TRIBAL “gaming,” as it is rather delicately called these days, began with the establishment of the first high-stakes bingo game in Indian Country by the Seminoles, in Florida in 1979. However, the current boom was initiated by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, a Reagan-era initiative that was designed to promote tribal self-sufficiency as an alternative to the federal dole. At the same time, however, it exacerbated the fraught relationship between tribes and the states by giving Indians the exclusive right to regulate any gambling on their lands that was already permitted in any form within a given state, enabling tribal lawyers, for instance, to argue successfully that occasional church-basement “Las Vegas Night” fundraisers formed a precedent for permanent casino gambling on reservations. Not surprisingly, states reacted with almost universal hostility to legislation that created untaxable competition for their own lotteries and racetracks, and, more significantly, compelled other state residents to tolerate an industry that they might find repugnant and over which they had no control. “What happens within a state ought to be decided by that state’s citizens,” Governor Roy Romer of Colorado, then-chairman of the National Governor’s Conference, declared in 1992. “A state ought to make that decision for itself, and it ought not to have a dictate from the federal government as to what should be the form of gaming and gambling within the state.”
As an economic development tool the act achieved considerable success. Since 1988, tribal gaming has grown into a $6 billion industry, accounting for about 2 percent of the $330 billion that Americans legally bet each year. By 1994, more than 160 tribes were operating some form of gambling activity, including forty full-fledged casinos, in twenty states. “Gaming is all that many tribes have today that can work,” Gaiashkibos, the Ojibwe president of the National Congress of American Indians told a Congressional subcommittee. “The harsh reality is that the financial world has not historically looked towards locating business on Indian reservations. We had no competitive edge to attract non-Indian business nor the financial resources to create our own businesses and employ our people. But that window of opportunity which opened the way for gaming has given us the competitive edge and opened the door for other economic ventures as well.”
Success is by no means evenly distributed. Gambling halls on remote or badly governed reservations are often as unprofitable and poorly managed as other tribal enterprises, while casinos fortunate enough to be situated near large cities have sometimes reaped astonishing profits. Some tribes have dissipated their earnings in lavish per capita payments to tribal members that evoke the squandered oil and land-sale windfalls of earlier eras. Others have invested in the kind of infrastructure that most American towns take for granted, but which many Indian communities conspicuously lack: fire and police departments, clinics, child care centers, roads, sewerage systems and power plants, and new housing. The Sycuan Band of Mission Indians, near San Diego, has used the profits from its casino to establish a health clinic and a fire department, while the nearby Cabazon Band built a new power plant and 950 units of housing. The Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin endowed a community college. The Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin funded a $9 million project to extend the city of Green Bay’s sewer and water system to the reservation. The tiny Shakopee-Mdewakanton Dakota Community, which owns one of the biggest casinos in Minnesota, has wiped out unemployment, established a revolving fund for home mortgages, provided every one of its members with trust funds and every student with a full college scholarship, and appropriated as much as $80,000 per year in per capita payments for some families.
By far the most profitable tribal gambling operation of all lies among the steep, oak-forested hills of eastern Connecticut, on the reservation of the 310-member Mashantucket Pequot Tribe. The Pequots, who barely a decade ago were not even recognized as an Indian tribe by the federal government, now own one of the largest casinos in the world, grossing about $800 million annually, half again as much as Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal, the biggest casino in Atlantic City, and comprising nearly 15 percent of all the money taken in by Indian gaming nationally. Foxwoods Casino has also made the Pequots the largest single employer in eastern Connecticut, with a staff of more than 9,000, only a handful of them Pequot. Since its establishment in 1991, the casino has become a mecca for gamblers from throughout the Northeast, and on any given day, up to 35,000 gamblers crowd the casino’s 7.6 acre gambling floor to play blackjack, craps, roulette, acey-deucey, roulette, and nearly 4,000 slot machines. The 47-table poker room remains open around the clock, while the football-sized bingo hall seats 3,100 players at two sittings a day. Amidst all this, there is little that could be called “Indian” besides the kitsch of “wampum” betting cards and the beaded tunics worn by the cocktail waitresses.