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States vs. Indian bingo. Tribes set up gambling operations to replace federal funding; states want to tax proceeds

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 24, 1986



Tulsa, Okla.

On the banks of the Arkansas River, the Creek Indians have built a bingo hall that they consider a vital part of the tribe's economic development. Every day hundreds of cars and buses from neighboring communities and states pull into this little patch of ``Indian Country.'' Thousands of players plunk down hundreds of thousands of dollars a month for a chance at the occasional big winnings for which Indian bingo games have become known.

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The Creek Tribe estimates that, since the 1,350-seat bingo hall opened in November 1984, it has earned the tribe over $100,000 a month in profits. That, the Creeks say, is a good hedge against cutbacks in the federal funds that have been the Indians' lifeline for many years.

In Oklahoma and around the country, Indian tribes are turning increasingly to gambling as a ticket to economic independence. The Bureau of Indian Affairs says tribes in 19 states were operating at least 108 gambling facilities on Indian land as of November 1985 -- up from just over 80 such operations a year earlier. As federal funds dry up, some tribes that have up to now opposed the ``quick fix'' that bingo seems to offer are saying economics may force them to change their thinking.

As bingo halls proliferate, counties and states are expressing growing concern about the hazy question of law enforcement -- and fear of organized-crime infiltration -- at Indian-owned facilities. Indian operations have generally been free of local or state intervention since Indian tribes enjoy nation-to-nation status with the federal government. But states are unhappy about the millions of dollars in gaming, sales, and property tax revenues that slip away from them every year.

In an attempt to address some of the states' concerns, Congress is considering legislation that would extend federal regulations to Indian gambling and establish a commission to regulate Indian gambling operations. Such action would clarify questions of law enforcement, but would not offer the states any hope on the taxation issue.

In Oklahoma, where the state estimates there are about 30 Indian bingo halls, a federal court recently ruled that the Tulsa property is Indian land and thus is under federal, not state, jurisdiction. But local officials point out that US District Court Judge James Ellison has yet to issue a written opinion in the case, and they hold out hope that some of their concerns may yet be addressed.

Denise Graham, the Tulsa County assistant district attorney who represented the county in the case, says that the great majority of bingo players are not Indians and should be subject to all state laws pertaining to taxation and criminal offenses.

``Why should a player [in the bingo hall] be exempt from sales tax when he buys a Coke?'' asks Ms. Graham. ``No court has ever found that when the tax falls on the consumer, the tribe is exempt from state taxes.''

Under the Indian gaming legislation now in congressional committee, tribes would still be allowed to operate bingo under rules that differ from those of the state. But, according to Alex Skibine, deputy counsel for Indian affairs of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, any other Indian-run games -- from casino gambling to animal racing -- would be subject to the state's rules. The bill would also empower states to enforce criminal penalties for violation of rules governing gambling other than bingo.

Oklahoma's experience has awakened Texas to the possible consequences of an effort in Congress to put two Texas tribes under federal regulation. Texas is the only state where Indians are not under federal jurisdiction.

Texas Comptroller Bob Bullock has warned that passage of the proposal would pave the way for the two tribes to circumvent the state's bingo laws. Leaders of the Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta tribes say they favor federal jurisdiction because it would provide them better health and education benefits.

Mr. Bullock says he's concerned about the potential for organized-crime involvement in Indian bingo. But the tribes say the state is more concerned about Indian bingo operations competing with charity bingo operations from which Texas reaps millions of dollars in revenue.

Among the nation's tribes, there is no unanimity that bingo and other forms of gambling are a sound means of developing the Indian economy. Former Cherokee Chief Ross Swimmer, who is now director of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, has said that bingo is a ``quick fix'' that discourages more-productive means of industrial development and job creation. His successor, Chief Wilma Mankiller, says she sees little softening in the Cherokees' opposition to gambling.

``The majority of our people are staunch Baptists, and they don't see bingo as a good thing,'' she says. But she says she considers bingo a ``viable economic development alternative'' for some tribes. She adds that opposition among the Cherokees ``could melt rather rapidly'' if the tribe's economic conditions begin to deteriorate as a result of federal cutbacks.

Creek Chief Claude Cox says he considers the 140 jobs at the Tulsa bingo hall -- more than 90 percent of which are held by Indians -- as proof enough that the 15-month-old venture has benefited the tribe. He says the tribe will continue to pursue agricultural and other economic interests, but adds, ``The way the economy is, I have to say this bingo has been a real boost.''