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INDIAN GAMING: Tribal Sovereignty and American Politics.

INDIAN GAMING: Tribal Sovereignty And American Politics By W. Dale Mason

University of Oklahoma Press, $19.95

IN THE PAST THREE YEARS, California has experienced one of the most astonishing and unnoticed political movements in U.S. history. A few thousand Indians have spent more than $100 million on lobbying, ballot initiatives, and campaign contributions to turn their quasilegal gambling industry into a fully legal one. In the process, they outfoxed a hostile governor and helped elect a sympathetic one, passed two ballot initiatives, side-stepped an unfavorable California Supreme Court decision, smashed a challenge by the Nevada gambling industry, and spent more money than any interest group has ever spent in the history of American politics.

But the tribes' triumph has been greeted with a shrug, even by most Californians. Americans have come to take for granted the Indian casinos that line the nation's highways and side roads. Gambling, supporters of this practice like to say, is the new buffalo. At the beginning of the `90s, only 14 tribes operated full-scale casinos. In 1998, 148 did. Tribal gambling has suddenly become a gigantic industry in numerous states and its profits have fueled political activism, cut tribal unemployment, improved Indians' health, and buttressed their education.

It was not a foregone conclusion that all this would happen, however, and it is not certain that it will endure. That is the message of W. Dale Masons Indian Gaming: Tribal Sovereignty and American Politics. Indian gambling--I prefer not to use Mason's "gaming" euphemism--is the latest skirmish in a 200-year triangular war between the federal government, states, and tribes over Indian sovereignty. Tribes are (sometimes) winning this round, Mason argues, because they have mastered the tools of power politics: lobbying, lawyering, and money.

Written as a doctoral dissertation, Indian Gaming examines two case studies: New Mexico, where tribes succeeded in building significant gambling operations; and Oklahoma, where they have not. Mason begins with an excellent account of how gambling fits in the ancient dispute between disciples of Andrew Jackson and John Marshall over Indian sovereignty. The Jacksonian faction asserted that tribes are subject to state authority as well as federal. Marshall's Supreme Court declared that the Constitution grants tribes a sovereignty independent of states.

For most of U.S. history, the Marshall faction won the intellectual argument, but the Jacksonians determined the facts on the ground--up through the federal "termination" policy of the 1950s, to legislatively eliminate tribes.

But the Marshallites have been ascendant since the '60s, thanks to the Indian rights movement and a more sympathetic federal government. Tribes, Mason notes, have blocked state taxation, won control of mineral rights, and fought for legal jurisdiction in cases on tribal land. Gambling is the most high profile and important assertion of those rights.

Mason describes how the well-organized tribes of New Mexico repeatedly played political hardball to advance their gambling interests. In the early '90s, Gov. Bruce King refused to negotiate compacts required to make gambling legal, asserting that Class III (i.e. casino) gambling was impossible because the state criminally banned it. King, a Democrat, was a longtime supporter of Indian causes, but in the 1994 gubernatorial campaign, they switched their allegiance to Republican candidate Gary Johnson, who promised to sign compacts. They supplied Johnson with nearly 20 percent of his campaign war chest. He hammered out compacts once he was elected.

When the state supreme court voided the compacts on the grounds that New Mexico outlawed Class III-type gambling, the tribes ran to federal court and persuaded the U.S. attorney to hold his fire until the legislature could act. In 1997, after heavyweight lobbying and deal-cutting, they persuaded the legislature to allow Class III gambling and permit the compacts.

If the New Mexico experience proves the value of old-fashioned politics in Indian gambling fights, Oklahoma's suggests that such methods are not always effective. Oklahoma's 39 tribes, unlike New Mexico's, are fragmented. Most of them were herded into Oklahoma during the Indian Wars, and don't share language, governance structure, or lifestyle.

These conditions stifled Oklahoma Indians' gambling efforts. Most tribes opened bingos in the '80s, but the state squashed every effort to add Class III games. A U.S. Attorney raided a tribal casino and seized its illegal Class III machines. The Sooner tribes lacked the cash and clout to persuade the governor and legislature to sign compacts.

Mason sides with the Indians, and that's not a bad choice. He is right to applaud the political mobilization of an excluded group and to admire the New Mexican tribes for mastering interest-group politics. But by focusing narrowly on political relations and two small states, Mason skips the more ominous sociocultural and political implications of the rise of Indian gambling. In their understandable push for more lucrative gambling, tribes have opened casinos alarmingly quickly. States that never intended to have significant gambling--such as California--suddenly find themselves inundated with casinos because of the vagaries of Indian gambling law. This expansion exacts tremendous social costs that the tribes don't have to bear: In California alone, the new Indian gambling is expected to double the number of compulsive gamblers. Indian gambling skirts useful government regulation. The Nevada government's strict oversight has kept its casinos squeaky clean. But most tribes regulate themselves, and several have already been caught cutting deals with mobsters.

Mason also glosses over the political danger of the Indian gambling explosion. He points out that tribes are the only governments that make contributions to political campaigns. (It's as though the Mayor of Boston contributed city money to a candidate for Massachusetts governor.) Mason sees this as a sign of tribes' admirable political gameplaying. I'd call it a sticky conflict of interest. More important, the amount of money in Indian gambling--and in all gambling--threatens the honesty of politics. Gambling, more than almost any business, has the potential to corrupt government, because it generates mammoth profits and its very existence depends on government imprimatur.

In California, the few dozen gambling tribes have become overnight the most powerful interest group in the state. The San Manuel Band alone spent $25 million on a single ballot initiative, more than $300,000 for each of its 85 members. The tribes have so much money that the state doesn't dare act against them, and too many state officials are drinking at their trough. In Connecticut, similarly, the Pequots and Mohegans have used their gambling duopoly to prevent opposition and ensure a friendly legislature.

Masons book doesn't address the possibility of Indian gambling becoming too strong, because his cases don't warrant it. In Oklahoma, the state has squashed the tribal demands for Class III casinos. In New Mexico, the population is too diffuse for gambling to become a gigantic industry. But other Americans should worry. It's wonderful when the New Mexican pueblos get involved in politics and become an active interest group. It is less wonderful when the San Manuel Band or Pequots get involved in politics and buy up the government lock, stock, and barrel. Then the profits of Indian gambling can seem too much of a good thing.

DAVID PLOTZ is the Washington bureau chief.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Plotz, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2000
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