Indian Gaming Booms Nationwide

Tribes see great revenue gains, but not all local governments are pleased with prospects

THE sounds of roulette wheels, slot machines, video poker, and bingo games are ringing in a new era on many Indian reservations.

Since Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) in 1988, annual revenues from gambling on reservations have reached $5 billion. It is part of the unparalleled growth of gambling in the United States, a trend generating over $550 billion a year in revenues.

Over the last decade, the number of tribal gaming sites on reservations has exploded from six to 110. Busloads of gamblers crowd tribal casinos in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Connecticut, New Mexico, and California. Plans for multimillion-dollar tribal casinos were announced last month in Louisiana and North Dakota.

With some of the revenues, impoverished tribes have funded much-needed health-care centers, schools, day-care centers, and many community and economic projects. Other tribes are starting businesses and building homes. Unemployment on many reservations has dropped significantly because of casinos and their support businesses.

"In Minnesota studies have shown that over 5,000 jobs have been created as a result of gaming on 12 reservations," says Kurt Bluedog, a Sisseton-Wappeton Sioux who is also a tribal attorney and a member of the executive committee of the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA), their trade association.

"Gaming revenues for the Indian go toward helping the tribe," says Charles Keechi, chairman of NIGA and chief of the Delaware Nation in Oklahoma, "but gambling in Nevada or Atlantic City goes into someone's private bank accounts."

But as tribes scramble to get on the gaming bandwagon, many states are erecting unwelcome signs. Either they object to gambling on moral grounds, or they want to prevent tribes from competing with established gambling.

As the trustee of Indian land, the US government requires tribes and states to negotiate a compact in "good faith" before offering casino gambling. About a dozen states have refused to negotiate.

The states insist that the 11th amendment of the Constitution establishes them as equally sovereign as Indian nations, and therefore the states cannot be sued by tribes if they refuse to negotiate. In addition, states have taken the position that the 10th ammendment protects them from being forced into negotiating.

"Several cases around the country are winding their way through federal district courts," Mr. Bluedog says, "and I wouldn't be surprised if one of them ended up in the Supreme Court." Lujan's support

Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan has publicly supported gaming as a "form of economic development for Indian tribes if they choose to proceed with it."

In a speech earlier this year he sent shock waves through Nevada gambling circles when he said, "10 years from now Indian tribes will have gaming in every major city in the country."

"He created problems for us," Mr. Keechi says. "Not long after that [speech] the Nevada casinos shifted gears and their criticism of Indian gaming became more apparent. What I think Lujan meant to say was that he could see bingo halls in cities .... "

Robert Walker, a spokesman for the Interior Department, says that a few cities are inviting tribes to build gambling centers downtown to help "rejuvenate the areas." To do this, the tribe has to request that the Interior Department put the downtown site into trust status. Under trustee law, the enterprise would be exempt from taxes and would function under tribal police protection.

This helps tribes in remote rural areas that want gaming revenues, but are located too far away to attract crowds. Putting gaming centers in cities gives them access to revenue.

"Some cities are awfully impressed with revenues to be gained from gaming," says an official from a Midwest city who did not want to be identified. "It's sort of like a gold-rush mentality. To me this craze for gambling detracts from efforts to encourage solid businesses .... "

"If a city does have a gaming center," Walker says, "it becomes this little island in the middle of the community. Back in the mid-l980s this happened in an abandoned department store in Duluth, Minn. Apparently it has worked out well enough." Council Bluffs, Iowa, has voted to have Indian-operated gambling downtown, and Salem, Ore., is also considering it.

With the possibility that interest in gambling could peak and wane in less than 10 years, Walker says Interior Secretary Lujan will move cautiously in considering trust-status sites.

"When the US government takes land in trust, it's like saying this is a part of the reservation," Walker says. "We don't do that lightly. A casino could be run in good faith for a few years and then have to shut down for any number of reasons, but the only way to get land out of trust is by an act of Congress."

Two issues inevitably arise when gaming increases in communities or on reservations: the possibility of criminal influences and addiction to gambling. Concerns in local areas

Testifying before the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs in March, Paul Maloney, a senior counsel in the Department of Justice, said tribal gaming operations were relatively free of illegalities.

He added that there were instances of "skimming" and unauthorized gambling. But "the perception ... that Indian gaming operations are rife with serious criminality does not stand up under close examination," he says.

In Minnesota, where tribes have set the standard for well-run gaming operations, programs to help addiction also have been established.

"It is a moral issue that has to be addressed by the tribes," Keechi says.

"What they are doing has become a role model for other tribes, " he adds.

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