The Magazine

California Gambling

From the September 15, 2003 issue: Heap big casinos in residential neighborhoods.

Sep 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 01 • By DAVID DEVOSS
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Los Angeles

THREE YEARS AGO, an earnest young Indian chief appeared in a multimillion dollar television campaign advocating passage of an amendment to the state constitution that would give Indian tribes a monopoly to operate Las Vegas-style casinos on their reservations. Dressed in faded jeans and a work shirt, with the desiccated Sonoran desert as a backdrop, the chief explained that passage would allow impoverished Native Americans finally to become economically self-sufficient. Prompted by guilt, knowledge that most reservations were located in rural badlands, or perhaps the prospect of no longer having to drive to Nevada in order to gamble, California voters responded to the plea and approved the Indian Gaming Initiative with 64.5 percent of the vote.

Today, California is suffering from the unforeseen implications of its beneficence. Dozens of the state's Indian tribes are using profits from their desert casinos to buy new "homelands" closer to population centers. There are plans to build casinos in the Sonoma wine country, along the Ventura coast, and just outside Oakland. Three tribes have asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to grant them federal tribal recognition so they can establish reservations inside Los Angeles. Indeed, Indian heritage has become such a bonanza that hundreds of urbanized Native Americans have suddenly discovered their roots and are petitioning the BIA to certify 54 new California tribes.

Politicians caught between the political correctness of supporting Native Americans and voters outraged by the proliferation of casinos don't know which way to turn. Three years ago, Sen. Barbara Boxer pushed through Congress a bill providing federal recognition for Northern California's Coast Miwok tribe. Boxer circumvented the Bureau of Indian Affairs after receiving assurances from the Miwoks that they would not open a casino. But this past April the tribe hired a team of influential political advisers, which included Boxer's son Doug, and announced plans for a massive casino and resort operated by Nevada financiers. Miwok chief Greg Sarris, a college English professor and Hollywood screenwriter, says he's just trying to lift his people out of poverty. But Sonoma officials say they'll remember Boxer's role in this double-cross when she runs for reelection next year.

Once the BIA acknowledges a tribe's existence and "federalizes" its property, the new reservation legally becomes a sovereign nation, exempt from local taxes, state labor laws, municipal ordinances, zoning restrictions, and environmental review. Some tribes have offered to pay mitigation fees for the disruption gambling creates, but the money seldom covers the amount counties spend on added police and fire protection. The resulting strain on municipal resources, plus the panhandling, drug use, and traffic that casinos attract, has galvanized neighborhoods where the quality of life is eroding.

In San Bernardino, the skirmish line runs across a dry creek bed, past an elementary school, and around a maze of suburban cul-de-sacs lined with ranch homes and SUVs. Several years ago, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians added 28 acres to their reservation, promising to use the land for housing and a community recreation center. Instead, they recently announced plans to expand their casino, build an event center, and erect a six-story parking garage. The 17,000 neighbors living next to the proposed $50 million construction project are furious, but there is little they can do since the tribe is exempt from political oversight. "The San Manuel band may be a sovereign nation, but aren't we part of a sovereign nation too?" asks homeowner Rheba Hewitt. "Why can't Colin Powell come out here to represent us?"

Consisting of 194 souls, only 80 of them adult, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians prospers only because of gambling. Its smoke-filled casino and bingo hall provides each tribal member a $91,000-a-month income. Its bleak reservation is stippled with demi-palazzos. Still, tribal chairman Deron Marquez claims it's his people who are under attack. "Nobody was interested in us until we began to make money," he says. "Our neighbors want us to be like 'Dances with Wolves,' but we'd rather be accountants and lawyers."

Thanks to the Indian Gaming Initiative--and the fact that tribes pay no property, corporate, or sales tax--California's Indians have achieved self-sufficiency and more. Each of their 62,000 slot machines rakes in over $300 in profit a day. When added with revenue from bingo, cards, and video games, the state's 54 Indian casinos earn $5.1 billion a year, a sum that exceeds Atlantic City's and is more than half that of Nevada, a state with 401 casinos.