Rolling the dice: The pros and cons of Indian gaming

By Jason Savio

04/25/2016

Native American tribes entering into the world of Indian gaming have a lot to gain, but it doesn’t come without a gamble. The creation of any major industry or business impacts individuals as well as communities. While some effects may be quick and apparent, others are more subtle and quiet. They can be both external and internal, staying within the framework of the entity in question or stretching out to its surrounding environment. The same can be said for the Indian gaming industry and its effect on the tribes that put their money down on it. The Mashpee Wampanoag’s proposed casino in Taunton prompts a look at the potential positives and negatives of a tribe opening up a major gaming facility.

 The Winning Hand

The positives of a tribe opening up a casino are plentiful. Economic growth is the most popular and instantly beneficial part of opening a resort casino like the Wampanoag’s First Light casino in Taunton. Economic growth carries with it numerous gains, most notably job creation. According to the 2015 edition of Casino City’s Indian Gaming Industry Report, Indian gaming created 612,000 jobs in 2013.

Wilda Wahpepah is a special counsel at Sheppard, Mullin & Richter and has a background in Indian gaming through advising Native American tribes and business entities. She is also a member of the Winnebago tribe in North Dakota. Wahpepah called gaming “an economic engine” for a tribal community. “It provides jobs not only to tribal members but to people who live in the areas surrounding the tribes, and it provides the (Indian) government with a source of revenue to provide essential governmental services to its members: Health care, education, scholarships for kids, better schools, everything that you would want a government to care about. It helps tribes provide for their members.”

This ability to provide for their own people is a major cornerstone for the overall implementation of gaming in Indian tribes, and as such it is also the biggest return investment for tribes that wish to be more self-sufficient and self-reliant, said Stephanie Conduff, an attorney and citizen of Cherokee Nation.

As Wahpepah suggested, not only do members of the tribes benefit from the presence of a casino opening up on their land, non-Indians and communities surrounding it can as well. In 2013, Indian gaming revenue hit a new high of $28.3 billion and not all of that money just goes to the tribes themselves. On top of creating jobs for Indians and non-Indians alike, tribes that open casinos can also be willing to give back to the local state governments in which they are based.

“What we see is a tribe usually works with the local government and they try to assess what the impacts might be together and mitigate them and the tribe pays for the mitigation,” said Wahpepah. “So that’s part of the benefit to the surrounding community is that tribal gaming revenue is going to your county and buying new ambulances or buying a fire truck and that’s not extremely visible sometimes to opponents.”

The Losing Hand

For all the positives that can come upon the ribbon cutting of a brand new Indian casino, it can also lead to unwanted effects. There are external and internal problems that can arise, many social, and they can create a split between not only the tribe and the outside, but also between the tribe members themselves.

“It has been a two-edged sword,” said Martin Reinhardt, associate professor of Native American Studies at Northern Michigan University, and a member of the Sault Ste. Marie tribe. “On the one hand, it has helped our tribe revitalize many of our traditions and has impacted our local economy thereby alleviating the rampant poverty that was afflicting our community much worse than it is now. On the other hand, it has created a gap between the haves and the have-nots within our tribe. This internalized oppression is not good for our traditions.”

Reinhardt noted that internalized oppression relates to a division between people in tribes who have struck wealth thanks to gaming and those who have not, giving way to a relationship disturbingly similar to that of the first settlers and natives in which wealth helped gain power and control over others. By that same token, Reinhardt argued that that control is also leading to modern-day forms of corruption and crime.

“The capitalist model has created classes of wealth in our tribal communities and undermined our egalitarian ways. Colonization has resulted in the oppression of Native people by non-Native people and these ways have been adopted by some in our communities,” explained Reinhardt. “Oppression of others is not our way. Crime in the form of corruption of government and business officials is a serious issue that has evolved in our communities since the dawn of colonization. It is now mixed with organized crime in some of the gaming establishments.”

