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Bury My Heart at Agua Caliente

Don’t get the wrong idea about the quaint-sounding Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. They do a whole lot more than nostalgically recite the legend of the Cahuilla Maiden while giving guided tours of two picturesque canyons on their vast tribal lands in the Coachella Valley.

They also own two fabulously lucrative Vegas-style casinos — one in Palm Springs, the other in nearby Rancho Mirage. With a mere 370 tribal members divvying up the proceeds (which they don’t disclose), they are getting very rich. And very powerful. They’re trying to muscle Palm Springs into allowing the tribe a massive third casino in its village-like downtown. They toss out huge slabs of political cash to a few Republicans but mostly to Democrats. They’ve become key players in what is perhaps the state’s most influential lobby. They’re underwriting their own state initiative, which would open the door to a radical expansion of legalized gambling and even more earnings.

When the tribal leadership draws criticism for its hardball, bare-knuckled politics, its council chair, Richard Milanovich, doesn’t hesitate to play the oppression card: Hey, we’re just oppressed and sovereign Indians trying to make a go of it in the white man’s world.

What a scam. For notions of oppression apparently end abruptly at the cashier’s cage or, more precisely, at the time clock. Milanovich’s band has hired two union-busting firms to make sure, by any means necessary, his own workers don’t overcome their oppression.

“Meaningless” and “senseless” is how Boss Milanovich wrote off last month’s act of civil disobedience when two dozen union supporters got arrested outside his tribe’s Spa Casino. The Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) has been focusing its efforts to organize the casino’s 1,000 employees (only a tiny percentage of the state’s 46,000 Indian gambling workers have union representation).

Funny thing about these Indians: When it comes to enforcement of federal and state laws, including labor protection and — heaven forbid — taxes, they claim exemption under the cover of “tribal sovereignty,” yet have no problem sucking in tens and hundreds of millions in “foreign” U.S. currency.

Not nearly enough of that bonanza trickles down to their work force, which is, in blunt terms, a helluva lot more oppressed than their ever wealthier tribal bosses. About 60 percent are women, 70 percent are minorities. A UCLA-funded study reveals the average wage of what Milanovich calls his “Team Members” to be about $9 an hour, or $17,000 a year. I guess they’re on the losing team.

The tribe offers free health care for the employees, but they have to pay an exorbitant amount if they want their spouses and children covered — as much as $2,900 a year. That price is so high that more than half of Agua Caliente employees use state welfare programs like Healthy Families and Medi-Cal to cover their kids. That’s right. Spend all night cleaning up ciggy butts from the blackjack tables, and then in the morning drive your kid to the county clinic and wait in line because your boss is too greedy to offer insurance.

No question this is a calculated policy by the tribe which saves an estimated million bucks a year by not subsidizing family insurance. About half of the state’s work force has family health care covered through their employers. At the Agua Caliente operation that figure plummets to about 4 percent. Milanovich’s management crew even circulates fliers among casino workers encouraging them to attend seminars on how to get their families on welfare so that taxpayers — and not the tribe — can pick up the medical tab. What a mensch!

 

It’s not easy taking on a tribe like the Agua Caliente. There’s a long list of politicians, starting with the dear, departed Gray Davis and his still-extant sidekick, Cruz Bustamante, who have greatly benefited from Indian casino contributions. As a result, Indian gambling in California is a virtually unregulated $5 billion industry that continues to expand tax-free. But the union — led by the mighty Local 226 that represents Vegas workers — is building quite an admirable coalition of community and clerical activists from the Palm Springs area to stand up to the Agua Caliente Band.

Milanovich, however, as noted above, claims to be both unimpressed and immune to public shame. Maybe the only thing he understands is political force. Fortunately, he might be facing that as well. His tribe is locked in complex negotiations with the Governor’s Office, trying to renegotiate his deal with the “foreign” state of California. He wants more gambling machines approved. Schwarzenegger wants these guys to start paying taxes on their earnings. And the governor, to his credit, has said more than once that he wants labor rights in the casinos respected. Indeed, the few California Indian casino workers who have a union benefited directly from tribal agreements hammered out by old nasty Pete Wilson’s administration, which was far less beholden to the gambling interests than was the mook who succeeded him.

Maybe it’s going to take, precisely, a Republican strongman like Arnold to get the Agua Caliente Band to do the right thing. Too many liberals immediately fold when the tribe shamelessly guilt-trips people or waves some cash around. But this isn’t about Wounded Knee. This fight is about basic human dignity. And someone has to let Milanovich know that the dignity of his tribe will not be measured by the intensity of its defense of what is in any case a very nuanced “sovereignty.” Rather, it will derive from the way the tribe treats the less fortunate — especially the less well-off, against whom the tribe’s handsome profits are leveraged.

See Marc Cooper’s new blog at www.marccooper.com.


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