Continental Divide

Casinos have helped make some Indian tribes rich. But what about the many Native Americans who don’t benefit from gambling?

By Eric Nagourney


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A century and a half after a treaty between expansion-hungry white settlers and overpowered tribe members brought it into existence, the Omaha Indian Reservation is a depressing example of what life is like for many Native Americans today.

With an unemployment rate of about 30 percent, more than 40 percent of the families on this Nebraska reservation with about 3,000 people live in poverty. Alcoholism is common. And the prospects of getting a good job are slim. With such a bleak future before them, many of the reservation's young have essentially given up on education, skipping school an average of once a week.

Now consider the members of the Mohegan tribe and their reservation, some 1,200 miles east in southeastern Connecticut. The land is mostly taken up by the Mohegan Sun, one of the largest casino complexes in the world, where about 30,000 people a day come to gamble, dine, watch shows, and stay at its hotels.

The operation, which opened in 1996 and has been expanding ever since, is a gold mine, with annual revenues reported to be $1 billion. When a new 34-floor hotel opened on the reservation, the guests of honor included former President Bill Clinton and Cher. And directly or indirectly, much of the moneyalthough how much, outsiders can only guessis going to the tribe's 1,600 members. Among other things, the money pays for community services like health care and housing and education for all tribe members, right through college and graduate school. "What gaming has allowed the Mohegan to do is to educate their children and care for their elderly," says Charles Bunnell, a spokesman for the tribe.

The Mohegan and Omaha represent the two extremes of Native American life today, which is characterized by both promise and extreme poverty, some 500 years after Europeans and the peoples populating this continent began dealing with one another.

There is little doubt that the 4 million Americans who identify themselves as wholly or partly Indian are becoming more of a power in this country, especially in politics, where money from gambling and other ventures has made some tribes a force to be reckoned with.

Beyond that, some say, there has also been a renewal of interest among Indians in their traditions, a turnabout from the past, when it was government policy to try to erase Indian identity in the name of assimilation. There was a time, for example, when Indian students were forbidden to speak their native tongue. Jessiline Anderson, an Omaha Indian who teaches psychology at the University of Omaha, says that her mother told stories of being disciplined at boarding school when she broke the rule. "We are a product of a generation of people who were made to feel ashamed of who they were," says Anderson, who is 50.

Those rules are a thing of the past, though growing up Indian can still pose special challenges. Ana Kapp, a 16-year-old high school junior in Hampton, Me., who is a member of the Penobscot tribe, says: "When I was young, I was picked on a lot and called names like Pocahontas."

But Kapp has found a way to keep a foot in both worlds, going to a nearby reservation to take part in traditional ceremonies like sweat lodges, but also maintaining friendships with white kids at her school. She values her Indian heritage.

In fact, some Native Americans note with relief, many of the old negative stereotypes, born from decades of cowboy-and-Indian movies, have died out, making it easier for Indians to gain acceptance in the broader culture.

Some sports teams have dropped once-common Indian names, mascots, and symbols that many Indians find offensive, although many professional teams have refused to do so. Explaining the decision to replace his high school's Native American mascot with an eagle, a principal in Omaha, Neb., wrote: "The practice of using Indians as mascots belongs to the same century that required African-American children to use a separate drinking fountain and to sit in the rear of a bus."

SOVEREIGN NATIONS

But new stereotypes have emerged, among them the image of the American Indian made wealthy, even unfairly so, because of the law passed by Congress in 1988 that made it much easier for reservations to open casinos. The law, passed after years of lobbying by Indian tribes who saw gambling as a way to jump-start depressed tribal economies, opens the door for reservations to build casinos, even if their state governments oppose them.

Why are the tribes given that kind of power? From the beginning, European settlers and Indian tribes treated one another as one nation might treat another, and there has been a government-to-government relationship since the United States was formed. In fact, the Constitution gives Congress the power to oversee trade with the Indians as it does for trade with any other nation.

Under federal policies, tribes are recognized as sovereign and are allowed to levy tribal taxes and adopt local laws. There are more than 500 federally recognized Indian tribes, and an estimated 500,000 Native Americans live on reservations, according to 2002 census figures, some in the same places to which their ancestors were forcibly relocated by the U.S. government.

More than 200 tribes now have gambling operations, and some are, indeed, rolling in money, including the Mohegan and the Mashantucket Pequots in Connecticut (owners of the highly successful Foxwoods casino), the Seminole in Florida, and the Pechanga Band of Mission Indians in California.

NEW POLITICAL CLOUT

Drawn by the possibility of becoming rich, some 300 groups of Native Americans (some with only a few members) have taken a renewed interest in their heritage, hiring genealogists to help them win recognition as Indian tribes by the federal government. (The real power behind many of these efforts: powerful, non-Indian investors who also stand to make a fortune from casinos.)

The money generated by gambling has provided jobs to many Indians and given them the kind of political clout that Native Americans could never have imagined as their land and culture disappeared over the centuries. In 2002, Indians made about $7 million in federal campaign donations. More than 80 percent of the money came from tribes with casinos.

But gambling has been no cure-all. For the tribes that do have casinos, they provide some much-needed jobs but not necessarily the foundation for a vibrant tribal economy. And, of course, most tribes have no gambling at all, which means that "Indian Country" is becoming divided between haves and have-nots. "I wouldn't say there's too much of a middle ground," says Jacqueline Johnson, the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.

According to that group, there have been major economic improvements in recent years, but more than a quarter of Indians still live in poverty, lacking roads, bridges, phone service, and even running water and toilets. There are often serious problems with health care and education. On some reservations, unemployment is as high as 80 percent, compared with 5 percent or so for the rest of the country. And with little job training available, and minimal investment money coming in, it is unclear how things will improve.

Says Andrew Huff, a staff attorney with the Indian Law Resource Center, an advocacy group in Washington: "We do need to do a lot more work to move the American understanding of modern Indian reality in a direction that reflects what's actually happening there."

  • Subjects:
    Social Studies
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