Casinos: The Path to Sovereignty or The Road to Destruction?

April 7th, 2012  |  Published in Business  | 

Gambling On Nation-Building, The Economist

HAN-DAH White Mountain Apache Casino. Photo credit: Snowflake News.

O’siyo. The question of sovereignty is still unclear for many tribes. Sovereignty appears to be based on several factors. The strongest being the foundation of an efficient tribal government. The next factor is one of economics. Does the tribe have enough money to support its members? Naturally, this is where casinos come into the picture. This article explores this issue of sovereignty, tribal government, and the effects gaming  has on some Indian tribes. Excerpt:

“Meeting  Ronnie Lupe, the chairman of the White Mountain Apache tribe, is rather like an audience with the chieftain he would once have been. At 82 he has a sage’s bearing, takes his time speaking and does not allow himself to be interrupted… Mr Lupe has been in tribal government, off and on, since 1964. His career thus spans several historic changes for Indian tribes, each of which affirmed and increased their sovereignty…That sovereignty is still a topic of discussion at all should be surprising… America’s constitution names three sovereigns: the federal government, states and tribes…The biggest step towards de facto sovereignty came in 1975, with the Indian Self-Determination Act. It began the transfer of administration from the BIA to the tribal governments…It also made possible the biggest economic change of the past century, the entry of tribes into the gaming business.

This began with the Seminole tribe in Florida and the Cabazon Mission Band of Indians, a tiny tribe in southern California. The Seminole took their case for running a bingo parlour to a federal appeals court, and won it in 1981.Soon tribes all over the country built casinos. Mr Lupe’s Apache opened theirs in 1993. Called Hon-Dah (“Welcome” in Apache), it is, like most casinos in America, a somewhat depressing place, with people in track suits yanking on slot machines in clouds of cigarette smoke.Almost half of the tribes—239 out of the 565—are now at it. A few, including the Cabazon Band, are rolling in money, whereas others make hardly anything. The key, not surprisingly, is location. Casinos on reservations near cities (the Cabazon are near Palm Springs) get many customers, whereas those in the middle of nowhere (the majority, like Hon-Dah) get few.

For the tribes with lucrative casinos, gambling has become the biggest thing since the fur trade of the 19th century… When the proceeds are used wisely—to build schools, provide health care, and so forth—gambling can indeed help with tribal nation-building…But casinos also bring problems. Some tribes consider gambling a vice. This is why the Hopi, for instance, have rejected gambling, and why the Navajo repeatedly voted against it in referendums before grudgingly accepting it for the revenues… Indirectly the casinos have also highlighted some bizarre, sometimes unsavoury, aspects of tribal sovereignty. One of the biggest problems has always been deciding who is or is not a member. Most tribes do this with blood-quantum laws…The motive is to share gambling revenues among fewer members. For the outcasts, this can mean losing tribal housing, education, welfare and sometimes cash payments, not to mention identity and community.

The biggest factor, says Mr Begay, is the government institutions tribes have chosen to build since then. Is their administration efficient? Are the courts clean, fair and strong? When it comes to governance, American Indians are still all too likely to make news of the wrong sort… The bigger question is whether sovereignty in general and gambling in particular have, on balance, improved the lot of tribes…”

Read the article in its entirety and share your thoughts with us.

“When I was first elected, I received no financial reports, no letters, they all went… to a branch of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), … Over the years I took their power away…I’m not responsible to you, I’m a sovereign nation.” ~ Ronnie Lupe~  Chairman, White Mountain Apache.

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