In my classes I always try (when appropriate) to get my students to look at the past fairly, honestly, and then draw reasonable connections with the present day. Our history with Indian tribes is well-documented and I will not wear that particular hairshirt here. So what does our abysmal treatment of Indians in the 1800s and early 20th century have to do with the poor conditions on many reservations today? I wouldn’t know how to even begin to quantify that but I can say with certainty — not a lot anymore. To paraphrase Fleetwood Mac — yesterday’s mostly gone. Like a lot of poorly governed areas… many Indian tribes are living on (sometimes literally) goldmines of minerals, tourist locales, etc. There are many exceptions no doubt. Good leadership is the key which, in a constitutional republic, always goes back to the voters as the party bearing responsibility.
Another point I try to get across to my students in my law classes is the importance of our courts operating objectively and pursuant to the words of whatever document they are trying to interpret — be it a statute, the Constitution, or a contract. Failure to do so leads to instability resulting in all manner of hardship. Of course, none of us would have to worry about courts if, in contracts especially, people honored their word — kept their contracts.
All of that then leads me to this interesting story by Terry Anderson in The Hoover Institution Journal on the Skywalk attraction at The Grand Canyon and an ongoing issue with the tribe and the developer over contracts, property rights, and Indian sovereignty:
The Grand Canyon is a “crown jewel” in our national park system, one on which the Hualapai Indian tribe thought it might capitalize. To do so, it contracted with Las Vegas developer, David Jin, to invest nearly $30 million to build a tourist attraction called the “Skywalk.” The horseshoe shaped, crystal-clear, glass walkway jutting 70 feet out from the rim of the Grand Canyon opened in 2007. Since then, 1.4 million visitors have paid $30 to don booties, walk into space, and look 4,000 feet straight down to the Colorado River below.
With revenues worth an estimated $100 million over the next two decades, this project could help lift 2,100 tribal members out of poverty, but a legal dispute may have killed the goose that could lay golden eggs. Worse yet, this could stifle investment across Indian Country.
The tribe alleged that Jin failed to finish the visitor center and used its sovereign right of eminent domain to seize the property. Jin, on the other hand, said that the tribe failed to provide promised utilities and failed to pay him his share of ticket revenues. He contends that the tribe waived sovereign immunity, thus negating its authority to exercise eminent domain.
On February 11, 2013, U.S. District Judge David Campbell ruled in favor of Jin saying that the tribe had “clearly waived its sovereign immunity” and that its legal arguments were “odd,” “nonsensical,” and “wholly unconvincing.”
Rather than accept the decision or pursue normal appeals processes, the tribal council tried an end run to avoid the $28.6 million judgment against the tribe. On March 4, Hualapai leaders sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection “to prevent further collection efforts” by Jin. They say the original company that contracted with Jin, Sa’ Nyu Wa, was shutdown and the assets transferred to the Grand Canyon Development Corporation. Because the corporation is a wholly owned tribal enterprise, they contend it is protected by sovereign immunity. Even Hualapai tribal court judge Mark Tratos sees this as “a shell game, plain and simple.”
Some members of the tribe recognize that the reputation effects of this decision go far beyond the U.S. District Court settlement. Louise Benson, who was chairwoman of the tribe when the Skywalk contract was signed, said current tribal leaders are “giving the Hualapai a terrible reputation that will injure the tribe for years.” She added, “All over Indian country, I think this is bad.”
History , as taught these days by many, teaches how we treated the Indians as less than human. How do they compensate for that? By teaching Romantic notions of the noble Other and painting them also as inhuman — impossibly noble and pure. Whadda ya know? The truth is in the middle. Indians are people too. And as with all people… folly, dishonesty, and poor leadership leads to poverty, failure, and recrimination. That is the human condition — not the lot of any one people group.
More at the link.