Bingo Games on Indian Land: Reviews Mixed

Times Staff Writer

Indian leaders from throughout Southern California told a congressional panel in San Diego on Friday that they can accept federal regulations governing high-stakes bingo games, but that state governments should leave their hands off the games.

They defended their bingo games as being just as legitimate a source of revenue for the reservations as the new California state lottery will be for the state’s schools.

But the bingo games were not without their detractors, including San Diego County Sheriff John Duffy, who expressed concern about Indian bingo being a front for organized crime, and several Indians who complained that they are kept in the dark on the accounting of bingo funds within their own tribes.

Rep. Rick Lehman (D-Fresno), who chaired Friday’s hearing, said afterward that he had not expected to hear as much dissension among Indians over bingo. And while he said he doubted that Indian bingo would fall under any type of state control because of the sovereignty of the reservations, there nonetheless may be a role for state or county law enforcement on the lookout for criminal abuses by bingo operators.

The hearing was conducted for the benefit of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, which is considering two separate bills calling for tighter control of Indian bingo, which now is played free of government regulations.


Reservation bingo is popular among players because of the huge payoffs, sometimes exceeding $20,000. It is played on about 80 reservations throughout the country, including the Barona, Sycuan and Rincon reservations in San Diego County. A fourth local reservation, Viejas, will soon begin offering bingo, a tribal spokesman announced at the hearing.

One of the proposed bills, HR 1920 sponsored by Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.), would require that Indian bingo operations be subjected to annual government audits, that the games be operated by Indians rather than non-Indian managers from off the reservation, and that all profits from the games be earmarked for tribal programs and operations. Indians would be allowed to hire an outside operator--and share with him some of the profits of the games--only with the approval of the Interior secretary.

The second bill, HR 2404 sponsored by Rep. Norman Shumway (R-Stockton), would put Indian bingo under state control and subject it to the same rules and regulations--including limited-size payoffs and hours of operation--as charity bingo games operated by service clubs, churches and other nonprofit groups.

The Indians made it clear they would have nothing to do with such legislation because the financing of a tribal government and its programs is more akin to states conducting lotteries than a neighborhood church raising money.

David Lash, an attorney representing the San Manuel reservation near San Bernardino, said there was a greater issue at stake.

“The issue here is not really the playing of high-stakes bingo. The issue is whether the United States government will fulfill its commitment to those native Americans whose sovereignty has been long recognized,” he said.

“In a story not atypical of tribes throughout North America, the San Manuels were many years ago shunted aside and relegated to virtually valueless land. Driven into the mountains . . . this band has lived peacefully and quietly in its present location for more than 80 years.

“Their reservation consists of approximately 600 acres, 595 of which are located on the side of a mountain. Left with precious little usable flat land, this tribe, and other tribes across the country, must preserve the only valuable asset they have left--the right of self-government and its attendant interests and privileges.”

Virtually every speaker said Udall’s bill was far more acceptable, because it was less of an intrusion into Indian affairs and would add credibility to the game, which has been accused by law enforcement officials of being a source of skimming, money laundering and organized crime interest.

Lehman said after the five-hour hearing that Udall’s bill stood a better chance of being approved by the committee later this year--not only because it has a broad base of support among Indians but because Udall is chairman of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee.

The bill, he said, “has the support of all factions within the tribes. Law enforcement (at state and county levels) is opposed to it because it wants to be able to enforce the laws. But I think we can carve out an amendment so there will be a role for state law enforcement, to help keep organized crime out.”

Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego), who requested the hearing, said after the hearing that the testimony “clearly established the need for national legislation. Everyone agrees there needs to be standards. So now the issue essentially is political--of whether the state or the feds will govern it. I think we will probably favor ourselves.”

Indian bingo flourished across the United States after 1981, when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Florida that if a state regulated but did not altogether ban bingo, then it could not regulate its operation at all on an Indian reservation.

Indians turned to high-stakes bingo because of the lure of employment opportunities and profits for the reservation. The Reagan Administration encouraged the move with its philosophy that Indians should strive to become economically self sufficient and less dependent on federal money.

And while many reservations around the country have prospered with bingo bucks, there have been failures and criticisms from within the Indian ranks.

The Rincon reservation northeast of Escondido has suspended its bingo games and fired the manager because the games have not yet turned even a penny of profit after more than 18 months of play.

And several Barona Indians said Friday that bingo has caused serious dissension on their reservation, near Lakeside.

Vi Murphy, a member of Bates’ advisory committee on Indian affairs, testified: “Barona will long stand as a tragic example of what can happen to the quality of life of the Indian people when greed and lust for easy money override love of tribal lands and reverence for their precious Indian birthright.

“The tribe, which consists largely of two large, extended families, is split down the middle with brother against brother, parents against children and blood against blood” over whether, and how, bingo should be played on the reservation.”

She said negotiations between tribal officials and non-Indian bingo operators were held in secret, “away from the knowledge and scrutiny of the tribe,” and that the resulting contract surrendered control of a portion of the reservation to the management company for 25 years.

She said the tribal council’s decision to sign the contract ran opposed to a tribal document stipulating that matters of land and money be decided by the entire tribe.

Murphy said Indian youths could no longer play basketball at night in the reservation’s gymnasium because it was filled with bingo players, that the hot-meal program for senior citizens on the reservation had to give way to a bingo food concession operation, and that the sewage system at the tribal hall broken down because of heavy usage runoff on the surface.

Only $47,000 in bingo profits have been turned over to the tribe so far this year, she said.

Barona tribal chairman Ed Welsh told the congressmen he would not argue the merits of Murphy’s allegations, but instead talked of how bingo has generated employment on the reservation, $500,000 in direct profits that have been distributed to tribal members since 1983, scholarships to high school graduates who continue their education, and other benefits.

“As a sovereign Indian nation, we believe that we can regulate our own bingo operation,” Welsh said. “We can keep the games clean and can keep our management company honest. We have not let organized crime infiltrate us.

“However, we realize that allegations of wrongdoing are difficult to refute, especially if there is no outside review.” That is why, he said, the tribe supports Udall’s legislation.

During his testimony, Duffy said his office “has the evidence” of organized crime involvement in Indian bingo. “We have had allegations on the Barona reservation, but if a deputy sheriff were actually to see someone stuffing hand fulls of cash into his pocket, it’s none of our business,” Duffy said.

The sheriff also charged the Indians with trying to disguise other gambling operations under the guise of bingo. “They’ve offered bingo horse racing and bingojack which are about as close as you can get to keno and blackjack,” he said. “I suppose the next thing will be a house of prostitution, and we’ll be having bingo prostitution.”