American Indians see legal gambling as the means to a new prosperity

April 04, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When Jeri Beerntsen stopped at the Oneida One Stop, it wasn't to pick up a gallon of milk, fill her car with gas or buy a carton of cut-rate cigarettes. Like dozens of others, she stood before a bank of whistling slot machines, pumping quarters into one, then two Triple 7 Red White & Blue models. Eyes fixed, she waited for luck to ring out. Again.

The one-armed bandits had spit 40 quarters back to Mrs. Beerntsen, her pocketbook slung on her wrist, "but they're all back in the machine," she said.

It's hardly Las Vegas glitz, but on this snowy Friday night, the Beerntsens are helping fuel a $5 billion dollar industry that is pumping ready cash into the hands of the nation's poorest natives, American Indians. In tribal-owned convenience stores and casino palaces, gamblers are revitalizing sovereign nations that traditionally have suffered greater health problems and higher unemployment rates than their fellow Americans.

And, in the process, they are bankrolling projects from tribal schools to first-rate hotels in such far-flung places as Anacortes, Wash., and Okechobee, Fla.

"Many tribes across the country are experiencing 80-to-90-percent unemployment," says Deborah J. Doxtator, a leader with the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin. "They have pleaded with the federal government [to provide economic development plans]. None of those previous plans have ever worked. But gaming has."

And now, the very success of those ventures has states clamoring for a piece of the action.

When a federal mediator sided with Indians in a dispute over gaming in Arizona, the governor pushed through a law to ban casino gambling statewide. To protect its interest, the Mashantucket Pequot tribe in Connecticut offered the cash-poor state $100 million of its gambling revenue as community aid.

The national debate is reflected here in Wisconsin, where voters will cast ballots Tuesday on a state constitutional amendment that would restrict gambling to the state-run lottery, bingo operations, raffles and pari-mutuel betting.

If passed, the amendment could restrict Indian gaming in Wisconsin in the future. Also on the ballot are five advisory referendum questions that involve gambling on everything from video poker machines to snowmobile races.

Such moves by states "are not only eroding the sovereignty of the tribes but the economic longevity of tribes," said Charles Keechi, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association and chief of the Delaware nation of Oklahoma.

New economic freedom

Since 1980, when a Florida court ruled the state could not ban bingo on the Seminole Indians' reservation, Indian gaming has flourished. Under the 1988 federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, gambling is permitted on Indian reservations only when it already exists within a state. However, Indian tribes that want to offer Las Vegas-style gaming must enter into a compact with a state that provides for operation and regulation of such games.

Indian gaming has become the fastest growing segment of the nation's gambling industry -- although it still draws only 2 percent of gaming revenue generated in the country. Currently, at least 53 tribes in 17 states operate casino-style gaming such as electronic slots, poker, roulette or blackjack and high-stakes bingo games. Some tribes have considered buying land in other states and building lucrative casino operations there.

Troubles began in 1991 when several states refused to negotiate with tribes that wanted to offer gaming. Lawsuits were filed by one side, then another. When court decisions didn't go their way, several states held referendums or outlawed gambling on their own.

The National Governors' Association has entered the feud, last month pressing Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to restrict Indian tribes to the kind of gambling permitted in each state. And last Friday, the group's chairman, Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat, told a congressional committee that gambling is "a fundamental issue for the citizens of a state to decide."

With their own legions of lawyers, tribal chiefs have defended their new-found economic freedom, arguing that reservations and neighboring communities would lose financially if gaming is restricted.

In Wisconsin, the amount of money dropped at the state's 15 Indian gaming casinos -- $690 million in 1992 -- more than doubled the sum wagered at the state's five dog tracks that same year ($304 million) and far exceeded state lottery ticket sales ($446 million).

A tribal success story

At the Oneida One Stop in Green Bay's Westwind Mall, a statue of a cigar-holding Indian stands like a sentry at the front door. The store's humidor offers pouch tobacco in flavors like Almond Smoke and Chairman's Council Fire, products packaged by Oneida Enterprises.

The story of the Oneidas' prosperity begins in 1976. To help pay the utility bills at the Oneida's federally built recreation center, four tribal women decided to start a weekly bingo game with $5 prizes.

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