This is an article from the November-December 2000 issue: Crossing Boundaries

Games of Chance

Native American tribes roll the dice on their economic future

Games of Chance

Gambling on Indian reservations is expanding as never before. With the recent victories at the polls in California, Indian-run casinos are expected to expand rapidly in that state. Hailed as the economic salvation of Indian tribes, Indian gaming is supported by Indians and non-Indians alike as all concerned struggle with the deep and complex issues of Indian poverty and economic development. While some tribes have benefited from gambling operations, the overall track record of Indian gambling is far from a sure bet to bring lasting economic freedom to the Indian tribes struggling to overcome centuries of oppression, government mismanagement, and economic dependency.

Over the last few years they have been as prevalent as snowflakes in Buffalo in the wintertime. Few Californians could miss the avalanche of TV commercials calling for political support of Indian gambling operations on reservations across the state. Attractive, well-spoken tribal representatives flanked by tribal members made their appeal for economic freedom and justice through Indian "gaming."

The populace at large, armed with little information and even less understanding of the complex issues involved, were ill-equipped to resist these enticing appeals and intelligently decide whether they were really doing the native tribes a favor by voting for Indian gaming.

But California is certainly not the only place where reservation gambling is becoming a very big issue. Casinos are popping up all across the country as many tribes see gaming as an easy solution to the deplorable economic conditions of their people. Controversy abounds as this shapes up to be the next great battle between the native tribes and all the other residents of America.

As Bible-believing Christians, we ought to be especially sensitive to the economic and spiritual toll gambling can take on the lives of gamblers and their families. But as World Christians, with a passion for the Gospel to penetrate Native American tribes, we struggle with the age-old tension of hating the sin while loving the sinner.

The roots of the economic devastation seen on many reservations today can be found in the centuries-old practices of ethnic and cultural cleansing conducted by government and missionary alike, compounded by years of government mismanagement of Native American economic policy. This mismanagement has resulted in a stifling economic dependency that has robbed many Native Americans of the belief and hope that they can change their circumstances through good old fashioned thrift and hard work. They too have been tempted by the lure of the easy "get rich quick" fix of Indian gaming.

Now, out of compassion for the plight of Native Americans (and perhaps some guilt), significant numbers of Americans are supporting these latest efforts at "economic development." Based on the Indian gaming lobby's positive reports distributed in the media, a majority of Americans are accepting the claims that gaming is an easy answer to the myriad of economic problems besetting the Indian tribes. But these assumptions need to be examined carefully to discover the truth hidden behind the scenes of the slick commercials supporting Indian gaming.

Countering the Myths

Not all tribes are doing it and not all Native Americans support Indian gambling. More than two-thirds of all Indian tribes do not participate in Indian gambling at all. A number of tribes, like the Navajo and Hopi Nations, have rejected gaming in a number of referenda (see "The Navajos Bitter Struggle," p. 24.). In 1995, the Hopi Nation's referendum on tribal gaming was rejected by a large margin.

Wayne Taylor, tribal chairman of the Hopi people stated in his testimony before the National Gambling Impact Study Commission that, the road of the Hopi was overwhelmingly against the concept of gaming on Hopi lands....

Our views are stated simply from what we have observed. One need only visit any Indian casino to realize that a significant number of casino patrons are Indian people from the reservations on which the casino is located or from other nearby reservations, including non-gaming reservations.

From this observation it is easy to conclude that Indian people are spending a part, albeit an undefined part, of their financial resources in gaming activities. I believe it is also safe to conclude that most Indian people do not have a surplus disposable income which should be expended on games of chance. Most of our people on most reservations and tribal communities find it difficult enough to accumulate enough income on a monthly basis to meet the most basic needs of their families.

The effects of gaming on the entire tribal culture and society must also be considered. The impact on individual members will always translate into impacts on the overall tribal culture. Indeed, it is not difficult to envision tribal gaming, not only influencing but also becoming a significant part of tribal culture, perhaps even pushing aside in importance other characteristics of tribal culture that have long sustained us and which should be cultivated and nourished.

The Gambling Commission

On June 3, 1996, Congress authorized The National Gambling Impact Study Commission (NGISC) to conduct a comprehensive study of the social and economic impacts of gambling on the social, political and economic institutions of America including the family. This nine-member panel consisted of both gambling interests and social conservatives like Dr. James Dobson (Focus on the Family), and the commission chairman, Kay Cole James. Three of the members came from the Nevada casino business, with one representative of Native American gambling interests. Their final report, issued on June 18, 1999, included the following statistics provided by Dr, James Dobson.

A lopsided payoff. A 1996 government study of 110 tribal gambling operations found that just six of these accounted for 45 percent of the revenue generated by Indian gambling.

