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Gambling with Success in the Golden State

Commentary

By Adam I. Arenson

In the past month, Native American reservations in California, including the Barona, Viejas and Sycuan bands in San Diego County, have been required to remove video gaming machines, the high-profile and high-profit instrument of their gambling revolution. As reported in the August 9 San Diego Union-Tribune, the removal comes as the first painful step in a compromise arranged by U.S. Attorney Alan Bersin, who acknowledges that only Governor Pete C. Wilson has the power to negotiate an all-encompassing agreement that can guarantee a role for Indian gaming in California's future.

Until now, the casinos have taken advantage of federal laws that allow Native American tribes to duplicate any form of gambling currently legal in the surrounding states, laws which have allowed them to build casinos reminiscent of Las Vegas-plush carpets, smoky rooms and an atmosphere outside of time. Soon, however, there are subtle differences: the motifs are of dreamcatchers and cacti, and the rooms are labeled with Native American names. More importantly, the casinos' impact can be felt beneficially 50 miles away, in the low-income neighborhoods of San Diego.

The tribes with casinos have formed partnerships to fund bone-marrow donor registration drives and park refurbishing, and they have become prominent donors to the local charities which help San Diego's homeless, HIV-positive-and unemployed populations. Gambling has been nothing less than a boon for Native Americans in the region; in a decade, groups of Native Americans grappling with disaffected and socially marginal residents have turned their tidbits of sovereignty into a multi-million-dollar business venture that provides employment, substance abuse rehabilitation and a sense of pride for the historically embattled tribes.

In the past decade, the Native Americans have transformed their situation from one of needing federal aid to taking the lead in carving out a successful and sustainable economic niche.

But their success is threatened. Wilson, a former mayor of San Diego, seems oblivious to the remarkably positive impact Indian gaming has had on the entire county, how both the opportunities for entertainment and the profusion of charitable donations have made the Native American groups favorites among San Diego residents.

Why, then, is Wilson forcing on-screen poker machines to deal a premature last hand? In interviews, Wilson has said he is simply doing his job, that he is following a court decision in June that deemed slot machines illegal in California.

Indeed, it is not inaccurate to describe Wilson as having fulfilled his gubernatorial obligations in this instance; he is taking a narrow view of his options, choosing not to extend an olive branch to tribes which engage in what he considers "illegal acts." But Wilson's rhetoric masks the true implications of his stand. In reality, his position amounts to stonewalling the Native American groups without even having the decency to discuss his reasoning. His intransigence shows how small the scope of Native American power truly is while also demonstrating how little he cares to understand their newfound success.

What is most striking is that Wilson's stubborn resistance uses the court's ruling as a pretext for a radical stance which is not required by the decision itself: the narrowly tailored verdict requires only that a parimutuel betting system like the one at the Golden State's racetracks be used at Native American casinos, not that all gaming be put to an abrupt stop. So as long as tribes devise a system which pits competitors against each other rather than against "the house," their activities would conform to the court's ruling.

In the face of this fact, Governor Wilson is bold enough to accuse Native Americans of illegal activity and continues to reject the path of negotiation with tribes already operating casinos. With this move, Wilson seems eager to join the long, list of government officials who have blocked Native Americans' attempts to sustain themselves. In the mighty modern success story of Indian video gaming, Wilson seems willing to call out the cavalry to do nothing more than pull the plug, betraying promises to America's first citizens in the process.

Governor Wilson's approach to this conflict is, however, depressingly unoriginal; the histories of the indigenous peoples of the United States are littered with broken promises, unpredictable shifts in attitude and policies that tear at the fabric of a Native American lifestyle.

In 1887, the Dawes Severalty Act forced the splitting of historically communal Native American property into individual family plots through allotment, pressing the Anglo ideal of the homestead on a people who had developed a high level of communal cooperation. Not until 1934, with the Wheeler-Howard Act, did the American government again recognize any right of the Native Americans to any tribal identity or land holdings. Roughly a century after the original devastating program for "Americanizing" the Native Americans, the same ugly scenario is being played out in California: a Native American attempt at self-sufficiency is held up by a state government bent on meddling with success.

"Wilson seems eager to join the long list of government officals who have blocked Native Americans' attempts to sustain themselves."

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