brought to the reservation. "In no way has the tribe built mansions for our people," Pacheco says.

Casino revenue also funds a $600 Christmas bonus, tuition assistance, loan guarantees for those seeking to consolidate their debts—all these also for tribal members only—as well as a gang intervention program, hot meals for seniors, and the tribe's participation in its controversial amphitheater project.

Despite such expenditures, the standard of living on the reservation looks similar to that of impoverished tribal communities everywhere. The 12.5 percent homes stand out amid trailers and crumbling homes like the Starrs'—both of which are usually packed with several generations. There are 83 people on the waiting list for low-income housing administered through funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Lawrence Jerry, a ponytailed 65-year-old fixing a truck in his yard, doesn't hesitate when asked whether the casino has made a difference for people here. "We people on the reservation don't get nothing out of it," he says. Of the revenue, he says, "A lot of people wonder where it's going."

It's a fair question, considering a history of mismanagement and even corruption among the Muckleshoots. A 1997 HUD report indicated that at least $575,000 of its funding had been misspent under a former (non-Indian) director of the Muckleshoot Housing Authority, an agency that the tribe says it has cleaned up.

While the tribe may be spending gambling revenue wisely, grumbling is inevitable when the tribe refuses to reveal the exact details of its profits and spending, even to its members. The Muckleshoots and other tribes have argued that financial figures can be used against them if made public. But unless they are, tribes may be stuck with the image of "rich Indians" undeserving of federal funds—which, no matter how flawed the image, creates the political climate for gambits like Gorton's.

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