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Continental divide: casinos have helped make some Indian tribes rich. But what about the many Native Americans who don't benefit from gambling?

A century and a half after a treaty between expansion-hungry white settlers and overpowered tribe members brought it into existence, the Omaha Indian Reservation is a depressing example of what life is like for many Native Americans today.

With an unemployment rate of about 30 percent, more than 40 percent of the families on this Nebraska reservation with about 3,000 people live in poverty. Alcoholism is common. And the prospects of getting a good job are slim. With such a bleak future before them, many of the reservation's young have essentially given up on education, skipping school an average of once a week.

Now consider the members of the Mohegan tribe and their reservation, some 1,200 miles east in southeastern Connecticut. The land is mostly taken up by the Mohegan Sun, one of the largest casino complexes in the world, where about 30,000 people a day come to gamble, dine, watch shows, and stay at its hotels.

The operation, which opened in 1996 and has been expanding ever since, is a gold mine, with annual revenues reported to be $1 billion. When a new 34-floor hotel opened on the reservation, the guests of honor included former President Bill Clinton and Chef.

And directly or indirectly, much of the money--although how much, outsiders can only guess--is going to the tribe's 1,600 members. Among other things, the money pays for community services like health care and housing and education for all tribe members, right through college and graduate school. "What gaming has allowed the Mohegan to do is to educate their children and care for their elderly," says Charles Bunnell, a spokesman for the tribe.

The Mohegan and Omaha represent the two extremes of Native American life today, which is characterized by both promise and extreme poverty, some 500 years after Europeans and the peoples populating this continent began dealing with one another.

There is little doubt that the 4 million Americans who identify themselves as wholly or partly Indian are becoming more of a power in this country, especially in politics, where money from gambling and other ventures has made some tribes a force to be reckoned with.

Beyond that, some say, there has also been a renewal of interest among Indians in their traditions, a turnabout from the past, when it was government policy to try to erase Indian identity in the name of assimilation. There was a time, for example, when Indian students were forbidden to speak their native tongue. Jessiline Anderson, an Omaha Indian who teaches psychology at the University of Omaha, says that her mother told stories of being disciplined at boarding school when she broke the rule. "We are a product of a generation of people who were made to feel ashamed of who they were," says Anderson, who is 50.

Those rules are a thing of the past, though growing up Indian can still pose special challenges. Ana Kapp, a 16-year-old high school junior in Hampton, Me., who is a member of the Penobscot tribe, says: "When I was young, I was picked on a lot and called names like Pocahontas."

But Kapp has found a way to keep a foot in both worlds, going to a nearby reservation to take part in traditional ceremonies like sweat lodges, but also maintaining friendships with white kids at her school. She values her Indian heritage.

In fact, some Native Americans note with relief, many of the old negative stereotypes, born from decades of cowboy-and-Indian movies, have died out, making it easier for Indians to gain acceptance in the broader culture.

Some sports teams have dropped once-common Indian names, mascots, and symbols that many Indians find offensive, although many professional teams have refused to do so. Explaining the decision to replace his high school's Native American mascot with an eagle, a principal in Omaha, Neb., wrote: "The practice of using Indians as mascots belongs to the same century that required African-American children to use a separate drinking fountain and to sit in the rear of a bus."


But new stereotypes have emerged, among them the image of the American Indian made wealthy, even unfairly so, because of the law passed by Congress in 1988 that made it much easier for reservations to open casinos. The law, passed after years of lobbying by Indian tribes who saw gambling as a way to jump-start depressed tribal economies, opens the door for reservations to build casinos, even if their state governments oppose them.

Why are the tribes given that kind of power? From the beginning, European settlers and Indian tribes treated one another as one nation might treat another, and there has been a government-to-government relationship since the United States was formed. In fact, the Constitution gives Congress the power to oversee trade with the Indians as it does for trade with any other nation.

Under federal policies, tribes are recognized as sovereign and are allowed to levy tribal taxes and adopt local laws. There are more than 500 federally recognized Indian tribes, and an estimated 500,000 Native Americans live on reservations, according to 2002 census figures, some in the same places to which their ancestors were forcibly relocated by the U.S. government. (See "The Trail of Tears," p. 16.)

More than 200 tribes now have gambling operations, and some are, indeed, rolling in money, including the Mohegan and the Mashantucket Pequois in Connecticut (owners of the highly successful Foxwoods casino), the Seminole in Florida, and the Pechanga Band of Mission Indians in California.


Drawn by the possibility of becoming rich, some 300 groups of Native Americans (some with only a few members) have taken a renewed interest in their heritage, hiring genealogists to help them win recognition as Indian tribes by the federal government. (The real power behind many of these efforts: powerful, non-Indian investors who also stand to make a fortune from casinos.)

The money generated by gambling has provided jobs to many Indians and given them the kind of political clout that Native Americans could never have imagined as their land and culture disappeared over the centuries. In 2002, Indians made about $7 million in federal campaign donations. More than 80 percent of the money came from tribes with casinos.

But gambling has been no cure-all. For the tribes that do have casinos, they provide some much-needed jobs but not necessarily the foundation for a vibrant tribal economy. And, of course, most tribes have no gambling at all, which means that "Indian Country" is becoming divided between haves and have-nots. "I wouldn't say there's too much of a middle ground," says Jacqueline Johnson, the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.

According to that group, there have been major economic improvements in recent years, but more than a quarter of Indians still live in poverty, lacking roads, bridges, phone service, and even running water and toilets. There are often serious problems with health care and education. On some reservations, unemployment is as high as 80 percent, compared with 5 percent or so for the rest of the country. And with little job training available, and minimal investment money coming in, it is unclear how things will improve.

