Indian tribes with casinos, among the largest donors to California political causes and candidates, are now giving millions to prestigious universities for the study of issues important to Native Americans.
Tribal representatives say the funding is an extension of their already generous philanthropy, which totals more than $70 million annually. Some others say the payments help tribes polish their image as they face controversies over such subjects as taxation, land development and tribal membership, and say that academic integrity is at risk when scholarship on specific interests is paid for by those interests.
The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, operators of a San Bernardino-area casino, gave $4 million to UCLA Law School last month to establish a new center, the Tribal Learning Community and Educational Exchange. The center will develop courses on California native issues and provide internships with tribes for UCLA students, school officials said.
Two tribes, the San Manuel and the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, will foot the bill for a UCLA Law School symposium next week on media coverage of issues important to tribes.
And the San Manuel Band in 2003 gave $3 million to Cal State San Bernardino, which then named its student union for Santos Manuel, a historic leader of the tribe.
"We're trying to build relationships," said San Manuel Chairman Deron Marquez. "It's another way for Indian people to get the population educated about our issues."
Giving to universities is also a way for California tribes, which have gained political influence by spending more than $120 million on candidates and campaigns over the last five years, to assert their interests, experts say.
"It's almost like the tribes are coming of age," said Sheldon Krimsky, a Tufts University professor who studies conflicts of interest that arise when private money funds scientific research. "Drug companies and chemical companies have long given professorships or funded graduate education to help shape the agenda of higher education."
The challenge for universities is to remain independent, Krimsky said. "Universities are viewed as disinterested generators of knowledge."
Carole Goldberg, a UCLA law professor who heads the advisory board of the law school's Native Nations Law and Policy Center, which will administer the San Manuels' $4-million donation, said the tribe's gift would not affect the way existing courses are taught. Nor will it influence current research at the school, which is funded mainly by federal grants, she said.
The tribal money is "filling a gap or a vacuum" by fostering new courses in areas such as tribal law and projects in such areas as native language renewal, Goldberg said. "It's not as if those topics are taught now and the tribes want them taught differently. It's more like they are not taught at all."
To ensure scholarly integrity, academic studies undertaken by the San Manuel-funded program will be peer-reviewed within UCLA, Goldberg said, and other elements of the program also will be reviewed regularly by UCLA scholars.
Next week's UCLA conference is being organized with the help of Harvard University's Project on American Indian Economic Development and the National Indian Gaming Assn., a trade group for Indian casinos. The event will bring together tribal leaders and California journalists (including representation from the Los Angeles Times) to discuss topics such as "understanding tribal governments and communities" and "conflicts between state and tribal governments."
Keynote speakers will be the chairmen of the California Nations Indian Gaming Assn. and the National Indian Gaming Assn.
Goldberg said UCLA Law School was an appropriate host for the April 20 conference because many issues the media cover that involve tribes, such as zoning and tax conflicts, are legal matters.
The two-day event is modeled on one staged at Harvard two years ago with New England tribes. Harvard is studying the effects of Indian gambling on tribes and on neighboring communities, and casino-owning tribes across the country have spent more than $140,000 to pay for the the research. Other funding has come from others with gambling interests: contractors to the tribes, such as construction companies, and slot machine distributors.
Last year, the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, owners of an upstate New York casino, endowed a chair at Harvard Law School with a $3-million gift.
Academic giving "takes the sharp edges off those who make money from an activity like gambling," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., which tracks donations to candidates and campaigns by interest groups and industries, including Indian casinos.