The Indian Scam

Posted: Aug 21, 2003 12:00 AM

American Indians have always occupied an outsized place in our imagination, usually as a noble people, at one with a pristine North American continent prior to the arrival of the white man. It's time to upgrade the image. Forget buffalo, eagle feathers and tribal dances. Think slots, Harrah's and dirty politics.

The California recall is providing the nation an intense education in contemporary American politics, and high on the list of lessons is that Indian tribes have, lucratively, sold their souls to gambling and can buy off or defeat anyone who might want to stand in their way. California tribes make some $5 billion a year in gambling revenue and have poured more than $120 million into state political campaigns since 1998.

Across the country, from Minnesota to Oklahoma, it's much the same story. It's time to ditch the fiction of tribal sovereignty and recognize the tribes for what they are: good, old-fashioned, all-American sleaze merchants and scam artists. They should be fully welcomed into the American family like used-car salesmen, Hollywood and telephone marketers.

A 25-member California tribe, the Cabazons, created the predicate for the explosion of Indian gambling by winning a Supreme Court decision in 1987 allowing tribes to run gambling operations that otherwise would violate state law. Congress soon passed legislation saying that gambling must be allowed on reservations, and states should reach "compacts" with tribes over the details.

In California, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson was a tough bargainer with the tribes, so they took matters into their own hands. They spent tens of millions of dollars to pass two propositions opening the state to more Indian gambling, and they bought new Gov. Gray Davis ($1.8 million in tribal cash for his re-election last year), who cut a generous compact with them in 1999.

California is now on the way to becoming the West Coast's Las Vegas, with an Indian inflection. The tribes oppose the expansion of anyone else's gambling in the state, but aggressively push their own. The specter of recall has Davis eager to cut deals for more Indian gambling, as he hears the footsteps of Democratic recall candidate Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (roughly $500,000 in tribal contributions from the Barona and Viejas bands alone since 1998).

Indian gambling is an ill-disguised scam. Some so-called tribes have 30 people or less. They basically rent their names to Las Vegas casinos that run their gambling operations for as much as a 40 percent cut of the take. Gambling revenues are supposed to go to the welfare of the tribes, but any excess can be pocketed by individuals, thus enriching a lucky few. Across the country, outside casino interests have been involved in the invention of new tribes simply to provide more platforms for gambling.

Because the tribes are supposedly sovereign, they pay no taxes in California, so the state has gained nothing from the explosion of gambling. All that has happened is that tribes have been empowered to buy whatever they want. The San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians -- 67-members strong -- spent half a million dollars per member to pass the two California gambling propositions.

The ultimate answer to the Indian scam in California and elsewhere is to end the fiction of tribal sovereignty. If the tribes are sovereign nations, why are they allowed to interfere in American elections by contributing huge amounts of money? When another sovereign nation, like China, pours money into American politics, as it did in 2000, it's a national scandal and cause for an FBI investigation.

Sovereignty has not only allowed tribes to make an end run around laws against gambling, but has perpetuated arbitrary Third World-style government on reservations that makes it impossible for businesses to operate there. End tribal sovereignty, and perhaps Indians can begin to find less sketchy ways to make money than slot machines, and then our image of Indians can once again be something more noble.