By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Southern California is something of a gaming mecca, with a half-dozen or more high-traffic casinos. But others haven't struck the jackpot, like the Santa Ysabel Casino, which filed for bankruptcy last year.
The national success stories get the most media play — particularly the Mdewakanton Sioux tribespeople of Shakopee, Minn., whose casinos provide them with more than $1 million in per capita payments annually. But there are only a few dozen casinos at most nationally whose success approaches Pala's. Of the 560 or so recognized U.S. tribes, fewer than half have gaming, and the vast majority provide no or very little per capita money. (Revenue statistics for most individual tribes, including Pala, are not made public.)
Smith deserves much credit for the tribe's success, and Pala's government has been aggressive about building its infrastructure. The reservation's administration center, sports complex, radio station, gigantic fire station and other community amenities were built at a cost of many millions of dollars, while the staff on the tribe's payroll has mushroomed since the casino opened in 2001. (Executive committee members have even been known to get around by way of the tribal jet.) Pala also has donated hundreds of thousands to area school districts.
Smith says the tribe has more than $100 million in outstanding loans. He adds that the tribe has nonetheless socked away "millions" in reserves to make up for potential shortfalls.
But after a revenue-growth peak for California tribal gaming in the early aughts, rates began to slow throughout the decade, finally beginning to decline in 2008. As the recession lifted in 2011, California Indian gaming revenues grew by 2 percent, but that was after three straight years of falling revenue and does not represent a return to form, says Dr. Alan Meister, an economist with consulting firm Nathan Associates, who specializes in Indian gaming.
Unlike the massive Pechanga casino up the road, whose dance club features bottle service and women in the rafters dancing behind screens, the Pala Casino isn't particularly glitzy. Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino and Korean emigrants are courted; the casino hosts a pageant called Mrs. Vietnam Global, and in February buffet diners were interrupted by a massive Chinese New Year celebration, complete with a half-dozen dragon puppets bobbing up and down across the room.
Though young and middle-aged attendees flock to shows like Chris Rock and Lauryn Hill, mostly the target demographic is older folks, with acts like Tony Bennett and Don Rickles, and a "60-Plus Club" offering seniors a buffet discount and passes to the Neil Diamond tribute.
"We're really conservative," Smith says. "We don't want to have some cage fight and people come in there and get all drunk and they don't gamble and there's more problems and you don't make no money."
But shifting demographics could hurt the Pala. A new generation of gamblers often prefers to play online rather than at brick-and-mortar casinos. As L.A.-based casino marketing consultant Michael Meczka put it in a New York Times article last year about the near-collapse of a Connecticut mega-casino: "There aren't any new customers out there. Gaming is an aged community. ... Anyone who has ever wanted to try a casino has tried a casino." (In the Connecticut tribe, per capita payments to members ended in 2010.)
Not everyone agrees with this prognosis. Economist Meister, for instance, isn't so bearish. "The question for the industry is, 'How do they accommodate the new generation of gamers?' But while that's in transition, it's still an open question," he says.
Like many tribes, Pala members desire a foothold in Internet gambling. Its lobbyists are seeking to seize a large share of the industry for Native Americans, should it be legalized in the United States.
"We have our finger on the pulse and we're involved politically," Smith says. Though Pala's millions have made the tribe a major player, it hasn't always been successful — in 2008, for example, it failed to defeat ballot propositions allowing its competitors more slot machines.
Meanwhile, new casinos continue to open in California. Last year Gov. Jerry Brown approved gaming plans for a pair of Northern California tribes, even though their casinos would be built on property outside of their reservations, near highways. "I call it off-reservation gaming," says Smith, who fears a precedent. "I'm a firm believer you should be on your own original land."
All of these factors could erode the Pala casino's revenues. And while a robust ecosystem now allows many members to live their dreams, others haven't spent their money wisely.
Lottery winners are notoriously likely to lose it all — a 2010 study of Floridians who had won up to $150,000 in the lottery showed they were twice as likely as non-winners to file for bankruptcy. At Pala, stories abound of those who have burned through windfalls and re-entered poverty, their cars repossessed or their drug addictions fed. While the tribe requires minors receiving their trust funds to receive a financial planning class, it's only one day long.
Many who have retired early, or taken on less remunerative work, have nagging doubts. They worry that they should go back to school, or that they should find gainful employment sooner rather than later. There are storm clouds coming, they worry.
Look, this same scenario plays out across tribal lands where gaming is present... Huge, tax free dividends and corporate lear jets for the council members to enjoy/ Seminole, Miccasoukee...and then the abject poor...The Crow and Shoshone...
It's time for the BIA to take over all indian gaming revenue and to disperse it evenly to all native Americans across the Nation and Alaska. Fair share for each....
But then that is where the Native brotherhood stops...isn't it?
If it's sovereign land and the the government won't intervene the disenrolled are expelled they should fight it by any means necessary and go for a coup d'état.
