Tribal casinos push beyond the reservations

Congress intervenes as native Americans use questionable land claims.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Some day soon, most casino gambling revenues in the United States will come, not from Las Vegas and Atlantic City, but from the 400 tribal gambling operations now scattered across 30 states. From New York to Louisiana to Washington State, the $19 billion Indian casino industry continues to grow amid increasing political controversy.

One of the new ways the industry is growing is through what critics call "reservation shopping" - the push to build Indian casinos on nonreservation land. It's a big issue for many communities around the country, with foreign investors and wealthy tribes funding new Indian casinos on land with questionable historic ties to native American groups.

According to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, some three dozen federally recognized tribes have applied to build casinos outside their reservation states.

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"Casino gambling ... is now coming to cities and even small towns across America and bringing with it all its social ills, like higher crime and suicide rates, increased personal bankruptcies, and the breakup of families," warned Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia, a leading congressional critic of legalized gambling, in a May letter to President Bush.

Local and state control is at issue here. While Indian casinos can create hundreds of jobs - sometimes in hard-pressed areas - they also can erode the tax base because of tribes' sovereignty under federal law and treaties dating back into the 19th century.

"Nowhere in the process do communities have anything to say about it," says Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association in Battle Ground, Wash. "They can comment, but they don't have legal standing."

For Mr. Cushman, the issue is personal. The Cowlitz Tribe in Washington, with financial backing from the Mohegan Tribe back East, which operates the mammoth Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut, has proposed building a 160,000-square foot casino just up the road in Ridgefield, Wash. It would be the fifth-largest casino in the country - bigger than the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, N.J. or Bellagio in Las Vegas.

While the tribe has no reservation or other land, its history shows the Cowlitz people have been in the area for centuries. It is in the process of acquiring land for the casino and other commercial ventures through the US Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The tribe has agreed to make payments to Clark County in lieu of property taxes. It also will contribute 2 percent of net revenues to charitable activities in the county. Regardless of such agreements mitigating the impact on local communities, establishing a tribe's pre-colonial ancestral or historic ties to the land often can be controversial - especially when those ties predated modern notions of property ownership. In many cases, Indians either had to give up territory under forced treaties or they were removed from their traditional lands - often at gunpoint by the US Cavalry - a century or more ago.

Having reestablished their sovereign rights under treaties that often had been broken in the past, leading to economic and social difficulties, many tribal groups have seen gambling as a way out.

"Today, the proceeds of Indian gaming operations go directly into providing essential governmental services to tribal members," says James Martin, executive director of United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc., which represents 18 Indian tribes, bands, and nations from Texas to New England.

"Our members have used these revenues to invest in dozens of member programs, including homeownership initiatives, tuition assistance for everything from private schools to postdoctorate work, national health insurance for tribal members, and access to top-notch health clinics," Mr. Martin told a congressional hearing in March.

But the debate is not just about the pros and cons of playing blackjack or slot machines. It has to do with the way in which tribes are officially recognized by the federal government, as well as the charge that some tribes have redefined how they recognize members in order to swell their ranks.

While Indians remain a small portion of the US population (some 4 to 5 million), those who identify themselves as native American are one of the fastest growing minorities in the country.

In Congress, the House Government Reform Committee has found that casino interests have been financing the efforts of some tribes to obtain federal recognition.

"Big money gaming interests, which have literally started assembling tribes with the hopes that they can eventually reap huge profits from Indian casinos, have corrupted the process," Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in May. "The bottom line is, until the special interests of wealthy casino developers and investors are held accountable, tribes ... will continue to get federal recognition when it's clear they do not meet the criteria."

Still, several governors - George Pataki (R) of New York and Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) of California among them - have been working to get more Indian gambling in their states. Mr. Pataki, for example, wants such casinos in the Catskill Mountains resort area as a way of settling native American land claims.

Another reason some lawmakers have been eager to help native groups gain recognition: Tribes last year made $10 million in contributions to US House and Senate races, according to Congressional Quarterly.

"Tribes have become very powerful political players," says Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, Calif. and an authority on gambling law.

Federal legislation has been drafted to address what critics see as troubling loopholes, such as allowing Indian casino building on non-reservation land, in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

Rep. Richard Pombo (R) of California, who chairs the House Resources Committee (which has jurisdiction over Indian affairs), proposes that all out-of-state casino moves by tribal groups be banned. He also would allow just two "economic opportunity zones" for new casinos in each state.

In the Senate, David Vitter (R) of Louisiana has offered a bill that gives state legislatures and local officials a greater role in approving new casinos. Mr. Vitter's bill also precludes tribes from proposing new casinos on lands to which they have "little or no connection."

There's another possibility, suggests Professor Rose: "Congress may impose a moratorium and just say no new Indian casinos will open except ones that are already being built." It's something Representative Wolf already has suggested.

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