Says Andrew Huff, a staff attorney with the Indian Law Resource Center, an advocacy group in Washington: "We do need to do a lot more work to move the American understanding of modern Indian reality in a direction that reflects what's actually happening there."
Largest Native
American tribes in
the U.S. (by population)

1. Cherokee 729,533
2. Navajo 298,197
3. Choctaw 158,774
4. Sioux 153,360
5. Chippewa 149,669
6. Apache 96,833
7. Blackfeet 85,750
8. Iroquois 80,822
9. Pueblo 74,085
10. Creek 71,310



To help students understand some key issues concerning Native Americans, including the income gap between tribes that run casinos and those that don't; issues of identity; and how Americans view Indians today.

CRITICAL THINKING/DEBATE: Tell students that opponents of casinos and other Indian businesses say they drain revenue from non-Indian businesses and generate congestion and other problems. Should Indians be able to do whatever they wish with their land? What rights should their neighbors have in local development planning?

ASSIMILATION: Why might government (and schools) have felt the need to force the assimilation of Indians into American culture? (Some might argue that to recognize value in Indian culture would be to admit that treatment of the Indians--including seizure of their lands--was wrong or unlawful.)

UNDERSTANDING: Andrew Huff of the Indian Law Resource Center says more work is needed to improve ordinary Americans' understanding of Indian life.

Have students write a public-service TV announcement about American Indians today. Which one or two of the issues or concerns addressed in "Continental Divide" might they write about? Have students write at least five to eight sentences in which they explain, as Huff calls it, "modern Indian reality."

TEAM VOTE: Ask students to take a vote on whether athletic teams should use Indian names. Then break the class into two groups and have students present arguments both defending and supporting the use of Indian names by school or professional athletic teams.


* Did this article chip away at any stereotypes you may have had about Indians? If so, how?

* What does the link between Indians' new wealth and new political clout say about government and politics?

WEB WATCH: provides illustrations, documents, and photos relating to Indians, from Meso-America to 1990. The National Congress of American Indians reviews 48 issues of special interest to Indians.

(Quiz 2)

Continental divide.

1. Which of the following statements is most accurate?

a Gambling revenues have helped better the lives of many Indians but numerous tribes without gambling remain poor.

b Gambling revenues have enabled some Indian tribes to elect their members to important political offices.

c Much of the Indians' gambling revenues have been squandered on unsound projects.

d Some states have been able to curtail Indian gambling operations.

2. Indian tribes were able to open gambling casinos on their reservations as a result of a

a a presidential, order in the 1980s.

b their successful prosecution of a lawsuit in California.

c the provisions of a 19th-century treaty.

d a law passed by Congress in 1088.

3. In years past, the federal government's policy toward Indians included

a continuing cash payments for their lost lands.

b trying to stamp out Indian culture in the name of assimilation. c treating Indians like other Americans.

d detachment from Indian society.

4. The best description of the political relationship between tribes and the federal government is

a nation to nation.

b state to nation.

c people to people.

d elected to unelected.

5. Why do you think Andrew Huff, an attorney with the Indian Law Resource Center, says non-Indians should learn more about Indian life?

Upfront Quiz 2

1. (a) Gambling revenues have helped better the lives of many Indians, but numerous tribes without gambling remain poor. 2. (d) a law passed by Congress in 1988. 3. (b) trying to stamp out Indian culture in the name of assimilation. 4. (a) nation to nation. 5. Answers will vary but might include the idea that awareness of the problems faced by many Indians might generate support for economic development and education programs to help improve Indians' lives.

Indian Gambling is a Winner (For Some)

Life on America's Indian reservations is generally hard. Unemployment on the poorest reservations is as high as 80 percent. School drop-out rates are high, and other social indicators are bleak. But for some tribes, their reservations have become islands of economic opportunity.

The boom came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that Indian tribes could establish gambling casinos independent of state regulation, as long as the states in which they were located also offered some type of gambling.

The result of that Court ruling has produced billions of dollars in gambling revenues for the Indian tribes that operate 330 casinos in 27 states.

The graphs on this page show both total gambling revenue over a five-year period and gambling revenues by region in 2003, the latest year for which there are complete data.

Use the financial data in these graphs to answer the questions below.

1. In 2003, approximately 20 percent of total Indian gambling revenue went to Indians in one of the regions identified on the graph. Which region was it?

2. Suppose the final data on Indian casino revenue for 2004 show the same dollar increase over 2003 as that between 2002 and 2003. What would be the approximate total, gambling revenue for 2004?

a $17.3 billion b $16.9 billion c $18.4- billion d $20 billion

3. In 2001 (a year not shown on the graph), gambling revenue in region 2 was 65 percent less than in 2003. What was region 2's revenue in 2001?

a $600 million b $3 billion c $1.5 billion d $2 billion

4. Which state was part of the group in which annual, gambling revenue increased to just under $2 billion in 2003?

a Iowa b Connecticut c Minnesota d New Mexico

5. What would gambling revenues in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas be in 2005 if they rose to a level of about one-half that shown on the graph for the region in which Mississippi is located?

a $1 billion b $600 million c $2.2 billion d $3.2 billion

6. Cut total revenue in the year--by 50 percent and you obtain a dollar figure that is almost equal. to total revenue in region 2 in 2003.

Graph Exercise

1. region four. 2. (c) $18.4 billion. 3. (c) $1.5 billion. 4. (d) New Mexico. 5. (c) $2.2 billion. 6. 1999.

Eric Nagourney is an editor for The New York Times.
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Title Annotation:National
Author:Nagourney, Eric
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 24, 2005
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