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Gambling’s Big Payout for Indians

Native Americans call it the “new buffalo.” Politicians and lobbyists call it the “new milk cow.” But most people just call it Indian gaming.

In California, that’s roughly 15,000 illegal slot machines, assorted card games and high-stakes bingo. They generate perhaps $2 billion in annual gross revenues for 35 tribes, according to Roger Dunstan, a gambling researcher for the state library. Nobody really knows.

It’s being called the “new buffalo,” Dunstan notes in a report on “Gambling in California,” because “it is the single source capable of feeding and clothing the Indians. It has become the one economic development program that has been able to overcome the poor quality and remote location of most of their lands.”

Ask Dan Tucker, 45, chairman of the California Nevada Indian Gaming Assn., and a member of the Sycuan Band of Mission Indians near San Diego. For Sycuans, gaming has been “incredible,” he says. Tribal members have used profits to build 50 houses and a water treatment plant, operate a day-care center and become self-insured medically.

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Recently, they sent an alcoholic member to the Betty Ford Center. “That’s very expensive,” Tucker says. “A few years ago, he would have laid in the street until he was dead. . . .

“My grandparents used to walk 10 miles into El Cajon to pick grapes for $1 a day in the 1920s. They got their water in buckets from the creek. The [government] commodity truck would dump off cans of chicken that dogs wouldn’t eat. Mostly the kids ate chips and candy. Now we’ve got the salads, nourishment.

“I can go into a store and spend $300 on groceries--unlike 10 years ago, when I’d budget $50 for two weeks. I drive a Mercedes and I’m proud of it.

“This is exciting. It’s the American dream. I’ll tell ya this much, we’re not going back.”

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The IGRA [Indian Gaming Regulatory Act] may fairly be said to be the first Indian victory since the Little Bighorn.

--Eugene Christiansen, gambling consultant

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Congress passed the IGRA in 1988 after the Supreme Court ruled in a landmark California case that states could not regulate Indian gaming. The IGRA gave states some control, but reasserted the Indians’ right to operate casinos on their reservations.

Several court suits since then have led to this tangled mess: Indian slot machines are illegal in California, but the state cannot shut them down; only the feds can, and they’re foot-dragging. The slots are illegal because California forbids “banked” games, or Nevada-style betting against the house. Gov. Pete Wilson now is negotiating with the Indians to determine whether they can agree, among other things, on a “non-banked” video slot.

They’re negotiating a “compact"--what once would have been called a treaty--and if they fail, there’s much talk of an initiative war at the next election.

Some Republicans close to Wilson doubt he’ll agree to any compact that expands gambling. He still dreams of the White House and is leery of the religious right.

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Also at play is a separate effort by the Legislature and governor to tighten regulation over non-Indian gambling, specifically card clubs.

That’s why Indian gaming also has propagated the “new milk cow” for politicians and consultants. Many millions have been flowing into campaign coffers and lobbying firms, not only from the Indians but Nevada casinos.

Right now, the Indians are running a $1-million TV ad campaign aimed at California opinion-molders. As an Indian chants in the background, a narrator notes: “We once existed on welfare. No more.”

There’s a lot of jockeying and suspicion. For example, both the Indian Gaming Afssn. and the attorney general last week stopped participating in a Little Hoover Commission study of California gambling. The commissioner pushing the study and the hired consultant each had ties to Nevada casinos and the Indians smelled a setup. The commission denies it.

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That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected.

--Gov. John McDougall in his 1851 State of the State message to the California Legislature.

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“One of the shameful episodes in American history that we still have not dealt with in an open and honest way is the genocide of native Americans,” says Senate leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward). In other words, he says, they probably deserve a break.

Here are some numbers Wilson might factor into his negotiations: There were about 300,000 Native Americans in California when the first illegal immigrants arrived in 1769. By 1900, the Indians numbered only 17,000. They’re still not back to their original size, even with the new buffalo.


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