Natives not defined by tribal casinosBy JODI RAVE
Lee News Network
TEMECULA, Calif. - Tribally-owned casinos are often the only bridge between American Indian and non-Indian communities.
But too many times, roadblocks on that bridge can leave tribes in the crosshairs of the dominant culture.
"When they clash, it often has to do with issues associated with gaming," said Marsha Kelly, a communications consultant in Minneapolis.
Kelly led a panel discussion - "Overcoming Racism in Your Indian Gaming Customers and Their Communities" - recently at an Indian gaming marketing conference at the Pechanga Casino and Resort near San Diego.
The conference was preceded by a media seminar in which I was a speaker and panelist.
Racial contempt toward Indians can be fueled when Indian families appear to be benefiting from casino profits, Kelly said.
Anthony R. Pico, former chairman for the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, provided opening remarks for the Native Voices media seminar.
Poor Indians definitely outnumber rich ones, he said. And more than 70 percent of tribal gaming revenue comes from just 15 percent of all tribal casinos.
He asked this question: "How do you suspect we are perceived by non-Indians?"
"Are we regarded as the first Americans, a culturally rich people with a long and storied history? Or are we perceived as often portrayed in the media; as wealthy purveyors of casino gambling, using our riches to bully our way through Congress and state legislatures?"
Pico quoted Billy Frank Jr., a treaty-rights activist and elder of the Nisqually Nation: "Our people are beginning to be identified as casino Indians and not as the people of the land or of the salmon. Casinos help economically, but they are not who we are. We are our languages. We are our culture. We are our natural resources. We are our spirituality and we are our prayers."
Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988. A common misperception is that the act opened the door to gaming in Indian Country, when, in fact, the door to gambling always had been open. Tribes around the country have traditionally practiced games of chance.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Seminole Tribe of Florida's right to run high-stakes bingo in 1981. And the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed tribes' right to casinos in the landmark 1987 case, California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which was pushed by states, sought to gain federal and state control over Indian gaming. In the days since, tribal casinos have become burgeoning money-makers for a handful of tribes, tilting annual casino revenues to near $26 billion in 2006, up from $206 million in 1988, according to an Analysis Group industry report.
Tribal casinos around the country also have provided a half-million jobs on, off and near reservations.
"We've just completed a decade during which per capita income for Native Americans grew by more than 30 percent," Pico said.
"Where's the celebration? Where are the accolades? Why are our Native governments derogatorily referred to by the media as 'cash rich' Indian tribes? Who is perpetuating this myth of the rich Indian, when 25 percent of our people live below the poverty line?"
Pico criticized politicians for putting all of their time and effort into a fight to limit tribal gaming, instead of supporting critical Indian issues, such as housing, education, drug abuse and health care.
About two-thirds of the U.S. Native population relies on the underfunded Indian Health Service for medical needs.
"Policymakers at the federal and state level will never address the needs of Native America or treat American Indians with the respect and protocol deserved of sovereign nations as long as there is a false perception of who we are."
Kelly suggested Indian communities tackle stereotypes and defuse misperceptions head on. Most people have ideas about Indians that aren't grounded in reality, she said.
"And some of those attitudes can be pretty racist."
She said research on racism and Indian people is nearly nonexistent.
"The best way to overcome these attitudes is for people to begin thinking about tribal members as friends and thinking about the tribe as so important to the community that if they hurt them, they hurt themselves."
(Jodi Rave covers American Indian issues for Lee Enterprises. Reach her at 800-366-7186 or jodi.rave@;lee.net.)