Casinos: Is Gaming the 'New Buffalo'?

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Spotlights form a tipi of light, visible for many miles above the Mystic Lake Casino, operated by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota (Sioux) of Prior Lake, just 20 minutes south of the Twin Cities, in Minnesota. The second-best Indian casino moneymaker in the U.S. (after the Pequots' Foxwoods), it was one of the first to get started. It began in 6 trailers on Shakopee Reservation land, named "Little Six" a reference to the band's 19th century Dakota leader Shakopee, whose name means "LIttle Six" in Dakota. The enterprise has been so successful that there is now a Little Six casino building, overshadowed by the fancier, larger Mystic Lake casino, which runs shuttlebusses from the nearby metropolitan area, and draws thousands of tour groups. Also shown: an Isleta, New Mexico casino chip -- complete with the traditional Isleta tribal seal of Great Eagle surrounded by feathers.

Gambling is big biz -- close to $400 billion a year and growing. Americans outspend all their other forms of entertainment and self-education put together on gambling.

Although Indian tribal casinos have received the most attention, criticism, and jealousy, on the right -- from 1996 federal statistics -- is who's making money from it. There are some 557 federally recognized reservations. About 33% do have some form of commercial gaming now, and 29% more hope to. But many -- on reservations far from population centers and with nothing in particular to attract tourists -- are not successful. For those who are, though, it is just about the only business success story that Indian reservations have ever had.

But for monetary benefits to average tribal members, casinos are most beneficial to very small tribes, fairly close to major urban areas or areas already well-developed for extensive tourism. A very successful casino whose revenues are looked to by a tribe with 33,000 members to make up a deficit of centuries of poverty is not going to go anywhere near so far as the same type of casino will to satisfy a tribe with only 300 members. And that -- the small remnant tribe fairly near major urban areas -- is the type whose casinos tend to be scoring the biggest. The larger tribes were put into remote outback concentration camps -- far from land the white settlers wanted for anything. Hard to get there, and nothing very attractive is around for tourists anyway.

On the darker side is internal factionalism, accusations of corruption and theft, claims of rising rez crime rates. But hey, folks, that's an old story, as old as the conquest and U.S. governmental management of conquered peoples by corruption, encouraging and promoting corrupt and compliant little puppet colonial tribal governments. Traditional, you might say, because that's the way the U.S. government always ran tribes -- through corrupt puppet governments, whenever they could maintain them, and agencies loaded internally with governmental ripoffs centering on Indian land and Indian treaty payments. Check out the present situation:

So this darker side is nothing new. Recent federal criminal convictions of Minnesota White Earth Ojibwe reservation leaders for tribal government corruption involving casino money could find a few echoes, too, in the recent past: other tribal leaders convicted for corruptions involving collusion with developers ripping off land and resources on their own reservations -- the old tradition is of robbery of Indian peoples by government sponsorship and selected cooperative crooked tribal leadership. Decrying this -- when it happens with casino money -- is failing to observe that these newer crooks are just acting the way the U.S. government spent 2 centuries training them to. (Not that this makes it right, of course. But call a spade a spade; put the blame where it belongs.)

Nevertheless, let's take a look at one internal struggle -- at Keweenaw Bay (L'Anse), the largest reservation-tribe in Michigan.That one's been going on since 1993 or so, with AIM leaders and friends occasionally tripping over there to show support for the tribal group that's seeking justice. Here's the official tribal website, not a hint of any of this ruffles the slick pro-designed surface:

So there's some food for thought we can all chew on thoughtfully. That bit about ex post facto disenrollments, for example. National sovereignty doesn't say you can do that. National sovereignty seems to say (internationally) that if you happen to have a lotta guys your government doesn't like, you can't kick 'em out of your (and their) country -- although they might choose to leave. Or in many dictatorships, the government might choose to kill 'em of course, seems to have been kind of moving along toward those lines at L'Anse. But now there's indictments, so we'll see. . .

Casinos are an outgrowth of sovereignty of Native Nations, acknowledged by the courts after decades of Indian activism and litigations. The occupation of Alcatraz Island (1969-71), and especially the national publicity about the AIM occupation of Wounded Knee (1973) created through press coverage a climate of knowledge of the history of thefts and genocides and about what Indian living conditions were like. In this more favorable public knowledge, Native nations' court litigations (that generally included sovereignty as derived from treaty rights) was finally acknowledged by the U.S. courts, and more importantly, by government actions.

