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Seminar Focuses on Native American Gaming

By Leondra R. Kruger

Slot machines and cultural decay do not go hand in hand, dozens of Native American leaders said Saturday at "Raising the Stakes," a Harvard conference on Native American gaming sponsored by Cultural Survival.

The day-long conference, held in the Peabody Museum's Geological Lecture Hall, drew a crowd of approximately 100 students and community activists. About half of the attendees were Native American.

According to conference organizer Nicholas L. Ribis, one purpose of the conference was to draw together a large number of Native Americans directly affected by the growing number of Native American-run casinos in America, "so they can ask more questions and foster discussion."

Though the conference was designed to represent several different perspectives on the issue, one point of view seemed to predominate.

Though many Native American leaders agree that with casinos comes a risk of higher crime rates, prostitution and drug use, the benefits of the gambling revenues far outweigh the costs, participants said. As Sam Sapiel of Maine's Penobscots said in the opening speech, "[Gambling] is the only asset we have."

According to Ribis, Native American have the highest unemployment rate and among the lowest levels of health care in the U.S. "These nations are already in the middle of genocide," Ribis said.

Conference participants also noted that high stakes gambling is already a matter of course in a state like Massachusetts, where the lottery creates some $600 million in revenue each year.

"It's strange to say gaming is going to destroy our culture--[gaming's] already there," Ribis says. "People don't say that because it happens at a convenience store, it's going to cause excess loitering."

Professor of Anthropology David H.P. Maybury-Lewis, founder and president of Cultural Survival, was careful to note that gaming is not opposed to his organization's efforts to maintain indigenous cultures around the world.

"Cultural survival does not mean cultural preservation," Maybury-Lewis said. "Cultural survival does not mean all Indians must live in teepees."

Native American nations are allowed to operate casinos because of their status as "semi-sovereign" under U.S. law.

S. Tim Wapato, executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA), urged the audience not to think of permissibility Native American casinos as a "loop hole in the law," but as a boon for both destitute tribes and the communities in which the casinos are built.

Though many argue that casinos bring crime, Wapato said casinos also bring jobs. Contrary to belief, 85 percent of the positions in Native American casinos are filled by non-Native Americans, Wapato said.

"I always say my job as director [of NIGA] is dispelling ignorance." Wapato said of the opposition to Indian gaming. "Well, I've looked down the road and I don't think I'll be out of work for a long time."

Rachel L. Murphy, whose Meherin name is Snow Wolf, works at the North American Indian Center and the Native American Awareness Centers in Boston.

She said she attended the conference to begin forming an opinion on the issue of gaming in her native North Carolina.

Murphy said the conference helped her to see how casinos can help Native American communities.

"We are still on the low end of the scale," Murphy said. "We have poverty, poor housing, medical care, and education. If gaming will bring these things to our people, then I'm for it.

"I always say my job as director [of NIGA] is dispelling ignorance." Wapato said of the opposition to Indian gaming. "Well, I've looked down the road and I don't think I'll be out of work for a long time."

Rachel L. Murphy, whose Meherin name is Snow Wolf, works at the North American Indian Center and the Native American Awareness Centers in Boston.

She said she attended the conference to begin forming an opinion on the issue of gaming in her native North Carolina.

Murphy said the conference helped her to see how casinos can help Native American communities.

"We are still on the low end of the scale," Murphy said. "We have poverty, poor housing, medical care, and education. If gaming will bring these things to our people, then I'm for it.

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