Tim Giago: Honeymoon is over for California tribes

Has the luster and adventure of the Indian casinos in California started to wear thin? A labor union and racetrack owner filed ballot measures on Friday seeking to overturn expansive new gambling compacts for some of the state’s richest Indian tribes, according to an article in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

The measures would give the voters of California the opportunity to vote on the pending compacts that would allow the Sycuan of El Cajon and the Pechanga of Temecula to build some of the largest casinos in the world.

The corporate owner of the Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows horse racetracks joined with the union UNITE HERE, with oral support from some of the rival Indian tribes, to block the expansion. The 23-year compacts would permit the Pechanga and Morongo to operate up to 7,500 slot machines each. Sycuan and Agua Caliente, a Palm Springs tribe, could have as many as 5,000 slot machines each. All four tribes are currently limited to 2,000 slot machines, the maximum under the state’s 1999 compacts.

In the early years of gaming in California rivalries between some gaming tribes has escalated because rich tribes like the Agua Caliente and Pechanga tried to block compacts negotiated by Pala and the Lytton band of San Pablo and the Quechan of Imperial County that delayed or blocked deals that cost those tribes millions of dollars. Those tribes will probably support the ballot measures by UNITE HERE and the racetracks against the four tribes seeking the huge expansion.

There appears to be growing opposition to some of the gaming compacts approved by Gov. Arnold Schwarzennegger in recent years and some polls suggest that Californians may be starting to question the rapid growth of casino gaming.

Cheryl Schmidt, head of the gaming watchdog Stand Up for California, said, “There is a change in attitude. People have soured on the political influence of the tribes, their internal infighting and they want to limit the proliferation of gaming.”

Jack Gribbon of UNITE HERE said, “Voters are circumspect about this expansion. They realize it is the rich getting richer that does nothing for workers, does nothing for poor tribes and I believe we will win that argument.”

A spokesman for the racetracks, Greg Larson, said, “These compacts grant a monopoly on electronic gaming devices to tribes closing the door on California racing’s ability to compete with racetracks in other states.”

Most Californians supported Indian gaming when it was about helping Indians rise out of poverty, but many now feel that this mission has been accomplished 10-times over for most of California’s tribes although there are still a few isolated tribes that continue to live in poverty.

The political infighting by some of the tribes against each other as gaming became the goose that laid the golden egg has also turned off many Californians and has generated rivalries between different tribes that would support the union and the racetracks against their fellow tribes. “Tribes and tribal leaders have long memories,” said Howard Dickstein, an attorney representing the Pala tribe.

The ballot measures would place before voters four bills that ratified the compacts. Independently, the gaming agreements still must be approved by the Interior Department before taking effect according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

While visiting San Diego last week I was reminded of how far tribes like the Sycuan have come when I attended an outdoor, evening concert called Marvin at the Movies that starred the world famous songwriter and conductor, Marvin Hamlisch. Several members of the tribe were present at the concert primarily because the Sycuan Resort and Casino sponsored the entire event. In fact a full-page ad in the program pictured a photo of the tribe’s chairman, Daniel J. Tucker, and photos of the entire tribal council.

I had the fortune, or misfortune, of staying at the Marriott on the Harbor not knowing that next door at the San Diego Convention Center 120,000 fanatics were attending the Comic-con International Convention. I knew something was up when I climbed on the elevator at the hotel and was suddenly joined by Spiderman, Darth Vader and Superman.

I vividly recall visiting the Sycuan and Pechanga when I was stationed with the Navy in San Diego in the 1950s and I was appalled at the extreme poverty I found there. It reminded me so much of my home on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where the riches of Indian gaming are only a dream. I can only admire these tribes for their good fortune.

As the old saying goes, “There are only three ways to a successful business and they are location, location and location.”

Tim Giago is an Oglala Lakota born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He was the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today newspaper and the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. His latest book “Children Left Behind, The Dark Legacy of the Indian Missions,” is now available at: order@clearlightbooks.com. The book just won the Bronze Star from the Independent Publishers Awards. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com.

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