Sovereignty means that Native Nations can establish their own laws to regulate their citizens (tribal members) and actions done upon their own national lands, as all nations do. A state that outlaws gaming for its citizens cannot -- theoretically -- prohibit it for tribal national land that happens to lie within the state's boundary. That's where tribal casino success comes from: ability to satisfy what's evidently a non-Indian entertainment desire in areas where states prohibit it.

Web pages -- put up by tribes -- are beginning to advertise casino and related tourist services (many -- perhaps most -- of which grew out of investing casino revenues), and more importantly, to explain to a public often hostile to the idea of Indian casinos just why they have become so important to many tribes. The links below are a beginning. . . .

Rez Casinos: Statewide Guide How many Indian casinos are there, and where are they? There are more than you can score on this slot-machine list by states. They're missing a large number of tribal casinos from several states. The biggest casinos listed in states that already allowed non-Indian gaming -- Nevada, New Jersey -- are not Indian. Listings here have only location and contact phones. Tribes are not named.

New Mexico Pueblo Tribes are almost the only ones so far to show and tell in detail on the web what gaming revenues (and jobs!) mean to them, as 7 Pueblo tribes do here. It means jobs for tribal members (that can flexible to study and education requirements), food and medical care for elders, decent housing for on-reservation tribal members, rehabilitation and conservation efforts on despoiled remaining tribal land, and buy-back of bigger land bases. Each tribe explains -- and shows -- these things happening. Nearly every tribe that has a successful casino could tell similar stories. Not all are successful.

  • Isleta Pueblo Casino Palace elsewhere does a hard-sell ad for its casino, and as the balloon indicates, Isleta uses other media to advertise its games. At the top of the hard-sell, though, you'll find access to documents -- about problems of the New Mexico Native people in gaining their federally and legally guaranteed rights -- and state threats to close down Isleta and all the others.

Oneida Nation's Turning Stone Casino (Vernon, NY) web page has become more of a hardsell on it and other tourist services such as their RV Park, the hotel, its classy (Sapphire) restaurant that serves buffaloburger quesadillas. Oneida's casino website is part of a prizewinning beautiful and informative site -- which the casino money helped to build. Unilke most other tribal websites, Oneida runs their own network and webserver. Turning Stone, their casino's name, is a sort of verbal pun based on the linguistic meaning of their own self-name: People of the Standing Stone. Looking at ads (even for Indian casinos) is something of a bore, but the rest of the site is highly recommended, and this casino ad tells more than most about what's offered. Coming soon: descriptions of other resort facilities. Most recent addition to the cultural education portion: Lacrosse as a traditional and modern Indian sport. Also at Oneida: contents of all the treaties made by the U.S. -- England, and France also made treaties -- with the Haudenosee (Iroquois League, the first United Nations), to which Oneidas belong. Treaties with Native Nations are a major proof in international law of their sovereignty and national status.

The paragraph below, written in 1996, refers to an unofficial website for the Wisconsin Oneida Casino. An official website for the Oneida Bingo & Casino is now available.

  • Oneida (Wisconsin) Bingo A content-poor and rather ugly website done for the much larger, richer Wisconsin Oneidas by a talentless and unskilled contractor, possibly Somebody's relative.

Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, (Warm Springs, Oregon) has a rather average casino ad page -- but it leads to a website richly informative about history, culture, environmental issues, tribal current events, and activities.

GAMING: the New Buffalo A magazine for professionals and casino owners in the gaming industry takes note of Indian casinos. Gambling revenues from Indian casinos are comparatively small potatoes to the MBA Godfather Guys, as the above graph shows.

Gambling on a New Life is Midwest Magazine's 1995 close look at the more human side of the Indian casino phenomenon, with tribal people totting up minuses as well as plusses for the reporter.

Indian Gambling: Profit, Prayer or Prophecy? Anthro with a book bound to impress your college NA Studies prof in those term papers on Indian gaming many are writing. It's traditional, oh yes.

American Indian Gambling and Casino Info Center Sponsored by the National Indian Gaming Association, who, among other activities, function as intertribal lobbyists based in Washington. Plain vanilla text presentations of many myths, facts, and historical background of modern Indian gaming.

  • Ada Deer, Menominee head of the BIA speaks up in a short text-file about the realities of Indian gaming

  • National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling -- and here's an organized expression of what tribes are up against. Indian casinos get little specific mention, but ours -- not the mafioso biggies, or state lotteries -- are their real targets.

