By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
But in this high-stakes race to control the mushrooming expansion of Indian gaming, Governor Schwarzenegger still seems to have the upper hand. A mid-August Field Poll showed public support for the Agua Caliente’s Prop. 70 to be precipitously collapsing, barely reaching 30 percent approval. That marked a dramatic drop-off of 20 points in two months.
An even greater collapse was noted for Prop. 68, the measure that would break the Indian casino monopoly and allow slot machines to operate in the card clubs and racetracks that have so far raised more than $22 million to back their effort. Tribes opposing the measure have come up with an even greater amount of funding, and are ready and willing to spend whatever it will take to force the folding of Prop. 68 because of its threat to the Indian monopoly on state slot machines.
With their proposition sinking in the polls, racetrack operators have gone into the courts to sue Schwarzenegger, claiming that the Indian gaming compacts he signed this summer are illegal.
A month out from the election, however, the smart money continues to bet against both Prop. 68 and Prop. 70.
What remains to be seen is how history will judge this political moment. Whether, 10 or 20 years from now, our current governor will be seen as the politician who intervened just in time to bring California casino gambling into a controlled and measured growth that benefited the state. Or will he be remembered as the enabler of a wild, free-for-all expansion that burgeoned out of control?
Cheryl Schmit, who has led the grassroots “fair share” fight, has become markedly optimistic, predicting that now that Schwarzenegger has set up a framework that permits tribes to compete against each other, “we’re about to see a shake-out,” in which only a dozen or so tribes will be able to significantly expand, while others will have to contract.
Industry analysts like Bill Eadington, of the University of Nevada, argue, however, that California’s gambling demand will not be sated until we have five or even six times the slot machines currently in place.
The governor himself has also given mixed signals. Among the tribes he compacted with late this summer was the Bay Area Lytton Band. When Schwarzenegger gave them the green light for a 5,000-slot mega-casino right on the edge of metro San Francisco, the deal was shot down by the Legislature.
More important than the governor’s legacy, the meteoric rise of Indian gaming — in California and across the country in just a handful of years — has not yet permitted any meaningful assessment of its long-term effects on the tribes and their future generations. Tens of thousands of California Native Americans have not been touched by the casino craze. Two of the largest California tribes, the Hoopla Valley and the Yurok, in Northern California, still live in poverty. In the case of the Hoopla, a few hundred slot machines have done little to alleviate their plight.
In Arizona, the Hopi tribe, fearing a subversion of their traditional culture, have made the conscious choice not to enter the gambling business.
The sudden wealth rained down on tribes has also set off a nasty series of purges that barely mask a sordid struggle over the cash flow. After the Pechanga tribe opened its classy casino near Temecula, applications for tribal membership shot up from about 30 a year to nearly 500. But tribal elders recently pruned the membership by more than 100, setting off a vicious legal dispute.
Early this year, the Redding Rancheria tribe voted out a fourth of its 300 members, the Sacramento Bee reported. Tribal leaders conducted macabre DNA tests on exhumed bodies of one extended family. Even after the tests proved the relatives were direct descendants of tribal leaders, all 76 members of the family were tossed out and banned from the tribal casino. After the expulsion was completed, the family’s $3 million cut of casino profits was divvied up among the remaining members. Meanwhile, a family that had been key to reconstructing the scattered tribe two decades ago was airbrushed from existence.
Near Fresno, the Chukchansi tribe disqualified 200 members. The blackballed members say they were thrown out because they criticized the new casino the tribe is building.
Laura Wass, of the American Indian Movement — a veteran activist group — who works with 2,000 outcasts nationwide, hundreds from California, told the Beethat the disenrollments were a form of “cultural genocide.” That might be an overstatement, but the ruthless shakeouts at least qualify as outtakes from The Sopranos.
Even for those directly benefiting from the gambling, and striving the hardest to make some reasonable connection with the society around them — like Paula Lorenzo’s Rumsey Band — questions about the immediate future weigh heavily.
As the Rumsey accumulate untold wealth, Chairwoman Paula spoke gingerly of a cultural heritage of “destitution” that, in turn, generates “drugs, alcohol, depression.” She hastened to add, “This is a clean reservation, 92 percent drug- and alcohol-free.”
No reason to doubt those figures. But the bigger question is, after settling into their mansions and buying a couple of SUVs, and taking that first trip abroad, what do members of a tribe that was living in poverty 10 years ago do today with millionaire-level wealth?