Armenian supporters skeptical of ties between Turkey, Indian tribes

12/09/2011 3:45 PM

12/09/2011 4:03 PM

WASHINGTON — The perennial political fighting between Armenian-Americans and Turkey has migrated to Indian country.

In a diplomatically creative but controversial move, Turkey wants preferential access to start commercial ventures on selected U.S. tribal lands. In theory, tribes would get business and Turkey would gain friends.

"We're trying to build bridges with other communities," G. Lincoln McCurdy, the president of the Turkish Coalition of America, said in an interview. "If this works, it would be good for everybody."

But not everybody thinks so. Lawmakers in states with large Armenian-American populations, such as California and New Jersey, think a legislative proposal that's now before the House of Representatives extends an undeserved favor to a country still associated with a long-ago slaughter.

"We could not let that pass ... without some acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said Friday.

The bill in question would allow six Indian tribes to lease land to Turkish companies without securing the usual, often time-consuming Bureau of Indian Affairs approvals. The tribes would be selected competitively by the Interior Department, and would develop their own guidelines for leasing land him.

In this Capitol Hill fight, regional loyalties and ethnic politics could matter more than party lines.

When the House Natural Resources Committee approved the legislation Nov. 17 on a 27-15 vote, Costa and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., united in opposition. The Democrat and the Republican represent portions of California's Central Valley, which is heavily populated by Armenian-Americans.

On the other side, bill supporter Republican Rep. Don Young is a longtime champion of his home state's Alaska Natives. The bill's author, conservative Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., is a member of the Chickasaw. Another supporter, liberal Democratic Rep. Jay Inslee of Washington state, is running for governor in that state, which is home to 103,000 American Indians.

Like much that happens on Capitol Hill, the bill dubbed the Indian Tribal Trade and Investment Demonstration Project Act of 2011 rides atop multiple motives. It now goes to the full House for a vote.

"It definitely broadens (Turkey's) political base," McCurdy said, "and it increases the opportunity for Turkish companies to establish operations in this country."

A broader political base, in turn, could aid Turkey in recurring Capitol Hill conflicts with Armenian-Americans. In raw population, Armenian-Americans widely outnumber Turkish-Americans. Turkey, though, enjoys considerable high-level clout as an important NATO country.

Nearly every year, these competing forces are on display as lawmakers press for an Armenian genocide resolution that takes note of the massacres that took place during the Ottoman Empire's dying days. The resolution routinely fails but keeps coming back; this year's version has 84 House co-sponsors.

It's in this context that the Native American investment bill reflects Turkey's cultivation of tribes.

Over the past two years, Turkey has sponsored a number of visits by Indian leaders. In November 2010, for instance, it hosted some 20 Native Americans for a week, including representatives of Idaho's Coeur d'Alene Tribe and Washington state's Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

"This is the first foreign country that has shown interest in investing with — cooperation with — a tribe to improve their economic lot," Young said at the House committee hearing Nov. 17.

In a similar vein, Turkish universities sponsor scholarships for Native American students, and Turkish officials have met with Indian leaders in Los Angeles and Seattle. Last March, a top Turkish Trade Ministry official became the first foreign representative to speak at an annual Las Vegas conference on Native American economic development.

"I have no idea why they're being so nice to Native Americans," Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said during the House hearing. "I'm sure there's some bad underlying reason or something that they're trying to gain."

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