LEMOORE, Calif. — Zachary Runningwolf Brown trots around a cornfield and into the parking lot of the Palace Indian Gaming Center, reshuffling his papers and eyeing the neon lights of his next adversary.
It's Day 22 of his lonely run from Oakland to San Diego to raise money for Indigenous Nations, an agency that provides American Indian foster homes for Indian and mixed-race children.
His pitch: Tribes taking in more than $1.4 billion from gamblers in California alone each year should share more of their wealth for the greater Indian good.
It's not a popular proposal.
Tribes have been sympathetic but say that Runningwolf's way of showing up unannounced at their casinos--what he calls the traditional way tribes ask for help--makes it difficult to take him seriously.
"You can't just thrust yourself in there and expect everyone to share your passion and understand the significance of what you're doing," said Adam Gonzales, assistant general manager of the Tachi Yokut tribe's Palace Indian Gaming Center.
By the time he reaches the Palace, just south of Fresno, with 500 miles done and about 500 miles to go, Runningwolf has been turned down by all 10 of the casinos he has visited so far on his zigzag journey south.
So far, his total take is a T-shirt and a hat; no money for his charity. Security guards at the last casino walked him out before he even introduced himself.
But Runningwolf remains undaunted. Each morning, he bikes seven to 10 miles down the road, locks up his gear, runs back to where he slept the night before and then turns around, marching onward to the next casino.
He is convinced the traditional way is the right way for Indians.
"They like to call it a business; I like to call it jerking me around," Runningwolf says. "I don't think that they realize this could be a win-win situation."
This is actually the second journey for Runningwolf, a 37-year-old caterer and construction worker. This summer he made his way on foot from Oakland to Browning, Mont., to visit his birth family at the Blackfeet reservation.
He hoped to raise $100,000 for the Oakland-based charity, which may have to close its doors by next year without an infusion of cash. In nearly 1,500 miles en route to Montana, Runningwolf collected only $1,500.
The reasons why mystify Runningwolf, who was adopted and raised by non-Indian parents in Berkeley.
"I'm not asking them to fund me or the run," he emphasizes. "I'm just asking them to fund the agency."
He says California's 50-plus casinos must be more responsible to needs common to all American Indians.
The view differs from within successful tribal casinos.
As Indian gambling revenues exploded nationwide from $100 million in 1988 to $8.26 billion in 1998, many suddenly wealthy tribes found themselves inundated with requests to share.
"Now everybody wants a piece of you, everybody wants to be around you," Gonzales says. "The Tribal Council has to live in two worlds. From a Native American perspective, we'd like to help everyone, but that's not business."
Tribes also have struggled to maintain their traditional values as rapidly expanding casinos develop into structured businesses.
"I think tribes in general are very concerned about keeping the culture and heritage, and doing business in the 21st century," said Rod Wilson, a spokesman for Southern California tribes. "And it's not easy to do, but I think you'll see great efforts being made to restore what's been lost."
California's gaming tribes haven't added up their collective charity donations, but the money is flowing increasingly to neighboring communities, political candidates and non-Indian national organizations.
Tribes donated $70 million to state campaigns in 1998, including $750,000 for Gov. Gray Davis. At the Palace, plaques of appreciation line the walls, from groups like the Lions Club, local schools, Little League teams and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
The Tachi Yokut tribe, which owns the casino, estimates it donates at least $200,000 every month to the San Joaquin Valley community--as much as they used to give each year.
"Many tribes feel that they need to respond to their local communities to be good neighbors," says Waltona Manion, spokeswoman with Californians for Indian Self Reliance, which sponsored campaign ads for Proposition 1A, which expanded Indian gambling in the state this year.
Under the new law, each federally recognized tribe in California that does not offer reservation gambling will receive $1.1 million a year from a trust funded by the gaming tribes.
That's little comfort to Runningwolf, who maintains that tribal casinos have fallen over themselves to help out the "dominant culture" while neglecting vital Indian causes.
When Runningwolf was adopted in 1963, it was federal policy to encourage American Indians to give up their children to non-Indian families, given the harsh conditions on Indian reservations.