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Tribes Bristle at Political Criticism

At a powwow that draws Indians from across the country, casino gambling and its recall ramifications are hot topics.

September 29, 2003|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

On a warm evening with a sliver of moon hanging over the desert, hundreds of Indians from across the nation gathered Saturday near Palm Springs for a powwow -- and to occasionally talk about the upcoming recall election.

The annual Thunder and Lightning Pow-Wow was a decidedly apolitical event.

Still, it took place on the reservation of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, and the subject of casino gambling and its effects on the recall cast a shadow on the event.

One reason: Looming over the event was the shell of a concrete tower that will be the Morongos' new $250-million, 23-story casino and spa when construction is finished next year. It will replace their current casino, which has allowed the Morongos to make millions of dollars in political contributions in the last several years.

Waiting her turn to join in the traditional dancing was Elizabeth Kolb, 21, a member of the Rincon Band of Luiseno Indians, which has a casino in northern San Diego County. She was mad at Arnold Schwarzenegger, who called in a recent ad for the taxing of gambling revenues from casinos.

"I don't think we should pay more to have the gambling," she said. "Our land was taken from us. Now we're getting something back and they're trying to take it from us."

Many Indians in attendance spoke frankly about gambling, the recall candidates and the large campaign contributions that some tribes are making. Last week, for example, the Morongo Band gave $2 million to an effort on behalf of Tom McClintock's campaign for governor. While Indians spoke with pride of their newfound influence on state politics, many also said they felt the sting of what they believe are unfair criticisms of the tribes. Particularly irksome, many Indians said, is the accusation that they are not paying their fair share of taxes. Some contended that it has long been the American way to use money, and lots of it if you have it, to stand up for what you believe in.

Jerry Cleveland Jr., 35, a Hochunk Indian from Wisconsin, said he was astonished when he arrived in California earlier this week and flipped on a TV, only to be greeted by the Schwarzenegger ad.

"He's not paying us anything, so why should we pay him?" asked Cleveland, pausing to have his photo taken with tourists. He half-smiled, then added: "How would Schwarzenegger like it if we took his house and land away and killed his family? Well that's what happened to us."

Cleveland -- who gets $1,100 a month from his tribe's casino -- urged California Indians to use their political muscle to ensure that someone like Schwarzenegger doesn't gain power. "Money talks," Cleveland said. "Our governor in Wisconsin knows he can't run us off. We have money and power -- and power is what it's all about."

A giant tent had been set up for traditional dancing. Sitting in a patio chair and resting after dancing was David Running Horse, 60, whose grandchildren have recently taken to calling him David Slow Turtle.

A Southern Cheyenne who splits his time between Denver and Santa Barbara, Running Horse said that he has mixed feelings about gambling. He said he was glad his tribe didn't have a casino because he feels it would have a corrupting influence.

Yet, motioning around at the giant tent, he acknowledged that "the casino is paying for all this."

Running Horse was just getting started. "That man," he said, referring to Schwarzenegger, "says he wants to tax the American Indian. Well, he better start paying us rent. This is our land. We didn't sell it. It was taken from us."

Many Indians also fear the gambling won't last. The Indians' gaming compact with the state expires in 2020 and many tribes are working under the assumption that the agreement will be torn up, just as were many of the land treaties that tribes signed with the federal government in the 19th century.

"Not all the tribes have gambling and not all of them are rich," said Dennis Alto, 44, a Kumeyaay Indian and alcohol and drug counselor who lives in San Diego and doesn't receive money from the casinos. "But as the gambling goes on, it will get better."

The state has signed a 20-year gambling compact with California tribes that earmarks some gambling revenues to go to tribes without casinos and to local governments to offset the cost of building and maintaining services to casinos. Alto argued that the compact shows the tribes are not keeping their gambling revenue to themselves.

The Morongo Band's casino is just down the hill from where the powwow was held. It's a sprawling building, filled with hundreds of slot machines, as well as blackjack and poker tables and a bingo hall.

By 8:30 p.m. Saturday night, the casino parking lot was filled and there was already a long line at the check cashing booth. Inside, cigarette smoke hung in the air; California's indoor smoking ban doesn't apply because the tribe is a sovereign entity.

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