Declaring War on the Indians:
The New York Times Editorial About Sen. Slade Gorton
"Senator Slade Gorton has once again declared war on the Indians. Having
failed last year to undermine the concept of Indian sovereignty with a sneaky
amendment to an appropriations bill, the Washington State Republican has now
offered a freestanding bill, erroneously labeled the "American Indian Equal
Justice Act," that is a reprise of last year's rider. The bill would, among
other things, deprive Indian tribes of their sovereign immunity against civil
This would fundamentally alter America's longstanding commitment to self-
governance among the nation's 554 tribes, a commitment backed by Federal
treaties, statutes and court decisions. Sovereign immunity is essential to
self-governance because it protects the public treasury and shields
governments from being sued into extinction. Federal, state and local
governments, as well as tribal governments, have always been able to claim
this prerogative, although they have voluntarily waived it in some
circumstances. Without immunity, lawsuits could cripple smaller tribes.
Mr. Gorton's bill would also authorize civil actions against tribes in
Federal and state courts rather than in tribal courts. He argues that this
merely places disputes in a neutral forum, but in fact this change is an
assault on the administration of justice by tribal governments. The bill would
also allow states to sue tribes in Federal court for the collection of sales
taxes on purchases made by non-Indians on Indian lands. But states are already
free to sue individual tribal officers for failure to collect taxes. They can
also resolve this issue through tribal-state agreements on tax collection, and
more than 200 tribes already have such compacts.
Mr. Gorton's crusade appears based on isolated anecdotes from aggrieved non-
Indian plaintiffs. He offers no compelling reason to curtail sovereign
immunity or tribal rights. Yet, as noted by Timothy Egan in a recent Times
report, Mr. Gorton may gain ground simply because of a public backlash against
some tribes that have become more prosperous and politically assertive.
But the fact remains that most tribes are very poor. Eliminating sovereign
immunity would further jeopardize their survival and, more broadly, betray the
Federal Government's longstanding moral and legal obligations to the tribes."
Access the New York Times' text index on the web.
Return to Termination by Appropriation or the index