    And sometimes you get problems with your, er, friends:

  • GAMBLING Spawns New Kind of Crime tsk-tsks the supposedly liberal Minneapolis Star-Tribune.   Apparently Strib reporters have no knowledge of hundreds of years of old kindsa crimes -- embezzlement's an oldie but goodie, stock and bonds frauds, government-tolerated ripoffs (internally) of banks by their top execs, etc. Tactfully, I don't mention land frauds. And . . . the Strib thinks it's Ironic to sell pulltabs to fight gambling compulsion. What I find ironical in this story is the dude with that "fight the gambling compulsion" game's a total hype, obviously. Check those salaries! But white men are used to getting high pay for that kind of thing. Keeps the dude himself off the streets and (for the time being) out of politics. Probably worth every penny.

  • Mystic Lake's such a fat target -- Here's Scott County holding 'em up again (despite being paid millions for alleged extra-cost policing services caused by the casino's being there, and adding about $50,000,000 in payroll and more than that in tax revenues to the county). The county is gonna set up these toll barriers on its roads, and make drivers pay to reach the casino. WCCO-TV doesn't think that's blackmail or anything. Should the casino pay for it? Or should drivers using the public roads be charged. And those guys from the tribe saying outrageous, we won't pay. Ho-hum, light evening newsbreak. Me, I remember how those rutted old dirt roads back there were before   there were any casinos there. When nobody but the occasional Indian wanted to go there, the county had no money to pave or snowplow them. Hub deep in mud, break your car's oil pan, filled winters with snow. The casino -- the tribe -- has paid for those services -- decent paved roads usually kept clear -- a dozen times over, those same services all the suburbs and real estate developers get automatically. They set up no toll barriers to the "World's largest shopping mall" -- and they built close to a billion dollars worth of highways to get traffic in and out. When it's Indians, it's different, though. You pay for it 10 times over, then they hold you up for some more. "Highwaymen" is old English slang for road-robbers. Highwaymen at work here.

Seminole Tribe v. Florida, U.S. Supreme Court Decision. Florida -- like some other states -- has refused to follow federal law and negotiate in good faith for a Gaming Compact, required for tribal casino operations. A lawyer for various tribes and Gaming commissions has posted an analysis of that decision ("Could be the Victory that Lost the War") and many other interesting documents relating to gaming law on his lawfirm's website -- Building Your Tribal Gaming Commission has many useful ideas and a checklist. After sort-of winning a Supreme Court case where the victory didn't force the state to move, the Florida Seminoles get innovative in gaming.

Seminole Emperess recently (fall, 1996) launched and christened by Miss Seminole Princess with a giant magum of fine French champagne bashed on the bows is a joint venture of the Seminole Tribe and Emperess Cruise Line. Launched in the fall of 1996, the ship will run cruises to Cancun, Mexico, while the tribe will run a luxury casino aboard, which is expected to be a major cruise passenger draw. Now that's some navy! If you're blocked on land (see article on Supreme Court Seminole Decision), go to sea! Story is from the Seminole Tribune on the tribe's interesting and informative website.

San Manuel Mission Reservation Serrano tribe near San Bernadino, CA, has a good presentation of history and law regarding their own bingo parlor (there's an ad for this, too) including a clear discussion of the legal basis of sovereignty in relation to casinos.

Jackpot Junction Minnesota's Lower Sioux (Mdewaklanton Dakota) tribe has a very   slick set of pages for its casino, that really gets the job done: features, tours, hotel, job openings, really clear map -- but also provides several pages of history, cultural info, and where the tribe is at today. Far less content in comparison to what the NY Oneidas and the Florida Seminoles and others have done, but a very classy presentation. People merely looking for a gaming vacation spot won't likely educate themselves with the Seminoles or Oneidas -- but they might   page the brief, shallow Mdewakanton backgrounders, education for the short-attention span TV channel-changer types.

California-Nevada Gaming Association has a few paragraphs describing a handful of small casinos languishing in Godfather Country, and some in California (that the state is trying to shut down).

Assignment 5 (Gambling on Indian Reservations) is a handsome and well-researched term paper by a Berkeley business student who graduated June, 1996, so the paper -- was removed a few days after I linked it here. I complained to the University of California webmaster. He said the University of California ,Berkeley, with (I am reliably informed) more than 1900 webservers on campus didn't have drive space   to keep up a fine paper by a Third World woman, about a topic of urgent interest to Indian people. He re-posted it briefly, I downloaded it to my 280 megs hard drive, and passed it over to the 1 gig webserver drive on Fond du Lac webserver. Isn't it nice to know that Indian people somehow have more resources than a huge, rich California University? Or something. 1/18/97

A Modern Small-Pox for Reserves and Reservations thinks Clay Akwienzie, Cape Croker Saugeen Reserve (Ontario, Canada) Ojibwe, presently studying in the U.S. at Stanford. (Of course right now, few Canadian tribes are in position to cash in on gaming. Sour grapes, Clay?) Akwienzie details factionalism, creation of rich and poor classes (ins and outs) on-reservation, rising crime, and actual internal civil wars -- over who will control the loot. His title compares the economic lures of gaming to the invaders' use of disease-infested attractive trade and gift blankets to infect Indian tribes -- the earliest form of biological warfare. It is cultural, not physical, genocide Akwienzie fears from Native involvement with this traditionally sleazy, always lucrative business that every country throughout history has considered a vice. Well, it's the only biz tribes have been allowed   to succeed in, and virtually everyone acknowledges that a major attraction of Indian casinos is that they are clean entertainment -- no hordes of hookers, etc.

