Gambling casinos have been a boon to relatively few native Americans. Most remain in poverty. Only about a third of the 558 tribes recognized by the federal government run gambling operations.
But even that adds up to hundreds of gaming halls of various sizes - from the successful Foxwoods casino in Connecticut to small bingo parlors. Californians' approval last year of a ballot initiative to expand tribal casinos portends a huge increase in the Indian gaming, which now rakes in some $10 billion a year nationally.
More than 200 groups are lined up seeking federal recognition as tribes, some in hopes of sharing in the gambling bonanza. In too many instances, however, tribal groups trying to strike it rich with casinos have done so with the help of outside gambling entrepreneurs interested, above all, in maximizing their own take.
This situation demands stronger oversight. While tribes are legally sovereign, the burgeoning gambling operations affect American society generally. Federal regulatory powers do exist, although they're underfunded. One small bureau within the Interior Department has the task of keeping an eye on hundreds of casinos.
In Congress, Reps. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia and Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut are spearheading efforts to investigate Indian gaming. They point to a dearth of financial information. The tribes often invoke sovereignty to avoid disclosure. This lack of information is an invitation to corruption - a number of examples of misused funds have surfaced - and to infiltration by organized crime. A recent extensive series by The Boston Globe detailed these problems.
Congress needs to take a much closer look at the gambling boom it spawned 12 years ago with passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. To allow Indian gaming to simply explode with minimum oversight would only compound the historical injustices visited on native Americans.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society