THE casino gambling business presents an almost irresistible lure for many North American Indian tribes: ready revenues at a time when federal subsidies may be drying up.
It's no secret that Indian-owned gambling enterprises are sprouting on reservations across the nation. Already, about one-third of the 330-plus tribes in the lower 48 states have licenses to operate casino games. And the pace isn't slowing, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission.
But this isn't a lock-step movement.
Last week, the Hopi Indians in Arizona joined a handful of American tribes that are choosing not to let their futures ride on the roulette wheel.
But the close Hopi vote -- 986 were against gambling and 714 for it -- underscores the complexity of a decision that often pits a tribe's impoverished living standards and religious and cultural mores against the desire for an immediate source of cash and jobs.
Since 1990, when the first agreements between states and tribes were forged allowing casino gambling, only the Hopi and Navajo in Ariz., two other tribes in New York, and one in Texas have explicitly rejected casino gambling, says Linda Hutchinson of the National Indian Gaming Commission.
The Hopis rejected gambling even though the proposed site, on a tribal-owned industrial park near Winslow, Arizona, was more than 60 miles from their reservation. Backers had promised the casino would provide 500 jobs and $15 million in annual revenue for the tribe.
Some Hopi leaders say the vote is proof that their people still value culture and tradition over money. ''Our people are taught to work the honest way,'' says former Hopi Chairman Ivan Sidney. ''We believe that we are the last to hold a strong and complete tradition, and that if we fall, it will be the end of Native American traditions in this country.''
A former tribal police chief, Mr. Sidney says he has seen how gambling addictions can tear families apart. Rather than ending reliance on government programs, he says, casino gambling replaces one form of dependency with another.
Herschel Talashoma, spiritual leader of a windswept village on Third Mesa, says he also urged people to vote against the casino, and not just for cultural reasons. Mr. Talashoma says he doubted the tribal council could be trusted to use the money to benefit all 10,000 Hopis.
Doubts about leadership apparently played a major role in the Navajos' overwhelming rejection of casino gambling last fall. Unlike the Hopis, Navajos have no moral or religious qualms about gambling, says Navajo County Supervisor Percy Deal. ''I've been at fairs ... and seen hundreds of Navajo people sitting in circles, playing cards, and betting money.''
Mr. Deal wishes the Navajos would reconsider their vote. ''There were a lot of scare tactics used -- that we would all go crazy, that we wouldn't know how to handle the money,'' he says. ''Well, none of the other tribes that have casinos have gone crazy.''
Indeed, many say the jobs and money provided by casinos have reduced, not worsened, social problems on reservations. Rodney Lewis, attorney for the Gila River Indian community south of Phoenix, says the tribes he represents have built fire stations and a nursing home with some of the casino profits and invested the rest. The Gila River Indians will open a new casino next month.
''We went into this with our eyes open,'' Mr. Lewis says, noting that, with pressure building on state governments to compete and on the federal government to regulate, time may be limited for taking advantage of the gaming windfall. ''We view it as short-term revenue,'' he says.
The Hopi tribe depends on federal payments for about half of its $28 million annual budget, but these funds could soon be cut by Congress. The other main revenue source, a mineral lease to the St. Louis, Mo.-based Peabody Coal Co., is stable but controversial -- the company uses groundwater to transport slurry to Nevada. The reservation's remote location, and the culture's emphasis on privacy and self-reliance, have hampered efforts to develop industries like tourism.
Hopi tribal council member Lenora Lewis, a casino supporter, warns that without economic development, young people will be forced to leave the reservation. ''I'm glad everyone thought about our culture,'' she says, ''but we need to look to the future too.''