Saskatchewan Casinos. Well Clay, Here It Comes. Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Association, newly formed, and 4 casinos -- pretty classy-looking from their ads -- started by 4 Saskatchewan/Treaty 6 area tribes right at the end of 1996. Will it be Katy Bar the Door, as the money pours in, or are these rather remote locations not going to support much action, the way it is for some of the neediest, largest tribes in the U.S.?

Gaming Law in Ontario Well, well, those (white) Canadians are trying to figure how to cash in on the bonanza -- not anticipating giving First Nations any kind of breaks in the as yet unborn gaming industry there, where there's quite a loty of population.

Machines vs. Traditional Forms of Gambling Sam Ridgebear (tribe unidentified) writes in the San Francisco State Many (Indian) Voices that maybe Indian people and casino customers would be better off -- closer to nature or something -- if they ran moccasin game casinos or something (I couldn't quite figure this guy out).

Foxwoods, the Mashantucket casino is said to be the most successful in revenues -- the biggest moneymaker -- in the western hemisphere. Its reservation population is 71; its total tribal enrollment (including kids) around 300. With all the income, this tribe has done a surprisingly poor job on a contentless (but pretty) web page, mostly huckstering a crafts store and touting "the largest Native American owned museum" that's being built now though one wonders what'll be in it. Most of the info about Foxwoods and the tribe comes from others -- tourist services, wide-eyed visitors, and an 8-part investigative series by the Hartford Courant, a Connecticut daily newspaper. They report on how the Pequot tribe got itself together, and what seems an extremely unlikely fairy-godfather-story of how kindly Malaysian gambling investors provided hundreds of millions for Foxwoods' startup a world away. A modern Cinderella tale.

    Foxwoods Reporter for Connecticut tourist service web page publication visits the casino with a friendly guide who's apparently not native. He's impressed. It's b - i - g.

    India-Indian Lady visits Foxwoods with friendly non-native tour guide. She's impressed: only 67 Pequots sshare all this money. Living it up somewhere else, she guesses. Well, there's this Maylaysian investment syndicate that financed the whole thing -- they get most of the payoff, see. Whoever they are.

    $57 million October slots payoff -- not to one guy, of course! This gives some idea of Foxwoods' business volume.

    Theatrical lighting company waxes techno-breathless over what's probably its largest-ever contract: lighting the new multi-million-dollar Foxwoods theater.

    And here's a biz hoping to cash in advertising fancy slots and other "products for your Indian casino." How nice to be sought-after by advertisers. . .

Wyandot (Huron) Tribe of Kansas (petitioning for but not received federal recognition) faces a grim contest with relatives Wyandotte Tribe from Oklahoma (federally recognized). Seems the Okies want to return to KC and build a casino on some Wyandot burial grounds there, claiming Okie-Wyandotte Indian national status for for the cemetery land, in virtue of the ancestral bones they'll dig up for the casino parking lot. The Kansas Wyandots -- who actually respect their relatives buried in the Huron Cemetery -- don't want the Okie Wyandottes to do it. The skull comes from the Kansas Wyandot Tribe's "Java Curse" page that uses as a curse an epitaph from a tombstone in that cemetery the upstart Okie Wyandotte moneymen wanna build a casino on. Must be very spiritual types, those Okie Wyandottes. My own curse on 'em: MAY SOME NUAGERS ADOPT YA AND START TEACHIN' YA THEIR SPIRICHUL KNOWLEDGE OF INDIAN -- AH, NATIVE AMMURRCAN -- WAYS.

