In Indian country, you will find the most abject poverty in the nation. It is estimated that one in four Native Americans lives below the poverty line - some without running water or telephones.

The causes of this poverty run from broken treaties, isolation on reservations far removed from commerce, and Washington's misbegotten "tribal termination" policies in the 1950s, which attempted to remove aboriginal people from their ancestral lands and "mainstream" them into the dominant white culture. It also has to do with the government's neglect in education and health care programs and yes, as in all human equations, lapses in personal responsibility too.

New economic hope began to emerge on tribal lands a couple of decades ago when courts determined that Native Americans could build gaming casinos on their sovereign lands. Since then, many tribes have prospered. In Oregon, a good example is the Grand Ronde tribe near the town of Willamina, near Oregon's Coast Range.

In 1978, I came through the Grand Ronde reservation with a 24-foot Winnebago as a traveling office. Streets were unpaved, housing was substandard and, in short, the place was a wide spot in a very muddy road.

Several years after this eye-opening "Third World" experience, I helped the Grand Ronde restore their official tribal recognition, expanded their reservation to promote forestry, and helped them win the gaming compact that led to the Spirit Mountain Casino. The Grand Ronde today are one of the richest tribes in the Northwest. They've created a college scholarship fund, modern health care clinics, day care and educational facilities that would have been beyond their imagination in 1978.

Now tribes throughout the nation are seeking to use their sovereign lands for the economic betterment of their people who, in today's culture, remain almost invisible.

More power to them. Though I am not a fan of gambling, I support tribal gaming resorts as the only lifeline many tribes have to create a better economic future for themselves and their sons and daughters. The record of Uncle Sam - who is supposed to have a trust responsibility for tribal people - has been an abject failure.

The drive of Native Americans for economic enhancement drew my attention recently to the Yakima tribe - near Toppenish, Wash. - which has just made a decision that would be rare in most non-native communities in the Pacific Northwest.

The tribe had studied a possible destination resort on tribal lands on Mt. Adams, in the Cascade Range. The development called for eight ski lifts, a gondola and a tram, three 18-hole golf courses, a casino, restaurant and 2,500 lodging units. It promised hundreds of millions of dollars for the tribe's coffers.

The 14-member Yakima tribal council assigned a feasibility study to staff members from several tribal departments, including wildlife, fisheries, natural resources, cultural resources, and water. Each reported back that the project would have a negative impact on the environment of tribal lands.

"Seeing that, we have decided it's not something we wish to pursue at this time," said Virgil Lewis, Sr., vice chairman of the Yakima Tribal Council. "I guess economically we could have benefited a very large sum of money to the tribe, but do we want to sacrifice an area of extreme cultural significance to the tribe? We're not ready to do that."

I have been pro-growth throughout my career - but not at any cost. As Will Rogers said, "They're not making land anymore." Especially not ecologically significant land. You wouldn't know this though by the pro-development boosterism in many communities throughout our region - or indeed by the passage of ballot Measure 37.

But here are the Yakimas - a people who need economic growth more than most communities in the Pacific Northwest. Yet they refuse to jeopardize the integrity of their lands - or sell their souls - to gain it. They'll build their economy in a more noble, sustainable way.

If needy First Americans can show prudence and restraint in the uses of land, why can't more affluent "Second Americans" do the same more often?

Former Congressman Les AuCoin is an Ashland writer and a retired political science professor. He is a former majority leader of the Oregon House of Representatives.

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