If Indians want to reap multi-million-dollar profits from casino gambling, they should be required to shed their legal status as societal victims and compete on a level playing field.
Savvy tribes, armed with lawyers and lobbyists, are targeting non-tribal lands in urban areas for casino development. The real estate under siege lies up to hundreds of miles away from a tribe’s reservation, has dubious tribal ties, or no ancestral ties at all. In many cases, Indian tribes now seeking to capitalize on gambling opportunities have been out of existence for decades.
According to a Boston Globe investigation of Indian gambling published last month, a “dizzying number of groups” are stepping forward as so-called tribes — “including one group that the Bureau of Indian Affairs says has submitted altered documents creating Indian ancestors, and two tribes with only one adult member each.” At least 50 new petitions for federal tribal status have been filed in California alone after voters approved Nevada-style slot machines and banked card games exclusively for Indian tribes.
These are the calculated actions of politically powerful individuals in search of a government-protected jackpot — not good-faith efforts by disadvantaged minorities who want to achieve true self-sufficiency.
For all of these players rolling the dice in the Indian casino business, the preferential perks are irresistible. Federally recognized tribes living on reservations are exempt from: state laws restricting gambling; many federal taxes and all state income, sales, and excise taxes; state environmental and land use laws; and state workers’ compensation and occupational health and safety laws. Sovereign immunity also protects them from state laws governing personal injuries, sexual harassment, and contracts.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 allows tribes to acquire off-reservation land and petition the Interior Secretary to place it in federal trust. Entrusted land enjoys most of the same immunities as a real reservation. One of President Clinton’s last acts will likely usher in an unprecedented era of encroachment by Indian casinos into non-Indian territory, where other gambling entrepreneurs are banned.
— California. Last week, Clinton signed an omnibus bill allowing the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians to acquire land underneath an existing card club some 50 miles from the tribe’s home base. The tribe was dissolved under an assimilation plan in the 1950s; members are scattered in Sonoma County wine country. The Casino San Pablo card club sits alongside a busy freeway north of San Francisco — where the tribe has no ancestral claim whatsoever. The tiny 200-member tribe is working with casino conglomerate Ladbroke USA to install up to 2,000 slot machines in the club. The arrangement awaits Gov. Gray Davis’ approval.
— Kansas. Local observers say the Lyttons’ deal could set a precedent for out-of-state tribes — such as the Wyandottes of Oklahoma — who want to open casinos in Kansas even though they haven’t lived there for more than a century. The omnibus bill also grants local descendants of the Shawnee Tribe — which officially went out of existence more than 130 years ago and has no current tribal organization or government — independent status they had sought for almost a decade in pursuit of casino plans.
— New York. The St. Regis Mohawks won federal approval last spring for a $500 million casino in the Catskills — 350 miles from their Hogansburg, N.Y., reservation.
— Washington state. Last week, the 300-member Kalispel tribe opened a lavish casino just outside Spokane — a location that is 65 miles south of its reservation.
— Wisconsin. The state’s Indian tribes already operate 16 casinos, including one off-reservation casino in Milwaukee owned by the Potawatomi tribe, and have proposed nine new off-reservation gaming ventures. The Menominee tribe has set its sights on annexing part of Kenosha — some 200 miles away from its reservation — to build the nation’s third-largest Indian casino.
Democrat and Republican politicians alike publicly protest the gambling explosion, even as they run their own public lotteries, accept large Indian campaign donations, and approve special preferences for tribal casino corporations. No one denies that American Indians were wronged centuries ago. But stacking the deck in favor of a few wealthy tribes that are protected from competition is hardly a just remedy.