Possible future competition for casinos? I found a relatively new on-line game -- Bingozone that offers 3-card bingo -- no charge to play -- every 20 minutes. There's an elaborate (one-time) registration procedure and they say they'll mail cash prizes if you win. They say they're supported by their on-line advertisers, don't have to charge play fees. Bingozone rapidly became so popular (the programming to play is pretty good) it's spawned a fan club that even shows you the screen graphics you'll see if you win. Naturally I emailed them and asked "What about the money?" Then there's Virtual Vegas, On-Line Casino been around two years or so, said to be some kind of off-shore real money option where you pay to play using credit cards to buy virtual cash. Minnesota's Attorney General got so upset about on-line gambling he's ranting around threatening to confiscate home computers used for it. On-line gaming doesn't have the casino atmosphere, but how important is that? If millions of people could for very low cost engage in on-line gaming of all types, for real money prizes, from their homes, would this cut into casino tourism? Well, "The Check is in the Mail," doesn't really have that appeal of the flashing spotlights, bells, sirens, that herald winning big casino-style, to be sure.Then too the fan club webmaster responded he's played about 1,000 bingoes there and won twice -- receiving checks promptly, for about $3. Works out to earnings of about $0.006 less than a penny per hour, I figure. Casinos don't gotta worry about web gaming competition for a while.

That's it for now. I found dozens more Indian casino web pages but they were either extremely dull ads with no educational or aesthetic value (and not much good even as ads) by incompetent web design contractors. Or else they're huckstering write-ups by tourist services who hope to Take You There. Yep, the New Buffalo are really sheep, white sheep, in for the shearing . . . Yum nummies! A delightful and happy change! Who in their right minds will not prefer the "problems of the rich" to those of the poor: robbed, exploited, forgotten?

Where is it all heading? Can the phenomenon of unusual financial success last? No one that I know in Indian Country believes it can last much longer. (I tend not to know Big Shots.) Some, who belong to tribes whose crooked governments and their white partners-in-ripoff absorb whatever casino profits there are, don't care if it does or doesn't. Other tribes plan carefully, invest cleverly, try to buy back lost land, educate their kids, and hope for the future.

Meanwhile, in Washington, federal budget cuts continue to decimate Indian education programs, Indian healthcare, housing, and all other programs. Well, aren't they all rich from those casinos, anyway? No. On balance, the public perceptions of Indian gaming have been politically and economically harmful to the recent attempts, giving tribes more direct control of programs that affect them -- to pull out of centuries of devastation and ferociously-enforced poverty -- by just that (false) reasoning: Hey, they all got rich from those casinos.

White Earth Ojibwe Moccasin Game Gambling Songs

Sung by Gagandac (One Whose Sails Are Driven by the Wind)


I have come after it
Your stake
You good players

Sung by Nitamigabo (Leader Standing)


I will go home
If I lose
To get more things
To bet

Recorded in 1900 by Frances Densmore, at a moccasin game; Chippewa Music, Ross and Haines Old Books, Minneapolis: 1970. The moccasin game is played by hiding a marked bone or bullet among several unmarked ones with a lot of shifty switching around under the moc soles. Songs sung to a distinctive hard 1-2 drumbeat are boasts, confusions of the opposition, and when the players know their language well enough to think quickly in it, improvised joking songs. Side-betting spectators become highly involved and excited by the contest. A tape comparing Densmore's old recordings and modern Ojibwe songs (including a moccasin game as well as powwow dancing music) and booklet are available from the Minnesota Historical Society. Yep, "Never criticize someone till you've walked -- or gambled -- a mile in their moccasins." -- Old Indian saying I just modified, here.


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CREDITS: Little photo of Mystic Lake Casino is copped from the slow-loading Minnesota Indian Gaming commission web page. I animated the spotlights but no amount of PhotoShop sharpening, contrasting could improve it. The animated star was adapted from a graphics company that's selling a CDROM of animations for web pages. The star isn't actually one of their freebies -- it's on their company web page. But since they stole my (copyrighted) Native Astronomy background tile of little fuzzy stars, I felt no compunctions about stealing their flashy star they'd scattered over my fuzzy stars. I improved the star so it's a smaller, faster-loading. I did the graph, from figures published near the end of 1995 by the U.S. General Accounting Office. The Isleta Gaming Palace's hot air balloon is from their casino ad web page. The launch of the Seminole Empress is from a Seminole Tribune (web version) story. The Foxwoods photo is from a tourist agency web service reporting on eastern Connecticut. But the photo was most probably supplied to them by the Foxwoods casino. The revolving skull is from Dennis English's Wyandot Tribe "Java Curse" page. With Yves Pinguet's nifty freeware GifBuilder 0.4 (Mac only) I reduced its filesize from 45 to 17K. The red beaded moosehide moccasins are by a Lakota refugee woman who came to Canada, the Treaty 7 (Alberta) area, after the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, along with many other Lakota who fled the U.S. Army and bounty hunters. The photo is from the Glenbow Museum, Alberta.

Page prepared by Paula Giese.Text and graphics copyright 1996, 1997

Last updated: 1/18/97