Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Commentary

Oh, for the Bad Old Days When Gambling Was Illegal

Some tribes have hit the jackpot. Now greed has all the state in line for a cut.

June 23, 2004|Patt Morrison | Patt Morrison's column appears on Wednesdays. Email: patt.morrison@latimes.com

Any California kid who plays cowboys and Indians nowadays had better put the cowboys in black hats and the Indians in green eyeshades.

Indians, at least the ones with the land and leverage to set up casinos, are raking in great honking piles of money, playing Enron with their political checkbooks, coining new millionaires every month -- in short, acting like the all-American capitalists we always said we wanted them to become.

All the gold coaxed out of the California earth in the Gold Rush amounted to maybe $10 billion, which is something close to two years' take in Indian gambling. Greed stole their patrimony then; greed may give it back to them now. Sweet, isn't it? Sa-weet.

What was it that put Native Americans in the money? Our clouded conscience. California's earliest official acts allowed Indian children to be sold as indentured servants and issued bonds to pay freebooters who hunted down Indians. A dead mountain lion brought a $5 bounty; a dead Indian, $10 to $25. In 1852, when federal treaties handed California's 139 tribes more than 7 million acres -- about a third of the state -- the Legislature went berserk. The treaties were deep-sixed, and the California natives, what was left of them, wound up living in desolation on land that was about as fertile as used kitty litter.

Then, 150 years later, after the feds green-lighted Indian gambling, Californians said absolutely yes to Proposition 1A, the Indian success-by-slot-machine act. Some Indian bands would prosper and share the wealth with those that didn't. Cue the sunset. Happy trails.

What changed? An excess of success. The casinos got rich and their beneficiaries got highhanded: throwing tens of millions of dollars into political campaigns, then blowing off any notion that they should account for it like everyone else -- tribes, after all, are sovereign nations. Riding roughshod over state environmental and labor rules. One tribal chairman called a priest who was trying to organize casino workers a "common thug." One tribe wanted to build a casino-hotel in the flight path of migrating birds. Is this any way for stewards of the land to behave? Should broken treaties be paid back in broken faith?

I had never been to an Indian casino until last weekend, and that excursion was purely in the interests of research. The casino, property of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, is one of the oldest and richest operations. It's also where demonstrators blocked the road last year, demanding that the casino be as good a neighbor as it is a moneymaker. They shouldered picket signs reading "Isn't profit of $100 million a year enough?" and "Don't make us sorry."

Being inside the casino was like being inside a pinball machine, a smoky, sensory-overload pinball machine. It was not glamorous. I did not see Sean Connery playing chemin de fer in a dinner jacket. I did see a man with snaky gray ringlets, wearing surgical gloves and hitting a "play" button with dolorous relentlessness. I saw a woman with a prepaid casino "member" card hanging from a curly cord around her neck, moving from seat to seat in quest of a "lucky" machine. No one leaped from a window after squandering the rent money, but neither did anyone look to be having a good time. A solitary vice, casino gambling -- like being an air traffic controller but less fun.

Arnold Schwarzenegger began playing his own game of chance when his recall campaign picked up the vulgar- excess theme, railing in ads about billionaire tribes that skate tax-free and virtually tribute-free. He'd make them pay their "fair share." And when Schwarzenegger thinks somebody is getting too big for his lederhosen, watch out.

This week, the governor got less than he wanted. Five tribes promised to write bigger checks to California and play nicer with environmental and labor laws -- but not with campaign laws -- and in return they got more slot machines. But there are complications to come. Just wait till you see the initiatives on your November ballot: Indians versus Indians, Indians versus Larry Flynt.

The real wild card in this game could be played by the tribes that so far don't have a seat at the gaming table. Ever since Proposition 13 beggared California communities, cities have been making problematic deals: Come on in, Acme Auto Mall. Step this way, Wal-Mart. Please move here, NFL. Don't be surprised if poor cities start courting poor tribes as they once courted big-box stores, inviting bands to come in and open casinos on newly designated tribal land. The wealth spreads, and so do the messy consequences.

It almost makes you miss the uncomplicated bad old days, when gambling was illegal and the guys who ran it were always the ones in the black hats.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|