An American Indian's Journey in the Land of Indian Casinos

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Aug. 14 2009 9:58 AM

An American Indian's Journey in the Land of Indian Casinos

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Click here for a slide show on Indian Casinos.

Our last day. We decided to eat brunch at the clubhouse before driving back to the airport. And just to prove that life is a circle and everything is connected, when we walked into the clubhouse, I saw a guy who looked awfully familiar. He was wearing a T-shirt that read "Ojibwe Veteran's Powwow, Red Lake, 2005." I looked hard, and I said, "Rocky, is that you?" It was. Rocky Cook. From Red Lake Reservation, just up the road from me. He was with his wife, Lorena, also from Red Lake. They have both known my parents since the 1960s, both knew my siblings. I had gone to high school and graduated with their daughter Holly. I wasn't totally surprised: I knew that Holly had married Mark Macarro, the Pechanga chairman. I knew also that Holly was expecting a baby, so it must have come.

We talked about Holly and my siblings. My parents. The usual home stuff. They asked me what I was doing out there, and I said I was researching a piece on Indian casinos.

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"Yeah," said Lorena (a quick wit). "They get mad at us for being poor, and then when some folks do all right, they get mad at us for being rich." Not that Red Lake, where she and Rocky are from, is a well-off place. But what Lorena expressed is something many Indians ponder: the complicated disdain many people have for Indian poverty and the rare instances of Indian wealth.

Indians are famous for a few things—a kind of off-brand environmentalism, Sitting Bull, broken English, and most of all for being poor. Poverty is, for many, synonymous with the very idea of Indians and Indian reservations. This thought stuck with me as we loaded up the BMW and drove back to LAX, flew back to Minneapolis, and drove north in my pickup back to Leech Lake.

Leech Lake is a big reservation—40 miles by 40 miles, peppered with lakes large and small, and broken in half by the slow, shallow course of the northern Mississippi River. We passed two of our casinos (we have three) on the drive to my house on the northwestern edge of the reservation. We don't have good steak. We don't raise our own cattle. We don't own any famous person's shoes. (Many on Leech Lake don't even own their own shoes.) My reservation will be poor for a long time. Maybe forever.

Indian gaming has changed very little on my reservation—it has generated some money for infrastructure and jobs, but not much. It has generated a lot of fighting and squabbling and severe politics. The median household income at Leech Lake is $21,000, less than half of the median U.S. household income. More than half our kids do not live with their parents. At Leech Lake, we're poor—but we've worked very hard at it and come by our poverty honestly.

And even though Indian gaming began at Leech Lake with a $147 tax bill, perhaps we contribute something a little harder to measure. When I asked people in Florida and Pechanga and Morongo what they wanted most, what they worried most about not having, they all responded: culture and language; our ways. And at Leech Lake at least we have that. Other folks from other reservations might laugh at this next comment, but when I tell people where I am from, they often raise their eyebrows in both surprise and appreciation—surprise that I come from a place so rough, and appreciation because they are sometimes awed or humbled and even a little jealous that I come from a place where our language is still spoken, a place that doesn't feel like the rest of America, even though it is, only more so. So, while I am proud of what other tribes have accomplished, I wonder whether (and hope that) they are proud of us, too.

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Leech Lake casino life

When I drew near my house, I passed our first casino, the Palace Casino and Hotel. I decided, just for comparison's sake, to stop in. It was now 2 a.m. The place was mostly deserted. The Memorial Day crowd had left. Fishing opener was a few weeks behind us. Some regulars sat at keno machines smoking and hoping their numbers would come up. Half a dozen or so blackjack players tapped the baize table and shook their heads. The air was smoky and heavy. There was no spa. No steak. No golf. No Hawaiian Recovery. No bad beat jackpot. The Palace isn't the loneliest casino in America (that honor, I think, goes to Red Cliff, on the tip of a peninsula that juts out into the cold water of Lake Superior), but it's pretty damn close. Even so, it's homey. Built in 1988, it's an ancestor to the larger, happier places in California and Connecticut and Florida. And it's home.

I used to spend a lot of time at the Palace. I won my first hand of blackjack there. It was where my Uncle Sonny (now deceased) scored $4,000 on a keno machine. Where my Aunt Barb (now deceased) used to work. Where a medicine man sitting next to my mother said, "Give me the eight of hearts," and the dealer did, and my mother said "Adam, that's not fair!" Where I met, way back when, a wonderful, wonderful girlfriend (still in touch—she lives in ... California). Behind the casino is the veterans center, built with casino profits, where we held the funeral ceremonies for not a few good friends. And behind that are the powwow grounds, also built with casino profits, where I sang for the first time.

The Palace Casino and Hotel was built while I was away at college (back then, it was the Palace Bingo and Casino, sans hotel). In the fall of my freshman year, in a fit of loneliness, I once called home (never mind the long-distance charges that ate up a few hours of work).

"You OK?" asked my mother.

"Yeah. Homesick. Wish I were back there."

"I thought you said you were never coming back to the rez."

"I was wrong."

"Hey, this is exciting," she said, trying to cheer me up. "We're getting a casino."

"A what?"

"You know. Bingo. Blackjack. Slots. A casino. For gambling."

"I wonder if that'll change anything."

And then, with the understatement of the decade, "Who the hell knows, Dave. But at least we'll finally get good prime rib on the rez."

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