Indian Casinos: A lifeline for hard-pressed tribes

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Thirty years ago, the American Indian Movement (AIM) militantly protested the deplorable living conditions of Native Americans and the utter failure of the government to live up to its promises and treaties.

Today, little has changed. Of all the populations in the U.S., Natives suffer from the highest rates of unemployment and incarceration in federal prisons, the lowest life expectancy, and the least adequate education, healthcare, and housing.

These conditions remain the reality for most Native communities. But against the odds and amid a crumbling economy, more tribes are establishing or expanding casinos as one of their few real options. In 2001, 290 gaming operations garnered $12.7 billion in gross revenues, up from $7.9 billion in 1997.

However, of the 560 federally recognized tribes, less than one third have casinos. Their share of gaming revenue nationally is a tiny five percent. State lotteries account for 40 percent of the pie chart, and private casinos 55 percent.

Few resources, fewer choices. Traditionally, Indians have relied on hunting, fishing, agriculture, timber and bartering with neighboring communities to survive. But federal policies have corralled Native Americans onto reservations where they are isolated, without hope, resources or jobs. Pollution, land theft, broken treaties and unfavorable court decisions have devastated traditional livelihoods.

Federal aid doesn’t cut it either. If the Tribes relied solely on Uncle Sam to meet social and economic needs, Indian people would have vanished long ago —which, of course, was the plan.

The great white father would prefer that the poor red man stick to coal and uranium mining or hosting dump sites for toxic waste. Instead, Tribes are exercising their sovereign right to decide their own destiny. And faced with the “choice” of building waste sites or casinos, some are choosing casinos.

It is a sad commentary on the state of the country when casinos are among the few viable business ventures. Not that this writer is against gambling — I’m not. But the majority of customers are workingclass people who spend hard-earned money hoping to hit a jackpot, and few actually do.

Many tribes choose not to open commercial gaming operations. Some are opposed to gambling on religious grounds, like the Navajos, the largest U.S. tribe. For other tribes the financial investment is too risky, or they simply lack the location to attract customers.

Casino profits benefit communities. Given the history of genocidal hostility against Native communities, it’s not surprising that tribes who run successful casinos are drawing fire and bad press from the usual suspects.

Wealthy rural landowners fear casinos will hurt their pristine views. Tavern owners and gaming businesses don’t want Native-owned operations to compete with their god-given customer base. And the media sensationalize stories about a few casinos that may have some corruption.

What they and other naysayers ignore or obfuscate is that the majority of gaming operations are run by tribal governments to benefit their citizens.

The profits are shared in direct payments to tribal members, and/or used to fund social services such as schools, college and vocational programs, housing, elder and youth services, drug treatment, cultural centers, and more. In other words, Indian nations put their profits into the community. Imagine that — a government providing for its citizens!

In comparison, the U.S. government looks bad. State lotteries are supposed to fund schools, yet the educational system is still cash-deprived and deteriorating.

At least the states may try. The mega-casinos of Las Vegas or Atlantic City merely line the pockets of their individual big business owners.

Survival against the odds. Not that casinos are a cure-all. They are more like a tightrope walk that requires tribes to maintain a careful balance between cultural integrity and economic survival. And there is always the risk that casinos might flounder, especially as the gaming market becomes saturated.

As long as Native tribes exist under capitalism, however, survival choices will be limited.

In the meantime, there are several concrete measures that tribes operating casinos can take to guard against economic failure or corruption.

First, tribal governments must be democratically elected and accountable directly to members. This is the only way to ensure that gaming benefits the entire community. Second, and this can be difficult, tribes need to diversify their sources of income and not rely strictly on gaming.

Third, tribes must enact laws that protect their work forces. Employees must have the right to organize on the job. Labor is our best ally in the struggle to protect Native American rights and sovereignty. Both tribes and unions must work to bridge the gap that exists between them.

Our communities are not islands. What Indian people need most are friends who will stand with us. Right now, that includes support for Indian casinos as one means to provide a lifeline for Native tribes.

Debra O’Gara, a tribal attorney and an Alaskan Native, coordinates the Northwest Comrades of Color Caucus of Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party.

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