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Chasing the Dream -- Casinos and Opportunity

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All the North Dakota reservations, and many nationwide, have their casino.  It might even have a golf course, a filling station and a restaurant.  Or not.  Scott Davis, Director of the North Dakota Native American Commission, David Archambault II, Chair of the Standing Rock Sioux, and Kathryn Rand and Steven Light, Co-Directors of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota talk about how Tribal Gaming works, how it helps, and the limits of what it can do. 

Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is ?WNET’s multi-platform public media Initiative that aims to provide a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society: what life is like below the poverty line, its impact on our economic security and on our children, and what has happened to our age-old dream of striving for a better life. We’ll also highlight solutions: what has worked – and what is working to bring people out of poverty – and what lessons we can and must learn for the future.  Prairie Public Chasing the Dream Stories here.

Intro – Funding for this series comes from the JPB Foundation and the Ford Foundation.  On many Native American reservations across the country, poverty is a major issue.  As part of the “Chasing the Dream” series about poverty and opportunity in the United States, we are looking at reservations and how they try to work on that issue.  One effort, one that has had some controversy, is what is known as American Indian Gaming.  Bill Thomas has more (research assistance by John Corley).

BT:  David Archambault the Second is the tribal chair of the Standing Rock Sioux.  When he talks about the Standing Rock reservation, he probably sounds like many other tribal leaders around the country.

David Archambault:  From my perspective, I think there’s more beauty than anything. The land is almost untouched. A majority of the tribal land that exists and a lot of land is used for grazing so you don’t see a lot of farmland  unless you go towards the west of the reservation. But what I see, what I experience is that we have a beautiful river, we have deep grass, we have rolling hills, and of course we have the wind. So, all of this is something I cherish. I love where I live. I love where I’m at.

But there’s also the hardships that exist, and that’s by no one’s fault. But I would say the federal government over the last century with implementing Indian policy on our tribe -- not only our tribe but all of Indian Country - wasn’t always good, and the result of it is hardship. We have a high poverty rate; there’s probably 40% poverty rate, 3 times the national average. We have a high rate of unemployment, around 60% unemployment. We have  all the symptoms that come with poverty - the dropout rate, all the abuses, drug, physical, mental, sexual abuses exist. So there’s the hardships that we deal with, but at the same time there’s a lot of good - we have our culture, we have our language, we have our environment.

BT:  Those hardships, though – sometimes they can be pretty hard. And the situation is not new.  In a way, it’s almost built in.  Reservations tended to be placed on less desirable lands; they tend to be remote, have been whipsawed by changing strategies from the Feds – had their territory reduced, taken away, money put in trust and then the trust criminally bungled. Not to mention that people on the reservations were often shocked from harsh epidemics. Sometimes they were coming off of war; sometimes they were coming off of what would now be called ethnic cleansing or genocide. At other times the official policy was to wipe out not the people but their language and their culture. Given all that, it is not much of a surprise that almost all the reservations around the country have outsized poverty rates – for example, let’s look at North Dakota.  These figures are from the US Census.

The one that’s doing best is Lake Traverse, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate. With about 11,000 people, their poverty rate is at 22.6%

The next best is Fort Berthold, the MHA Nation, or the 3 Affiliated Tribes up there in oil country. 23.6% are under the poverty line, out of a little over seven thousand people [7,116].

For Standing Rock, with Dakota and Lakota people, going over North and South Dakota in the center of the state, David Archambault had it right – with about 8300 people, 40.2% are below poverty level income.

And for Turtle Mountain, home to Anishinabe, or Ojibwe people, almost in Canada and in north central North Dakota, 41.0% out of about 9,000 are classed as in poverty.

Of course, there have been a number of efforts to alleviate the poverty – job training, education, agriculture, cultural renewal – most of these with some form of federal support.  One idea, though, definitely did not come from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  Here is a hint…

SFX:  [casino sounds, slot machine pay out]

If you are one of the many Americans who gamble, you may recognize the sound of a casino and a slot machine paying out. How did gambling, or gaming to use the more generic and polite term, come to be an economic development strategy for reservations?