Others, like Keith Richotte, Jr., an assistant professor of Native American law and policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and associate justice for the Turtle Mountain Tribal Court of Appeals, said that “(My) guess is of course there has been some mismanagement of funds or other unsavory activity, but nothing that stands out.”

But there are those who agree with Reinhardt and say that one critical drawback of Indian gaming stands out: Disenrollment.

David Wilkins, Native American studies professor at the University of Minnesota and co-author of the upcoming book “Dismembered: Banishment, Disenrollment and Statelessness in Indian Country,” elaborated on the issue and its presence in California in particular, blaming “gaming revenue” for being the main cause of it. Wilkins said that by eliminating tribe members, other members are able to increase the amount of money shared between them from gaming revenue.

Described as “ugly” by Daniel M. Cobb, associate professor and American Indian and Indigenous Studies coordinator at the University of North Carolina, disenrollment has indeed become a trending problem with tribes that are involved in gaming throughout the entire country. It is the act of a tribe essentially kicking out and banishing members for various reasons, often times having to do with money and “revenue sharing,” according to Alice Langton-Sloan, Vice President of the American Indian Rights and Resources Organization. There are over 13,000 Natives across the United States that have been disenrolled for one reason or another, said Langton-Sloan. Her husband Gene Sloan claims to be one of them.

Gene Sloan with his wife Alice Langton-Sloan. Gene says he is a victim of disenrollment.
Gene Sloan with his wife Alice Langton-Sloan. Gene says he is a victim of disenrollment.

According to Sloan, in 1995, when he was a member of the Cahto tribe in California, he found out about he believed to be corruption within the tribe relating to its casino business.“The general manager was stealing money from the tribe,” said Sloan, who was acting as a monitor for the casino.  Sloan quickly found himself in the middle of something he didn’t expect.

“When my husband found out that the receipts from the casino machines weren’t matching, that’s when they forced the issue on him to play ball,” added Langton-Sloan. Not willing to go along with what appeared to be an illegal gaming operation, Sloan faced being exiled.

“The general manager paid other tribal member 10 or 20 dollars a piece to vote against my family at a meeting,” Sloan claimed. He and his family were voted out of the tribe. Cahto tribe representatives were unavailable to comment on this incident.

Health factors also cause concern and raise questions. What kind of an impact does gambling have on people in a new environment? What kind of behavior does it foster? While casinos can indeed provide an economic boost,  studies show they also risk the health and financial security of those who go to them. So what might happen if a casino is placed on reservation land and tribe members suddenly have constant access to it? A report published by Dr. Darryl Zitzow for Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health, in which he studied the short-term impact of a new casino being introduced to a reservation, came to the conclusion that the presence of a casino — along with other factors, including economic status and unemployment —“may predispose American Indian adults to greater problematic and pathological gambling behaviors.”

Mark A. Celio, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University, echoed this sentiment, noting that, “environmental factors may shape which type of behavior people engage in. It’s an access point. I think that an access point means that you’re going to have more people that now engage in that activity and to the extent that that activity can be problematic for people, more people are going to have problems.”

 A Roll of the Dice

Ultimately it all comes down to the tribe itself and how it handles its business. Of the over 500 federally recognized tribes in the country, there are close to 500 Indian gaming operations and each one is unique. Neither gaming nor community experts can say what First Light casino’s experience and impact will be. As Cobb pointed out, ““It depends. You have to keep in mind that the Pequots, Mohegans, and Seminoles, among many others, that have been wildly successful with gaming, their communities are way more economically stable. Gaming proceeds have opened a world of possibilities. But most tribes are only modestly successful and many others struggle when it comes to their casinos.”

The allocation of revenue is one such aspect that will certainly be watched with First Light, especially if it is a huge success.

About Jason Savio 4 Articles
Jason Savio is a graduate of the master's program in journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He also writes entertainment features and reviews music and video games. When not working, he enjoys spending time with his dog, Oscar.