The homepage article at Slate.com on Monday was a travel piece called "An American Indian's Journey in the Land of Indian Casinos" by David Treuer. I was at first very interested to read this piece - I've given a little bit of thought to Indian casinos and studied the law that "created" them, and am quite familiar with Treuer's work. I did a paper on his first novel, "The Hiawatha", used his book of literary essays for another paper about Sherman Alexie, and have read about his work on language preservation (important stuff). I can't say I liked the novel very much, but all around, Treuer is an impressive guy. I recommend his 2008 interivew with public radio's "Speaking of Faith".
(Pictured: The blogger enjoying a George Strait concert at the Mohegan Sun casino in 2007.) So it was with eagerness that I began his article on Indian casinos, but alas, with disappointment that I finished it. My problem isn't so much with what Treuer says as it is with what he doesn't say. His points about the history of Indian casinos, their aesthetic, and his experiences visiting them are insightful and interesting, but don't paint a complete picture of Indian casinos. I'll get to all that in a moment, however. First, two excerpts of his concise-yet-informative history of federal Indian law and the history of casinos:
Historically, Indian reservations are a great place to be poor if you are Indian—and a fantastic place to get rich if you're not. It is only recently that this pattern is being reversed. For centuries, privateers, government officials, railroad barons, timber magnates, prospectors, and mining companies have made a mint exploiting Native land and resources while the Indians for whom reservations were created have gotten poorer and poorer... I felt the possibility that everything—our fortunes, our personalities, our prospects—might change at Morongo as soon as the doorman opened the door for us. This mad hope is what draws people to casinos and what has made a few Indians very wealthy...
The Supreme Court maintained that as sovereign nations, Indian tribes had always had the right to govern themselves (including civil and regulatory powers), just as all nations do, and that tribes should deal with the U.S. federal government, not with states. Kansas, for example, has no power to levy taxes in Luxemburg—and not only because Luxemburg is far away... So when you hear white people lament about how the government "gave Indians casinos" (like "life is a circle," this is a common refrain), you can say: The government did not give Indians casinos. Indian gaming is not some physical manifestation of the welfare state or a pity payment for wrongs done or injustices suffered. It is the outgrowth of a right that tribes have always had long before any other people lived in the New World: the right to govern ourselves and build institutions as we see fit. There are many other rights like that, which tribes have only begun to explore—banking, telecommunications, industrial development.
My problem with the rest of the article is that Treuer tried to celebrate casinos as having done wonders for Indian reservations, which is only half true and somewhat misleading. Take his final paragraph:
If casinos play in illusion, the illusion at Pechanga was enchanting—a beautiful casino in which one can find brotherhood, equality, and wealth. A place that rose from poverty and struck it rich and where you can, too. In short and ironically, inside a casino (that manages to suggest aristocracy, bordello, Indians and nature, the big top, and a theme park) on Indian land, I finally felt, well, American.
Treuer does have a point - casinos have done wonders for many tribes. As author Sherman Alexie says of the Spokane reservation near my own home in north Idaho, "On my reservation, there was about 90% unemployment before bingo halls and casinos; now it's about 10 percent." The problem with focusing on this positive fact is that it leaves many white people with the impression that Indian reservations are now wealthy or at least politically powerful and perhaps immoral because of their gaming. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
There are three important points to make about the limitations of Indian casinos. First of all, of the 562 federally-recognized Indian tribes, just 224 - less than half - operate casinos. And since Indian tribes are actually separate nations, tribes in South Dakota or Utah don't seem a dime from the wildly successful Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos in Connecticut. Secondly, almost half of casino profits remain within the casinos and their operating companies rather than going to the tribes. And finally, quite a few of these casinos are operated by the smallest of tribes or by people who didn't even know they had Indian heritage until the gaming laws were passed - in other words, by white people with Indian heritage rather than by actual Indians with sovereign authority and in need of economic assistance.
I don't mean to diminish the important role casinos play in Indian country. By some accounts, they may have created as many as 530,000 jobs, and that matters. But when thinking about these casinos, we can't make the same mistake that Treuer made - their limitations must be discussed alongside their successes, lest we forget that the average Indian family's income is 25% lower than the national median, that the poverty rate in Indian country is twice the national rate, that disease rates are higher and life expectancies shorter, or that Indian women are twice as likely to be raped as are white women (and almost always by strangers). There is still much work to be done. Recognizing that tribes have the right to operate their own gaming facilities was an important step, but far more tribal empowerment and federal recognition of sovereignty and jurisdiction must occur.