So Why Indian Casinos, Anyway?

Published August 15, 2008 by OCR Editor

A majority of the casino gaming in the US is run and even regulated through the Indian reservations, usually with simple nods to the Feds. A look at American history, society, business and law enforcement.

From the earliest days of colonial period, Americans have had a rocky relationship with their Indian neighbors. The Native Americans resented European expansion; the settlers pushed west onto tribal lands. Conflict was inevitable.

By 1890, the western ‘frontier of settlement' was a thing of the past, and the Indian tribes had mostly been confined to a series of reservations across most of the 48 contiguous states. These Indian reservations had, and still have, an ambiguous relationship with the US and state governments.

Formed by treaties between the Federal authorities and the individual tribes, the reservations are, technically, sovereign entities, not bound by state laws and only loosely bound by Federal regulations and laws. Given the history of distrust between Indians and whites, it's an uneasy relationship; sometimes it works well, and sometimes its bursts into violence (think Leonard Peltier).

Gone gambling
So where to Indian casinos fit into the story? How do they relate to the history of conflict, and the Indians' long defeat? Oddly enough, the fit is logical, and it boils down to money.

The Indian reservations were set up, for the most part, in the latter half of the 1800s, on land which the US government deemed marginal for settlement or development. Their purpose was not so much to give the Indians a place to live, as to get ‘em out of the way. It's an ugly chapter of American history.

The reservation system, combined with prejudice, bigotry, and segregation, left a majority of American Indians (Native Americans, as they prefer to be called today) living in deep poverty by the mid 1900s, with, at best, run-down facilities and no particular tax base or income. And then, in the latter half of the 1900s, some enterprising tribal leaders made a few important connections...

Know thy neighbors
First, they noticed that a lot of Americans liked to gamble. It was hard not to notice this, since many people would go to the reservations for their games. They did that because a majority of states (Nevada and New Jersey are notable as exceptions) have strict laws regulating or forbidding gambling, whether casino based or private games.

Second, the tribal leaders began to realize that their reservations were islands of legal gambling within the states. To take one example, Michigan simply forbade casino gambling until the mid-1990s. To take advantage of this, the tribes on the Isabella Indian Reservation, near Mt. Pleasant, built the Soaring Eagle Casino: a first-class resort hotel and casino, complete with five-star restaurants and spas. Soaring Eagle is only a few hours north of metropolitan Detroit, and is a well known vacation destination in Michigan and Ohio.

The final thing the tribal leaders saw was the sheer quantity of money to be made from operating casinos. This writer has been to the Isabella Reservation; casino profits have paid for new school buildings, fire and police stations, emergency vehicles, and an ambulance service. Verified tribal members are entitled to a percentage of annual profits, as well. The reservation can set its own gaming regulations, and pays no taxes to state for Federal governments.

The effects, both positive and not
Most tribes within the US made the same realizations, and Indian casinos have popped up all over. The income from them has permitted tremendous improvements in the standard of living at most reservations. Several of the tribes used their unique regulatory status to get around Federal regulations and enter the Internet gaming market, as well. Canada, with a similar history to the US, is home to the Kahnawake Gaming Commission.

The picture, of course, is not completely rosy, but it's not likely to change anytime soon. Most legal gambling in the US is based on Indian reservations, in the Indian casinos.

See also

Is NY Indian Gambling Legal?

Legislators To Revise Indian Recognition System

Indian Casinos Getting Down to Business

US Supreme Court Favors Indian Casinos

Last Chance for the Blue Jays: MLB ALCS Odds


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