Texas closing down Indian gaming bonanza

A bitter irony for the Tigua Indians is that economic salvation came from gambling Â- a social ill the state won't tolerate.

David Senclair, a Tigua Indian, recalls growing up in poverty on the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, depending on handouts from local charities. "At school time, we would all be wearing the same pair of shoes," he says. "We looked silly, but we were happy to have shoes at all."

His voice cracks with emotion, though, when he explains how the tribe was able to start giving back to the community Â- wheelchairs for disabled children, weather radios for area schools, and even $100,000 to victims of the World Trade Center attack.

The tribe's newfound wealth came from its burgeoning casino, which brought $60 million a year in revenues and a ripple effect that not only helped the Tiguas, but enriched the El Paso economy.

Their good fortune was part of the controversial nationwide Indian gaming bonanza of the past decade Â- an extremely successful way of drawing business to isolated reservations. The casino boom drove a reversal of a century of misfortune for Native Americans through gambling profits.

But the good times were short for the Tiguas whose tale highlights the irony of Native Americans lifting themselves out of one social ill Â-poverty Â- through what's widely considered another social ill Â- gambling.

In February, the state of Texas closed down the Tiguas' Speaking Rock casino. The closure, to be appealed to the US Supreme Court, came as the result of a long legal battle by Texas Attorney General John Cornyn. He contends that the tribe is bound by state law when it comes to gambling Â- and the state doesn't allow casinos. Most of the nation's 200 tribes operating casinos do so under protection of sovereignty recognized by the federal government. But the Tiguas signed an unusual agreement in 1987 that put them under state law regarding gambling if the state would not oppose federal recognition of their tribe.

The closure of the casino is a bitter test for the Tiguas. Before it opened, the reservation had the area's highest crime and poverty rates. Half the 1,269 tribal members had no jobs. The high-school dropout rate was 70 percent. And many homes still lacked running water or electricity.

"You name it, we had it: drugs, alcohol, everything that poverty brings into society," says Johnny Lopez, a tribal councilmember.

But casino profits changed everything.

Today, the tribal unemployment rate is 1 percent; 98 percent of Tigua students graduate from high school, and a growing number go on to college with tribal funding. Police reports show the reservation is now the safest area in El Paso. Tribe members have a casino-sponsored health center, an elder center, a wellness-and-fitness center, a library stocked with computers, and drug and alcohol treatment programs. Stucco housing developments dot the reservation. The tribe's diversification efforts include a Mobil Oil and Gas distribution contract for 25 gas stations and convenience stores (only six opened before the legal battle arose).

And the Tigua Indians weren't the only beneficiaries: A state study in December found that 2,200 jobs would be lost in the El Paso area when the casino closed.

"This is what we've been asking Native Americans to do, to stop sucking at the trough of social services," says tribal spokesman Marc Schwartz. "But when they start becoming more self-sufficient, we say they are competing unfairly."

The Tiguas calculated they could start a casino because gambling rules changed when Texas established a lottery in 1991. So they opened the Speaking Rock Casino in 1993. For six years, the casino was allowed to operate freely. The state stepped in to close it in 1999. Now, tribal leaders are desperately searching for help from judges, lawmakers, even political candidates.

"Indian gaming is such a hot political issue," says Kevin Washburn, general council for the National Indian Gaming Commission, set up under the Indian Gaming Regulation Act. "But the fact is, this is the most profitable way for Indian tribes to take advantage of their sovereign status. Gaming, when it works, is extremely profitable, and what tribes have in some markets is a monopoly."

Last year, for instance, Indian gaming revenue totaled $10.6 billion

"There's a specter of dangerousness associated with gambling," says I. Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier Law School in Costa, Mesa, Calif., and an expert on Indian gaming law. "Even tribes themselves wish they could be doing something else. But what?"

In the case of the Tiguas, some speculate that then-Gov. George W. Bush had the attorney general pursue the case because the tribe gave a $100,000 contribution to his opponent, Gary Mauro, in 1998.

"Politics became personal, and the awesome weight of the state of Texas came down on the Tiguas," says Tom Rodgers, a Washington lobbyist for several Native American tribes, including the Alabama-Coushatta who are fighting a similar battle with Texas over their casino.

Indeed, many Native American tribes have begun using their casino proceeds to influence politics. The Center for Responsive Politics calculates that tribal contributions during the 2000 elections were almost $3 million, up from $1,750 in 1990.

Mr. Rose says he's not sure if Mr. Bush came out against the Tigua tribe because of the campaign contribution, but admits: "That campaign contribution woke him up to the fact that there was a full-scale casino operating in his state. Up to that point, it wasn't making a whole lot of waves."

The attorney general's office declined to comment for this story. Mr. Cornyn's office says the court documents speak for themselves Â- gambling is illegal in Texas.

"Our main goal was to become self-sufficient," says Carlos Hisa, lieutenant governor of the Tigua reservation. "We can't afford to lose what we've started."

Tribe member Mr. Senclair sums up the tribes' latest reversal of fortune this way: "I don't know why the state is saying that we are illegal. Is it illegal to provide for ourselves and other people in the community?"

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