Native Americans and Their Casino Business
Weekly Pulse
July 14-20, 2006
For thousands of years, North and South America was inhabited by what Hollywood movies show as half-naked savages on horseback, wearing long multi-colour feathers around their heads, fighting an “insurgency” against the “forces of freedom” hailing from Christian Europe. Between 15th and 19th centuries, successive waves of European colonisation uprooted most of these “savages” and destroyed their traditions, which were rooted deeply in the land they belonged to.

Call them Red Indians, American Indians or by their specific tribal identities such as Apaches and Aztecs, the Native Americans after undergoing centuries of displacement finally seem to have regained quite a bit of political recognition, if not power, at least in the United States. How? By opting for a business that directly contravenes their traditional values: gambling.

Apart from other things, America is known for gambling at casinos in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. But, sooner or later, most casino gambling revenues in the US will come, not from Las Vegas or Atlantic City, but from the 400 Native American gambling operations now scattered across 30 American states. From the State of Connecticut to Louisiana and Washington States, the $19 billion American Indian casino industry continues to grow.

Even though the city of Las Vegas in the Nevada state continues to attract the largest number of gamblers, mostly from other parts of the US, the American Indian casino ventures situated on reservations and non-reservation lands continue to expand. Reservations are lands which were established after the Native Americans were deprived of their lands by European colonizers.

Indian Reservations

Because the land on which a reservation is located is a Federal territory and Native Americans have limited national sovereignty, establishing a casino on it is legal. There are about 300 Indian reservations in the US, some of them bigger than states like Rhode Island and Delaware. Having re-established their sovereign rights under treaties that often had been broken in the past, leading to economic and social difficulties, most of the Native American tribes have seen gambling as a way out.

Moreover, despite limited sovereignty, the reservations left the Native Americans in poverty. The causes of the poor reservation condition were because of the geographic location of the reservations. They were socially and economically separated from the main population and economic centres. The transfer payments they received from the federal US government did little to ease their discomfort. Therefore, they needed a way out to survive, and investing in the gambling industry is the answer.

Currently, Foxwoods Casino and Resort, run by the Mashantucket-Pequot tribe in Connecticut, is the most successful Native American gaming establishment. Foxwoods opened in 1992 and in that year earned a $300 million profit through roulette, blackjack, and craps. The next year, the tribe negotiated with the Connecticut state for exclusive rights to slot machines.

This particular casino employs 10,000 people, with tribal members being a priority. Regardless of employment, all tribal members receive a portion of the income, up to $50,000 per year. The rest of the profit goes toward bettering the tribal nation. The revenues generated from the casino business are used in dozens of tribal welfare programmes, including homeownership initiatives, tuition assistance for everything from private schools to post-doctorate work, national health insurance for tribal members, and access to top-notch health clinics.

The Native Americans, or the Indigenous Americans —as they prefer to be called these days—constitute only a fraction of the US population, some 4 to 5 million. But their birth rates are high and, therefore, they are one of the fastest growing minorities in the country. They do not have a particular religion, with each tribe following specific traditions. However, as Ines Talamantez, Professor of Native American Traditions at University of California, Santa Barbra, says, all of the Indigenous Americans have this peculiar connection with the earth, and all the beauties of the natural world.

Like most Native Americans, , Prof Talamantez appeared to be quite cynical about the history of Native Americans, especially how they have been dealt with by what she calls “the European settlers” and “Christian missionaries.” According to her, what happened to the indigenous people of North America is nothing but “genocide.”

Rationally Speaking

This may be her personal opinion, reflecting the bitter memories of the lost land. However, rationally speaking, one can argue that the Native Americans may also have gained quite a lot from modernity and freedom that the New World has come to represent, notwithstanding their frequently discussed limitations.

Native Americans are the only known ethnic group in the US requiring a federal permit to practice their religion. The US Eagle Feather Law stipulates that only individuals of certifiable Native American ancestry enrolled in a federally-recognized tribe are legally authorized to obtain eagle feathers for religious and spiritual use.

The Native Americans and non-Native Americans frequently contest the value and validity of the Eagle Feather Law, charging that the law is laden with discriminatory racial preferences and infringes on tribal sovereignty. The law does not allow Native Americans to give the feathers of eagle, the most sacred bird for them, to non-Native Americans, a traditional Native American practice.

It is, therefore, no surprise that, on the issue of gambling, the Native American tribes have different views. Some of them think that expanding the gaming business on the reservations will pollute the environment, in the sense that gambling brings with it vices such as crime and violence. And these are the things that Native Americans hate the most.

Gambling Ventures

Given that, there is now push for establishing the gaming ventures in areas outside the reservations, a trend that tends to upset those who do not like to see the old “savages,” the “Red Indians,” making bucks. However, such factors ay not dissuade the Native Americans from improving upon their existing success stories in the gaming business.

In fact, insofar as the non-reservations casino ventures are concerned, the Cowlitz Tribe in Washington, with financial backing from the Mohegan Tribe in Connecticut, which operates another big casino in this eastern state called Mohegan Sun casino, has proposed building a huge casino in the Washington state. It would be the fifth-largest casino in the country—bigger than the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey, or Bellagio in Las Vegas.

For now, however, the biggest and the oldest of all casinos—especially the ones located in Las Vegas, remain non-Native American casinos in terms of their ownership, management and revenue-generating capacity. Part of the reason is the iconic value that is attached to casinos like Ocean Eleven/Ocean Twelve-fame Bellagio, or Caesars Palace, where Celine Dion made a theatrical performance last year, or Mirage, Bally’s or MGM, known for legendry performances by The Beatles or Frank Sinatra.