Did you ever wonder how many Americans are Red Indians? (2.9 millions out of 300+ millions, at last count.) That and much,much more I’ve just learned from “Gambling on nation-building: Tribes are at last becoming sovereign in more than theory, with mixed results,” The Economist, April 5, 2012, pp.43-44. (I’m six weeks into my first subscription and TE makes “Time” and “Newsweek” read like kindergarten primers!)
We learn from a luminous interview (no bylines in this elegant medium) with 82 year old Ronnie Lupe, chairman of the White Mountain Apache since 1964, pontificating on his Arizona reservation about the size of Delaware about his 12,000 tribal members.
He was born in a “wikiup,” a traditional Apache brush wigwam, where he grew up hearing about bloodshed between his forebears and the white man. His tribe’s land is exceptional—their Salt River Canyon is every bit as beautiful as the Grand Canyon—minus the tourists plus endless stretches of ponderosa pines. Mr. Lupe proudly observes their right to fish, hunt, log –and do whatever else they want to do—“on their land.” The only difference is “We now go to war with pens, not bows and arrows.”
That biggest change came in 1975 with Indian Self-Determination Act which authorized the transfer of power from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the tribal governments. Lupe adds that that act was as important as “the Iron Curtain falling down, with apartheid falling apart.” And it made possible the tribal autonomy to enter the gaming business, the biggest economic change of the past century: it began with a Seminole tribe in Florida and the tiny Cabazon Mission Band in Southern California.
The Seminole took their case for a bingo parlor to a federal appeals court and won in 1981. The Cabazon Band opened illegal poker and bingo rooms on their reservation. State police raided them, but in 1987 the Supreme Court decided that “sovereign” tribes could not be barred from running casinos. In 1988 Congress passed a law that explicitly allowed Indian gambling “as long as the proceeds were used to promote ‘tribal economic development’.”
Lupe’s Apaches opened theirs in 1993 called Hon-Dah (Apache for “Welcome!”) TE grimly noted that “it was like most casinos in America, a somewhat depressing place, with people in track suits yanking on slot machines in clouds of cigarette smoke.” (op.cit,p 43). By 2010 almost half of the tribes (229 out of 565) had entered the race, and had raked in $26.7 billions about 44% of total casino revenue. Alas, only a few well placed sites (Cabazon near Palm Springs) made it big: Hon-Dah in the middle of nowhere, zip. Said David Wilkins, a Lumbee and professor of American-Indian Studies at the U. of Minnesota, it was the biggest economic thing for the tribes since the fur trade of the 19th century—when used to build schools, provide health care and so on. But there were complications.
Some tribes like the Hopi consider gambling a vice, and the Navajo repeatedly rejected it in referenda until they succumbed to the revenue! Further, it often reinforced a culture as each Indian agitated for his cut. Indeed often this led to unsavoury aspects of tribal sovereignty : in California alone during one year more than 2500 Indians had been “disenrolled” because they couldn’t pass the quantum blood test! Political enemies or greedy administrators couldn’t be trusted. The outcasts might well lose tribal housing, education, welfare and sometimes cash payments, not to mention loss of identity and isolation from community.
It’s an open question how much general good this Red Casino Capitalism is doing: The 2010 census numbered 28% of Amerinds poor compared with 15% of the entire population:media family income $35,062 versus $50,046.Most Amerinds now live in cities so poverty on the 334 reservations (not all tribes have them) may be worse. Unemployment is horrendous: 80% for the White Mountain Apache Reservation. Alcohol and drug abuse are endemic, as are obesity and diabetes. Justice Department figures on reservation violent crimes are twice the national average. Amerind women are four times likely to be raped as white women and ten times to be murdered.
Chief Lupe considers his tribe still under threat: Over half the elders speak Apache, but only ten percent of the young. Alas, only about 150 languages survive from the days when the European first arrived. (And only three—Dakota, Dene, and Ojibwe) have “viable communities of speakers”. Still and all, as Ojibwe David Treuer assures us with pride in his book “Rez Life”: “We stubbornly continue to exist”. So the next time you lose big at one of their casinos, it’s mostly going to a Good Cause!”