"Three hundred miles and a chasm of wealth separate Minnesota's richest casino and the state's largest concentration of Indians," the Minneapolis Star-Tribue stated. On the Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, many poor and old Indians go on foot or wheelchair to pick up free hot meals. Meanwhile, tribal members of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota Reservation are building $900,000 homes. Such is one of many examples of the lopsided payoff from tribal casinos. The Shakopee Dakota Community accounts for only 1 percent of the Indians on Minnesota reservations. The impact of casinos on the Chippewa tribal members at Red Lake is minimal and nearly all customers are Indians, according to the Minnesota Star Tribune.

Unemployment. "Most of Minnesota's 31,000 American Indians on or near reservations have seen only marginal economic gains from gambling," concludes a Minnesota Star Tribune report. Among potential tribal workers in the casino area, 54 percent of 15,500 workers were jobless in 1995. In 1991, before casino expansion, that figure was 57. In Minnesota's tribal casinos, about 71 percent of the jobs belong to non-Indians.

The Oglala Sioux on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota live is the poorest county in the U.S. The tribe has a casino, established in 1995. Unemployment has gone from 73 percent in 1991 to 74 percent after the casino opened. Other reservations, such as the Rosebud, saw unemployment jump from 86 to 95 percent after gambling came.

Addiction. The report also stated that Native Americans on reservations have higher rates of pathological gambling and substance abuse than their non-Native American counterparts.

A North Dakota tribe had a pathological gambling lifetime prevalence of 7.1 percent, compared to 0.8 percent among the Caucasian population.

A study in a rural Northern Plains reservation and neighboring non-Indian communities found Native American adults to have higher rates of both problematic and compulsive gambling. In the non-Native population, 4 percent were found to be problematic gamblers. A full 9.1 percent of plains Indians were problematic. When it comes to pathological gambling, 1.8 percent of non-Natives and 2.8 percent of Natives were found compulsive.

Prior to the introduction of tribal gaming, some 20 percent of the Viejas Kummeyaay Band of East San Diego struggled with drug addiction and alcohol abuse. Now, with gambling on tribal property, the number is up to 25 percent.

Crime on the reservation. A report from Janet Reno to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt reports, "There is a public safety crisis in Indian country." Gang violence, domestic violence and child abuse are also on the rise. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs says that the $130 million the federal government spends on law enforcement in Indian territory should be quadrupled by fiscal year 2003.

Corruption. Corruption on Indian reservations may be exacerbated by the presence of casinos, say critics. Fred Dakota, former tribal chair of Michigan's Kewcenaw Bay Indians, recently was sentenced to two years in prison for taking kicks-backs from a slot machine company. Dakota is known as the father of the tribal gaming for opening up one of the country's first Indian casinos in his two-car garage.

The General Accounting Office (GAO) reported in 1996 that the rapid growth of legalized gambling and the relatively loose regulation of those operations on Indian reservations made the operations susceptible to money laundering.

A revolving door. Since 1995, at least nine former officials with federal agencies that regulate Indian gambling have gone to work for tribes or private companies with interests in tribal gaming. The officials include four former aides to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and two ex-members of the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC). The federal law that specifically attempts to limit the revolving door specifically allows people representing Indian tribes to immediately lobby their old agencies after leaving government.

Manuel Lujan, in his final days as U.S. Interior Department secretary, used his office to help the Mescalero Apache tribe in its efforts to keep an illegal casino open. Lujan went to work for the tribe within a few months after leaving office and represented it in Washington on gaming matters.

A 1993 survey of 27 management deals by the Interior Department found that embezzlement, theft and exorbitant financing and equipment deals were costing 18 tribes $62 million in excessive fees.

Bill Lawrence of Bemidji, Minnesota, a member of the Red Lake band of Chippewas and publisher of the Native Indian Press/Ojibwe News says that the "biggest abusers and exploiters of Indians are other Indian people. You have to pierce the veil; they can't have this absolute control," Lawrence says of tribal leaders. "They've been hiding their criminal conduct behind [the claim of absolute sovereignty] for years."

National Indian Gaming Commission. The NIGC has 6 field investigators and a $4 million budget to cover nearly 280 casinos and bingo halls. It has 33 employees. (The state of New Jersey has 13 casinos and 700 people to regulate them.) According to the Associated Press, "[The NIGC] has drawn sharp criticism from state gaming regulators across the country for advocating on behalf of tribes."

A 1996 GAO report found that less than half of the tribal facilities (110 of 240) that were required to file annual audits with the NIGC actually did so. According to a NIGC report, at the end of 1996, only about 1/4 of the 273 Indian gambling operations were in compliance with all regulations laid down by the NIGC.

Not A Sure Bet

It is clear from the testimony of Indian leaders and the statistical evidence that Indian gambling is far from a sure bet for Native American self-reliance and economic development. The evangelical church has an obligation to help Native Americans overcome the obstacles created by past abuses that have left them in a dependent economic state. We must rise up to help the various tribes develop the skills needed to create good-paying jobs that will build their self-respect as well as a stable future for all the indigenous peoples of America. This is part of the task of bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to them.

Rick Wood has served as the managing editor for Mission Frontiers since 1990 and is a graduate of Western Baptist Seminary in Portland Oregon.


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