Indians to California: A Little Respect, Please!

By Rob Schmidt
January 28, 2003

PECHANGA INDIAN RESERVATION — At the opening session of the Western Indian Gaming Conference Jan. 22, Indian leaders repeated the same messages over and over: Indian gaming works. Time magazine’s reporting doesn’t. Governor Davis is kidding himself if he thinks California’s tribes will bail him out to the tune of $1.5 billion.

Michael Lombardi, an Indian gaming consultant, was the conference’s keynote speaker. His subject was “California Gaming Industry: Past, Present, Future.” He began with an overview of California Indian history.

On Jan. 6, 1851, the United States signed the Treaty of Temecula with the Luiseño Indians, who were fighting white encroachment on their territory. The California legislature opposed recognizing Native land rights. At the same time it authorized $1.5 million in bounties for Indian body parts.

These and other decisions reduced California’s Indian population from an estimated 150,000 in 1851 to 12,000 by 1900. Now seven generations have passed since the treaty was signed. For 150 years, said Lombardi, the state’s policy toward Indians has been “to kick butt.”

Gaming Ended the Onslaught

Indian gaming has changed that, said Lombardi. He thanked politicians such as Dan Lungren and Pete Wilson and the Las Vegas-backed opponents of Proposition 5 for making gaming possible. Each time they tried to stop Indians, their actions backfired. It was as if they were trying to fight the Creator.

Americans now spend $600 billion on legal gambling, said Lombardi, of which only $12 billion goes to Indians. That’s a mere 2%, which disproves the notion that Indians are taking over the industry. In fact, he added, “The most popular public policy in the last four years is Indian gaming.”

Lombardi disputed the numbers being thrown around. He estimated Indian casinos are operating 49,000 slot machines in the state. The machines earn an average of $175 a day, not the $350 a day touted by many. Last year they generated $2.6-2.7 billion in revenue, not the $6 billion Gov. Davis claimed. “We can get to $6 billion but we ain’t there yet,” he said.

As for the attacks on Indian gaming, Time magazine engaged in hysterical reporting, said Lombardi. “It borders on yellow journalism.” Stand Up for California, the anti-Indian group led by the oft-quoted Cheryl Schmit, “can sit down and shut up.”

Urban residents are moving to rural areas and expecting them to be pristine, he noted. “Where are we going to move?” If people want to relocate to Indian country, they should expect to see casinos.

Free Market for Indians

With California’s gaming compacts coming up for renegotiation in March, Lombardi was blunt. End the cap on slot machines and let capitalism work, he advocated. “How about a free-market economy for a free people?”

Continue the special funds to share revenue with non-gaming tribes and ameliorate effects on the communities surrounding casinos, he continued. But forget about infringing on Native sovereignty with regulations such as CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act). “When you make CEQA apply to Camp Pendleton, we’ll talk about it,” he said. “We’re covered by the federal EPA—end of story.”

The tribes don’t have to renegotiate the compacts, he noted. So they won’t accept a deal that threatens their progress. In particular, they’ll fight any attempt to permit non-Indians to operate gaming devices. That’s why the tribes agreed to revenue sharing, he said—to maintain their exclusive right.

California Leads the Way

California Indian gaming has not only generated funds to create jobs and get people off welfare, said Lombardi. It has led the industry in new directions. “California is the most innovative gaming market in the world.”

The innovations include cashless wagering, ticket printing, and slots with videos instead of reels. “Barona has the most advanced floor in the world,” he observed. Indians also developed computerized bingo, which has swept the charity-bingo market and increased its take 3-4% a year.

Lombardi’s vision for the future was expansive. “I see nation-building,” he said. “I see strong tribal governments emerging.” Revenue from gaming is sending kids to school, making health care available, giving people cars that start, letting them eat something other than commodities.

Seven generations from now, tribes will thank today’s leaders for making gaming happen, he concluded. “People will look back and say there were giants.”
© 2003 Pechanga.Net