LOS COYOTES INDIAN RESERVATION, Calif. — With her kerosene lantern, Francine Kupsch helped lead California Indians into the golden era of casino riches.
A film crew recorded Kupsch as she used the lamp's glow to teach her young son to read and talked about how gambling profits would bring electricity to her reservation: "We'll have a refrigerator."
The commercial was beamed across the state several years ago as tribes asked California voters to legalize Nevada-style gambling on their land. "I felt honored," Kupsch said. "Now I don't. It gives me that nauseated feeling."
Six years after voters said yes, Kupsch is little better off and feels that she was a pawn. The closest she has come to the promise that casinos would bring self-reliance was eight months' work at a gambling palace near Temecula, a 45-minute drive away.
As a member of the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians, she is on the poor side of a divide. Gambling has brought some Native Americans wealth that was unimaginable 10 years ago. Others have been unable to get a piece of the action; only 9% of Native Americans in California directly benefit from tribe-owned casinos, according to a recent state report.
As the wealthy groups expand their gambling empires, they are using the power that comes with money to keep the poor tribes out. They hire blue-chip lawyers, lobbyists and public relations experts to promote their cause in Sacramento, where permission to own casinos is granted. They give millions in campaign cash to lawmakers who approve and block tribal pacts.
"The rich tribes are denying us a future," said Mike Jackson, president of the Quechan Tribe in the far southeast corner of California. "Money has pushed tribes apart."
Wealthy tribes pay into a fund that grants $1.1 million a year to each tribe that lacks a casino or has a small one. But for the 3,000 or so Quechan members, it's not much.
On the rich side of the divide, Jacob L. Coin, communications director of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians, said Indian gambling was never intended to be "a share-the-wealth program or a welfare program for all Indian tribes." The San Manuel casino abuts San Bernardino and is one of the busiest in the state.
"No tribe is guaranteed a successful casino," Coin said. "There are some tribes that are poorly located, and there are some tribes that are especially favorably located. The law basically understands that."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration is fashioning deals to grant thousands more slot machines to rich Southern California Indian bands, including the San Manuel. The governor agreed this month to allow the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians to increase its Palm Springs-based operation to include three casinos and 5,000 slot machines, up from its existing two casinos and 2,000 slots.
Tribes are not required to publicly report their gambling profits. But a single slot machine can generate $350 in profits a day, or more. Multiplied by 5,000, that's about $640 million a year.
The Agua Caliente pact passed the state Senate on Monday and is expected to receive final approval from the Assembly this week. Poor tribes' pending compacts have languished for more than a year.
The Agua Caliente have spent $24 million on state campaigns since 1998, when Kupsch's commercial first aired, including $16,000 donated to lawmakers since Schwarzenegger announced his deal with the tribe.
"These tribes do not want competition," state Sen. Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield) said. "And I think they're using the influence that they have to stop it.... It's not any more complicated than that."
Tribes across the state have been caught in the maelstrom.
In California's southeast corner, the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Nation has 3,250 members and a 45,000-acre reservation that bridges California and Arizona. At California's northwest edge, the Yurok tribe has 5,000 members and a reservation that straddles the Klamath River, a mile wide on each side. They are the state's two largest tribes.
Schwarzenegger struck deals with the Yurok and Quechan last year that would have permitted each to build casinos on their own land. Last year, rich tribes' leaders and their representatives, operating from the office of state Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland), lobbied against the two tribes' deals. The legislative session ended without a vote on either.
"It's frustrating to have tiny tribes that have benefited so much from gambling stop a far larger tribe such as the Yurok," said Sen. Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata), who has tried to shepherd the Yurok compact through the Legislature.