Kathryn Rand:

Tribes are innovators. They've been innovators within the gaming industry itself.

BT:  That's someone who knows a lot about it.

Kathryn Rand:

My name is Kathryn Rand. I'm the Dean and Floyd B. Sperry Professor at the University of North Dakota School of Law and also Co-Director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy.

Steven Light:

I'm Steve Light. I'm a political scientist at the University of North Dakota. I'm Co-Director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy. I'm also an Associate Vice President here.

BT:  Steve and Kathryn are married, by the way, which makes them good at tag teaming this explanation of some recent history.

Kathryn Rand:

In the 1970's and 1980's, tribes started experimenting with some high-stakes bingo halls and card rooms on their reservations. As you might guess, those bingo halls and card rooms were operating outside of state regulations, so states tried to shut those down on the reservation. It all came to a head in a US Supreme Court case, California versus Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, back in 1986. The Court held that operating gaming on a reservation was an aspect of tribal sovereignty, and states could not regulate it. And that led to Congress enacting some legislation for federal regulation. 

Steven Light:

When Congress got into the act, it passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, and that piece of legislation set forth some important policy goals to govern Indian gaming, and to provide for the regulation at three levels: The tribal level, state level, and the federal level. The main policy goals revolved around promoting tribal self-governance and self-determination, and also addressing some of the long-standing socio-economic deficits on reservations related to poverty and unemployment, and the like.

BT:  Specifically, the act, known as IGRA, required that gaming income be used

  • To fund tribal government
  • To provide for the general welfare
  • To promote economic development
  • To donate to charity
  • To help fund local government agencies and nothing else.

But here is someone who thinks the most important thing is sort of a side effect of these purposes.
Scott Davis:  My name is Scott James Davis. My Indian name, Lakota name, is Oshka Tekawa.  I am a proud member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and also a descendant of the Turtle Mountain Band of  Chippewa.  Currently ... I serve the governor of our state of North Dakota, as his liaison, serving as the Commissioner for Indian Affairs for the State of North Dakota.

And here's what he is interested in, in terms of Indian gaming:

Scott Davis:  But really the biggest and most strongest reason why casinos were created in our state, on our reservations, is for jobs. It creates jobs. My brother works at a casino. It provides a job for him, his family, it contributes to the economy, the community, so forth.

How many jobs?  Steve Light says, for each tribe:

Steven Light:

We're talking about two to four hundred jobs, basically, on-reservation for American Indians for tribal casino in North Dakota.

And when we talked to North Dakota Indians about their struggles with poverty in general, the casino jobs thing did come up:

Brenda Kill Small:  I did start work out at the casino and worked there for, I would say, about a year and about very different jobs. I moved from different jobs within that year.

Heather Demaray: I don't know. I just couldn't live with my mom for more than two weeks you know... So then I would go back and forth between her and my aunt in New Town. I could stay at my aunt's, I stayed there and then eventually I worked at the casino, and I was bartending in the evening. By then too, my daughter's dad had …

Marian DeClay:  ... with my financial aid and everything, so I was working full time at the Desert Diamond Casino down in Tucson. I would work from 11:00 at night to 7:00 in the morning. During the day, my classes will start at 9:00 AM and wouldn't be done until about 3:00. I think that was the part that was just so hard.

Steven Sitting Bear:  A 2.0 GPA at a high school and 4 years honorable service in the Marines didn't really ... wasn't the job skills that people were looking for. So I had found a job at our casino. It was about 6 bucks an hour and I was just happy to have a job. There were struggles that were going on during that time, just trying to make ends meet. I worked there at the casino for 2 and 1/2 years in different departments. I was able to work my way up the ladder a little ways. 

BT:  That was Brenda Kill Small, Standing Rock Sioux; Heather Demaray, Mandan (or the MHA Nation); Marian DeClay, White Mountain Apache;  and Steven Sitting Bear, Standing Rock Sioux.

