Stop fighting yesterday’s war.


well, stupid people get wiped out.” So writes lobbyist Jack Abramoff in an email to Ralph Reed describing Abramoff’s client, the Tigua Tribe. A few years before Abramoff sent this email, and unbeknownst to the Tigua government, he and Reed had successful convinced Texas to shut down the Tribe’s casino. After accomplishing this feat, Abramoff approached the Tigua leaders offering his assistance to have their casino reopened. He charged them nearly $4.5 million.

In 1969, Vine Deloria, Jr., wrote that Tribal Nations (American Indian Tribes)—still reeling from aggressive U.S. anti-Indian acts, policies, and regulations—needed to position ourselves against further acts of colonization through, in part, comprehending and mastering the art of smart politics with the United States. “Trust Responsibility,” the official name of the political and ideological relationship between Tribal Nations and the United States, was clearly detrimental to the well-being of Tribal Peoples. Our leadership, much less we ordinary American Indians, could not overlook how we are affected by contemporary federal legislative actions such as those listed by the advocacy group, Take Part: “earmarks” and “goodies.” Political insight and savvy are key according to Deloria. Stop fighting yesterday’s war.

Alex Gibney’s 2010 documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, shows today’s war. The two-hour documentary covers the vast, and I mean vast, range of Abramoff activities. Gibney, an established filmmaker whose credits include the Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) and Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), sprints us from Abramoff’s College Republican Committee days with Ralph Reed to his activities in Angola and the Northern Mariana Islands.

But it is his swindling of several Tribal Nations that form the documentary’s heart. Gibney tracks the Abramoff arc through interviews, the most prominent being with former House majority leader Tom DeLay and former Lt. Governor of the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo (Tigua Nation) Carlos Hisa. While DeLay attempts justifications, Hisa provides insight into how Abramoff was able to exploit the weaknesses in Trust Responsibility for personal wealth.

Obviously, I would have preferred if the entire documentary centered on the Tribes. Yet the fast-paced context that Gibney provides is important in understanding the modern swindling of the Tribal Nations within the D.C. political system. For instance, Gibney reminds us that two of the senators on the Senate Committee of Indian Affairs, John McCain and Ben Campbell, were financial beneficiaries of their associations with Abramoff.

Ultimately Casino Jack and the United States of Money is about a system designed to foster the personal quest for political power over political service. For centuries, Tribal Nations have been familiar with the adage “follow the money” so it is not a surprise that the Tigua Casino did not reopen. That was never where the cash was intended to go. As Abramoff and history shows, Indian Country remains big money for non-Tribal Peoples. Only we can decide how much longer it stays this way.

21 February 2011


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“Red Earth, Green Money, White Pockets: Casino Jack and the United States of Money” by Julia Good Fox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Original work is at