`Bible Belt' Indians Don't Take to Slots

Unlike Indian tribes that rushed into widespread legalized gaming, the Cherokees wager only on bingo

THE bumper stickers imitate the old ``I [love] New York'' stickers. Except here they say: ``I [love] Cherokee Nation's Bingo Outpost.''

From Tahlequah, the Cherokee Nation's headquarters, drive south to Interstate 40, past the towns of Hanson and Muldrow, then north to Roland near the Arkansas border. The Bingo Outpost is a long, low, windowless building with bright red trim and 16,000 square feet of space jammed with mostly white-haired bingo players. Doors open at 11:30 every morning.

It is possible, though not highly probable, to win the MegaBingo prize of $250,000 to $1 million any day of the week.

``It took us a long time to get into bingo,'' says George Bearpaw, executive director of Cherokee tribal operations in Tahlequah. ``Some of our councilmen are deacons and preachers, and their communities didn't want big-time casino gambling.''

Bingo is entertainment here. No clatter of slot machines, no dice rolling. This is Bible-Belt country going back to 1820 when the first Christian mission was established. Definitions of immorality in this part of Oklahoma still include gambling.

Not so in many other states where tribes have embraced all kinds of gambling. At last count, 72 tribes in 18 states have gambling, including casinos. The National Indian Gaming Association estimates $6 billion is wagered annually.

In her State of the Nation address last month, Wilma Mankiller, principal chief of the Cherokee, said revenues from bingo had exceeded the tribe's projections by 150 percent.

Non-Indians with considerable interest in gambling revenues dislike one of the principal benefits of Indian gaming: Tribes pay no federal taxes. Indian tribes are sovereign nations. The Internal Revenue Service need not apply.

Non-Indian Donald Trump, owner of three tax-paying casinos, rose from the audience two weeks ago at a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., to denounce Indian gambling.

``Organized crime is rampant on Indian reservations!'' he shouted. Rep. George Miller (D) of California yelled back: ``You don't know this! You suspect this!''

Later a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation said the vast majority of Indian gaming establishments are legitimate businesses. Mr. Trump didn't mention that he wants to convince the Maoris of New Zealand to build a casino in Auckland.

Gambling revenues are mind-boggling to tribes with chronic unemployment and severe social problems. ``We passed up a few years of gaming revenue by going slow,'' says Jim Danielson, Cherokee executive director of social programs. ``But we have to work with county officials and be good neighbors.''

With 145,000 tribal members, the Cherokee nation is one of the largest tribes in the United States. With a strong economic base, the tribe owns and operates several manufacturing companies, a motel, a ranch and lumber operation, a poultry division, arts and crafts, wildlife management, and a heritage center and museum. Tribal headquarters in Tahlequah is a large, glass-and-brick corporate-like structure. Less than a mile away is the tribal golf course. Six district offices also service tribal members.

Historically, what separates the Cherokees from other tribes is a man named Sequoyah. As a young Cherokee, Sequoyah was fascinated with the way the white man conveyed messages on paper. Indians called writing on paper ``talking leaves.''

Sequoyah realized that the Cherokee language is mainly a set number of recurring sounds. Eventually, he identified each sound and created a symbol for it. In 1821, he devised a syllabary of 86 characters instead of an alphabet.

Like nearly all other tribes in Oklahoma, the Cherokees lost tens of thousands of acres when the white man made Oklahoma territory a state. ``We are not consumed by total recovery of the land,'' Mr. Danielson says. ``Our boundaries are clear now, and we are buying up some of the land that was once ours. Without land, there is no tribal identification.''

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