It's worth mentioning a couple of concerns about Indian Gaming.  One was that organized crime would take over the reservations.  Steven Light:

Steven Light:

There really is no evidence of any organized crime infiltration at any tribal casino across the United States.

BT:  Another was that, since the tribes hired outside companies to come in and run the casinos, that the tribes would be exploited by these sharp operators.  But Scott Davis actually likes that part of it:

Scott Davis:  I always go back to the business model of the casinos, you know, and I believe its been a good business model. When, okay casinos come, okay, well who knows how to do casinos? Not to many of us tribally. So the smartest thing we did was hire casino people. You know, the Harrah’s, the ones you see, the branded ones. They came in, set up the administration part, the business part for 5 years, and weaned tge tribal folks into the business management, and you see that success now. Now if we can do that same business model with manufacturing, housing, refineries, oil and energy, I think we’re going to see a better, safer, less risky type of business venture.

BT:  Another concern is that the income from the casinos will create dependence among the tribal people. Articles in The Economist, Indian Country Today ,and elsewhere, highlight in particular the supposed dangers of “per caps” – some tribes give their members an annual payment from gaming income. Not in North Dakota, though. Scott Davis again.

Scott Davis:  None of our tribal members get a dividend or a per-cap from the casinos.

BT:  So, what impact do the casinos have?

Scott Davis:  Yeah, gaming is a very big, very strong and important industry to our economy of the tribe. The resources, the funding that’s.. the revenue that’s made from casinos go back to services for roads, for education programs, for elderly, for veterans, and that’s the way it should be. Once in a while when I think the casinos do well they’ll give a little incentive for school supplies, for school clothes, for Christmas, you know, and that’s a good thing.

Steve Light again:

Steven Light:

it's a twenty-nine billion dollar industry. In North Dakota, in 2014, tribal casinos brought in about two hundred and thirty-seven million dollars, and that represented, in addition to non-gaming revenue of thirty-eight million dollars, one of the top economic engines in the states.

BT:  That sounds pretty good, but it has to be put in perspective.  Way out in the middle of the prairie is not Atlantic City or Las Vegas.  Kathryn Rand

Kathryn Rand:

It's important to know that Indian gaming is not uniformly profitable or uniformly successful across the country. It varies state-by-state, and it varies tribe-by-tribe. Here, in North Dakota, all five of our tribes are relatively large, with memberships in the thousands and with existing deficits in terms of unemployment and poverty and educational attainment. In other parts of the country, smaller tribes might have the ability to counteract those deficits more quickly. Tribes that are located near population centers, near San Diego, LA, Boston, New York City, their casinos would be more profitable, and we could see that they'd be able to have a greater impact, more quickly, at the same time.

We had a really interesting experience this past semester. Steve and I were team teaching a course in Indian gaming law for law students and graduate students. During one of the class sessions, the law school hosted a number of tribal college students who were interested in law school. So we brought those students into our course and did some small group discussions with our law and graduate students, and they talked about the impact of gaming. They talked about the realities of reservation life. They talked specifically about the challenges that still exist on reservations, particularly like those in North Dakota.

So while gaming has been successful, and while it's made an impact, it has not come close to curing the socio-economic deficits in North Dakota that we see among the reservations or in other states. There's still a lot of work to be done. Gaming still has a lot of potential to continue to assist tribal communities, especially in leveraging economic diversification.


Or, as Standing Rock Chair David Archambault puts it.

David Archambault II:  The casinos are one resource for the tribe that can help us, help our social programs.  There’s a lot of misperceptions of casinos and that they give the membership an unlimited resource of money  For us, we are small, we have 2 small casinos, and it doesn’t generate multi multi millions or billions – it offsets the costs where the federal government is failing. 

BT:  For Prairie Public. I’m Bill Thomas.

Out:  Funding for Chasing the Dream is provided by the JPB Foundation and the Ford Foundation.  See more stories, including an extended interview with Steven Light and Kathryn Rand, and a link to the national project at Prairie Public.org’s chasing the dream page

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