The disenrollments stripped the members of their heritage, of their pride of being Pala Indian. It was five people taking away everything that these members knew. It would be like the President telling you that you no longer are an American citizen and that you must move, and every eye staring and laughing as you pack your things, dying inside, with no where to go, and no heritage to be proud of. In a reply to an article in the San Diego Reader, Robert Smith just recently claimed that only persons of at least 1/2 Pala blood were allotted land in Pala, which the children of Margarita Brittain were all allotted land in Pala, which proves he lied about the reason for disenrollments. Her children must be at least 1/2, which makes her grandchildren 1/4 and her great-grandchildren 1/8, and her great-great-grandchildren 1/16 (providing their were no inter-marriages, or members who married or had children from other Pala members). 1/16 is the requirement for enrollment which is the blood the great-great-grandchildren possess, so this is proof that the disenrollments were not over blood. But the general council did not vote on the disenrollments, only the Executive Committee did, who are also the Enrollment Committee, and who control the Election Committee, in fact they control everything and allow no one to question their actions or they threaten disenrollment.They also threaten the idea of treason to any relatives still enrolled that try to help the disenrolled, which is ludicrous. Can you say Dictatorship? In America? Our government steps into other countries that have evil leaders who take advantage of their people, but they stand idly by when it happens in their own land. The BIA just lets this happen in Indian Country, what are they here for? Not the individual Indian that is for sure, they only support the tribal leaders who lie to keep their own lavish lifestyles. Ask Robert Smith how many homes he has? Ask him how many supposed bad investments he has made with the tribes money? Ask him who his partners are? Follow the money and the truth shall be revealed.
What a great article! Thank you LA Weekly for exposing the truth about tribal gaming and what is being done on reservations to Native peoples. It's particularly disturbing to hear how tribal members act. "Laughing at people who have lost their money". As if receiving money payouts for doing nothing, having no career makes one better, it's quite the contrary. It has bred a new race of casino Indians as they are called.
I love the Pala Casino, and routinely go out to enjoy eateries and music venues. The hotel is a world class establishment, the spa a European delight. We have raped, pillaged, and plundered the Indians for years, it is fantastic that they get a little piece of the American pie for themselves. More power to them.
What has happened at Pala is an injustice. Similar both Pechanga in Temecula and the most egregious example at Chukchansi. We bring the stories to light of what casino gaming has wrought at ORIGINAL PECHANGA's BLOG ( http://originalpechanga.com ).
Tribe's have sovereignty, but that doesn't make it right. South Africa was a sovereign nation too, yet we interfered with their apartheid system and divested ourselves in order to persuade them to do the right thing.
That is a simple thing to do. Simply call the casino and tell them you will NO LONGER come because of what you read here. You understand their sovereignty, but you can't support a business that would cheat their OWN people. If they cheat their own, won't they cheat YOU?
If you think Wal-Mart is bad because they only pay minimum wage...what about an enterprise that steal money, violates civil and human rights, cheats their people, and lies about it? Which is worse?
Please tell your friends to NOT patronize Pala Casino, Pechanga Resort & Casino and in Northern CA, the Win-River Casino and Chukchansi Gold. ( They are the worst, eliminating 75% of their tribe)
Is it about MONEY? YOU BETCHA. Pechanga has stolen over $400 MILLION from their disenrolled. Is that enough to cheat someone of their heritage? Believe it.
@sedonasherpa Yeah, because
A) Everything you read must be true
B) All tribes are the same
C) The Native Brotherhood What??
@captmrgnx I'm not sure if your attempting to be racist or ignorant but the phrase "Indian Givers" is actually derogatory towards WHITE people! NOT NATIVE AMERICANS! In any event, I applaud you in showing your truly moronic nature.
I have one comment, that TC can not strip you of your heritage! MONEY IS NOT HERITAGE!! You are Pala, you know exactly what blood flows through your veins and they can NEVER take that away from you!!!
@alaxwish your clearly not a native american nor know anyone who is
@alaxwish When one of our elders (80's) asked what would happen if the tribe disenrolled them, some of the yahoos in the corner yelled GET A JOB! Losing health coverage was also a big factor in a lot of lives. No worries though, right, the state of CA would pick up the slack.
@fredquarters And now, the Pala Council is doing the same to their OWN people. Few of the members of any tribe in CA were raped and pillaged by Europeans. Bill Cosby refused to play at Chukchansi because of what those leaders did to their people.
The cover of the book looks great, but what lies beneath is unsavory.
I grow up on Pala Rez and I remember as a child how fun it was to play around on the Rez, such as swimming in the river bottom with brothers and Cuz. Hiking in the mountains and hunting wild game animals. The adults would watch out for one other tribal members Children. We were taught by our parents to respect our elders and to respect our fellow tribal people too. But the children now days have no respect for Elders or our fellow tribal members. It starts with Executive Committee member who are charge of tribe. They are the leaders of the tribe and some have lead by good example and some have not. Those Executive Committee that have lead by bad example have hurt tribe and given our tribe a black EYE. How I miss the old days as child.