November 24, 1999


Indian Gaming: Back in the Hands of the People

by Audrey Martinez

The trek to economics stability has been slow for Native Americans. It started more than a decade ago when the federal government adopted the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. This act granted tribes across the country the opportunity to exercise their sovereign right to establish limited and regulated gaming on Indian lands.

Last year, Californians were faced with Proposition 5, the California Indian Self-Reliance Initiative. The provisions within Prop 5 would have allowed Indian tribes to continue limited gaming and to share revenues with non-gaming tribes for developments to reservation lands.

Monies generated from these casinos enabled some of the California tribes to pave roads, build schools and health care facilities, install streetlights, and make a host of other improvements designed to elevate the quality of life for Native Americans. After decades of living in impoverished and substandard conditions, these upgrades to tribal lands were long overdue.

But the Indian community was not the only benefactor.

Gaming facilities created thousands of jobs for California citizens, mainly non-Indians. It also reduced government assistance by $50 million, generated $120 million in state and local taxes annually, and allowed tribes to contribute more than $5 million to charities and organizations throughout the state.

The positive effects from gaming were felt not only statewide but also locally. It is due in part to the Indian casinos that the local economies of many cities have gained a renewed sense of stability. Such is the case for the Inland Empire and the San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino where tribal members and local citizens who once sought government assistance are now part of a 1500 employee work force.

California voters agreed. Sixty-three percent approved Proposition 5. California Indians are grateful the citizens understood the unique situation of the Indian community. So it was quite a shock when the state Supreme Court overturned it in late August. The sense of alarm caused by the court's adverse decision was only compounded by subsequent talks between Governor Gray Davis and tribal leaders that lasted until the early morning hours of September 10, the very day the legislature adjourned for the year.

After hours of nonstop discussions, these negotiations resulted in a tribal-state compact with almost 60 California tribes agreeing to the terms and provisions. This newly signed compact enables all California tribes, even those who never intend to enter into gaming, to plan for much needed improvements to the infrastructure of reservations across the state. This is only the beginning. In fact, a recent federal report revealed that nationwide, most tribes need hundreds of millions of dollars just to meet basic needs.

California voters should keep this fact in mind when they return to the voting booths in March 2000 and are faced with Proposition 1A. Prop 1A is a constitutional amendment that will change the state's constitution to allow gaming to continue on Indian reservations.

In the meantime, the newly signed compacts allow tribes with existing casinos to continue business as usual. So for now, at least, this will give us a few months with some sense of security.

As the Native American community continues to make strides by affording our tribal members the same basic qualities of life as other citizens in the state, our fight continues for economic independence. What we have accomplished thus far is because of gaming and the support we continue to receive from the California voters. Once again our journey continues and Indian gaming returns back into the hands of the people.

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