How the Casino Culture Undermines Indian Identity

August 30, 1994|By TIM GIAGO

Rapid City, South Dakota -- There is a new social structure forming in Indian country. I call it the ''casino culture.''

Back in the '50s, when I worked as a ''keyman'' at Harrah's Casino in Reno, Nevada, while attending school there, I never dreamed that huge, Renolike casinos would eventually become a part of the landscape on Indian reservations.

I worked the different shifts at Harrah's and soon became a part of the casino culture that is so much a reality of casino employment. The dealers, pit bosses, keno workers and others looked upon themselves as being apart from the general population. We hung out together and looked at the many gamblers frequenting the casino as a military person looks at civilians.

It is almost scary to see this culture invading the quiet, peaceful lands of the Indian reservations. Oh, it's a lot different to visit a megacasino such as the Foxwood Casino in Ledyard, Connecticut, because the few real Indians of this small reservation have allowed the casino managers to take control. They have allowed these non-Indian managers to desecrate and insult the religious practices, traditions and cultures of other Indian tribes.

The scary thing is that I see this happening on reservations much closer to what we call Indian country. I see tribal leaders forgetting that this gaming thing is not carved in stone. It is a small window of opportunity that could soon be closed.What is more, state governments are watching the success Indian nations are having, and since most states are hard-pressed for jobs and income, they see the Indian casinos as harbingers of a better way to raise money for their coffers.

Several tribes in Arizona are recent casino operators. An ad in the Arizona Republic a few weeks back listed a 900 number asking Arizona residents if they approved or disapproved of legalizing gambling in Arizona. The states along the Mississippi River are floating casinos down the body of this great waterway. Coastal cities in Georgia are building casinos and New Orleans and Chicago are strongly considering major casinos.

In other words, those Indian tribes paying their tribal members per-capita monthly payments are handing out the profits believing they will never end. They should put the money into purchasing more land and expanding their reservation base, into longterm investments, into retirement funds for their people, scholarship programs, new schools and hospitals, better sewer and communications systems on their reservations. Some are doing this, many are not.

I visited the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa in northern Minnesota two weeks ago and came away feeling good. The chairwoman, Marge Anderson, is a traditional woman who is also an Indian mother and grandmother. She has maintained the traditional lifestyle of her people and has not lost the common touch.

The tribal headquarters are located in buildings that have seen better years. Rather than improve these old buildings, the casino profits have gone to improving the schools, building health clinics, improving the infrastructure of the reservation, purchasing lands -- and to a project that really impressed me: the construction of a spiritual center where tribal ceremonies are held.

The pow-wow grounds next to the lake have been rebuilt to accommodate visitors and tribal members and to remind the people of the tribe of their roots and heritage. The employees working in the casino are mostly Indian. They are friendly, outgoing, confident, and in most cases, traditional in their manners and beliefs. Here is a tribe that has not lost sight of its past, present or future.

This Band of Ojibwe has taken it upon itself, through its tribal chairwoman, to open job opportunities for members of other tribes. They are not shy about sharing their good fortune with Indian tribes less fortunate. They actively advertise for Indian managers and employees through Indian-owned newspapers. When they find an Indian-owned company that can supply them with products or services, they do not hesitate to throw much of their business in that direction.

The Mille Lacs have had their share of problems getting a casino started and having to deal with advisers and contractors outside their tribal membership, but they have made a firm stipulation that they will soon be in complete control of all aspects of their casino and other business ventures planned for their reservation. In fact, the very nice non-Indian lady, Caroline Kornmann, who guided my wife and me around the reservation, said she was training a member of the tribe to do her job. It isn't often one finds someone willing to train an employee to replace her.

The Mille Lacs Tribe and its chairwoman, Marge Anderson, its Indian Commissioner of Gaming, Melanie Benjamin, and all the other tribal members are not willing to sacrifice their traditions, spirituality or culture in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

Tribal people owning casinos who are uncertain of their direction or traditions and who feel they are fast becoming a casino culture should spend a few days with the wonderful people at Mille Lacs. It would make them understand where traditional values begin and absorption into the mainstream ends.

Tim Giago publishes Indian Country Today, a national weekly newspaper from which this article is reprinted.

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