Gambling on the Reservation

Gambling dollars have unfortunately become a main source of revenue for most native American tribes. In California, for instance, the state's 54 Indian gaming casinos bring in some $6 billion a year.

The lure of easy money has caused Indian casinos to proliferate to more than 330, and the opportunity for more has many native Americans working side by side with gambling interests to gain federal recognition as tribes (a prerequisite for opening a casino). Indian tribal offices have been flooded with "I'm an Indian, too" calls.

Members of tribes are embroiled in disputes over just who is a tribe member (and thus, who can share in the bounty). In California, one fifth of the 61 tribes there with gambling agreements are in membership disputes. (The more members, of course, the less casino profit per person.) One band in Kansas is even considering DNA testing to cull its membership.

The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has jurisdiction over tribal recognition. But it's been lax in enforcing its rules, so much so that critics argue that those tribes with big gambling money behind them get fast-tracked through the recognition process.

Rep. Chris Shays (R) of Connecticut met with Interior Secretary Gale Norton this month to protest a January decision by the BIA to recognize a tribe that wants to open what would be the third casino in the congressman's state. Mr. Shays and others argued the Schagticoke Nation (all 273 members) failed to meet two of the BIA's seven criteria for sovereign status, but were given recognition anyway, violating BIA rules.

To her credit, Ms. Norton has agreed to improve the BIA's recognition criteria and draft legislation for Congress to establish a "cooling off period" and would prohibit former BIA personnel from lobbying for tribes seeking recognition.

But getting Congress to tighten up the recognition process no doubt is stymied by the fact that gambling interests have thrown millions into congressional campaign coffers.

Now that gambling has become a staple of native American life, the rules for tribal casinos need as much clarity and transparency as possible. And local communities need as much leverage as the federal government if they choose to keep casinos out.

Congress's investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, recommended improvements to the tribal recognition process - such as clear guidance over how to interpret recognition criteria - in 2001.

For instance, it's still unclear what level of evidence is enough to show a tribe's continuous existence over a period of time.

It's time to for those improvements to take effect.

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