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

Journey at Pechanga
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Aug. 13 2009 6:38 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.

You can pretend to be rich and get away with it. But as I found out when I golfed Journey at Pechanga, you can't pretend to be a good golfer when you're not.

The course is carved into the foothills that guard the Temecula Valley, patches of green and narrow fairways that drop off suddenly into deep scrub-filled gorges. It is an amazing course.

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The new clubhouse is amazing, as well, as were the Titleist clubs I rented. Later, when the casino public relations manager, Robert Bledsoe, asked me what I thought of Journey, I said I wished I'd invested in a golf ball company before I teed off. I think I lost at least four boxes of balls. I would have gone after them if not for the signs that read "Beware: Rattlesnakes."

The course was exhilarating and beautiful, even if my golf abilities are not. The golf cart even had a GPS system fixed to the dash. It told me how far my drive was and how far the pin was. At the approach of each tee box, a mellow voice emerged from the console and gave me a little cultural and language lesson. (I later found out it was the voice of Mark Macarro, the energetic and intrepid young chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians.) It was interesting to find out that the "willow was the most common tree in the region" and that "the Luiseño Indians used it for a variety of purposes."

While waiting for a group of Korean tourists who had come to California and to Pechanga just for the golf, I called my friend Sean. Sean, an Ojibwe from back home, is an avid golfer, and I told him to look up Pechanga online. He did, and he narrated the digital fly-overs of the fairways provided on the Web site as I waited. ("Oh, shit, dude, big, I mean BIG dogleg on Hole 4. Hit it short or you'll lose that fucker.") He listened as I lost another ball. Life is a circle: I was watching the hole while talking to Sean, who was watching the virtual hole while I looked at the real one ... whoa.

This feeling of circularity was reinforced when I met up with a man golfing with his wife and daughters. Actually, he golfed, they rode in the cart. I asked him if he golfed it often.

"Every week."

"Lucky."

"It's beautiful, here, man. Just beautiful."

He really loved the golf course, I could tell. I asked him if he was a tribal member, and he said he was. Before he left, he said, "People forget that sometimes the best part is once you sink your ball, just to look back. You can learn a lot about the hole by looking back when you're done."

It sounded unexpectedly wise. I nodded. He drove off, steering with one hand and tickling his daughters with the other.

After golf, I went for a spa treatment. I asked for the Ultimate Hawaiian Recovery. I don't know what was Hawaiian about it, except that the salt scrub and the massage cream contained lime and coconut. My masculinity had already taken a hit at the golf course, and now the rest of it was sloughed off with my dead skin and dropped on the floor of the massage room. Despite the loss of my masculinity, the massage and scrub were great.

I slept. I showered and got dressed in the new clothes I'd bought at the high-end outlet mall near Morongo. Feeling like a million bucks, or, rather—given the price tag on the Burberry jacket I bought—feeling like $931 (the amount left from my bad beat jackpot),my wife and I went for dinner at the Great Oak Steakhouse, one of the nine restaurants inside the casino. We were told it was good. We were told that they raise their own cattle. We were told that the cattle eat organic feed and are kept on the lot for twice the time most prime cattle are. We were told we'd never taste anything like the steaks we ordered. We were told right—I had the best steak of my life.

There are all sorts of unintended effects of Indian gaming. Great steak is only one of them. As the golf carts showed (and other enterprises around the country show better), casino profits have helped fund a dramatic renaissance in Indian culture and language. Several tribes have started language immersion schools with their new-found wealth. Others have created tribal court systems or built hospitals and housing for the elderly. Contest powwows with large payouts for the winning singers and dancers have funded a burgeoning performance culture.

One popular conception about Indian life and Indian tribes is that we would be nothing without help from the federal government. That is sometimes true. Only 40 percent of the 500 tribes in the United States have casinos, and only a very small fraction of those turn any kind of useful, sustained profit. But communities like Pechanga and Morongo, the Seminoles in Florida, and the Mashantucket Pequot in Connecticut make a lot of money, and rather than depending on the government, the government often depends on them. The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians employs 5,162 people (directly) and 24,422 indirectly. It has given $82 million in funding for local government and nongaming tribes and has paid $60 million in payroll taxes since 2004. In Florida, the Seminoles are regularly called on to bail out the state when it experiences a budget crisis. This past May, the state of Florida began negotiating new gaming compacts with the Seminole—in exchange for expanded gaming operations, the Seminole would contribute millions in revenue that would be tagged for education and thereby save the Florida school system.

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Getting ready to dine at the Great Oak Steakhouse

The Seminole are interesting. They have long had an entrepreneurial spirit. To put it another way: They've been ass-kickers and name-takers for a long time. As one Seminole I interviewed told me: "We fought the Spanish and won. We fought the British and won. We fought the Americans three times and won. We are the fightingest, winningest tribe in American history." Willie Johns is right. The Seminole never signed a treaty with the U.S. government, and they have held onto their land and their ways under enormous pressure, the likes of which few of us will ever experience. They're also cowboys and have been raising and killing and eating steak for a lot longer than the Pechanga Band. During the Dust Bowl, when pasture was drying up and blowing away, the U.S. cattle industry shipped its remaining herds east to Florida and inadvertently brought ranching to the Seminole. The Seminole began raising their own herds, riding horses, and joining rodeos. With the advent of gaming, they expanded their cattle business and now, policed by Indian cowboys (and cowgirls—both men and women ride and tend herds), the Seminole are the third-largest beef producer in the entire United States. They also own the Hard Rock Café. Not just one of them, all of them. This means that the Seminole own the largest collection of rock memorabilia in the world. They own Paul McCartney's guitar and Jimi Hendrix's shoes and Elvis' glitter suit.

As we strolled back to our room, it was clear that rather than living uninspected lives at the margins of American society, Indians have become part of the American fabric in ways no one could have guessed when gaming as we know it emerged in the 1980s. I was feeling something. I was feeling proud of the Pechanga Band and the Morongo Band and the Seminole and the others—proud of what they made against all odds. No one is untouched by Indian lives. I thought of what the tribal member told me about the golf course: It is good to look back at where you've been. You get some beautiful views.

David Treuer is the author of three novels and a collection of essays. His work has appeared in Slate, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Esquire. His most recent novel, The Translation of Dr. Apelles, is now available in paperback. He is currently at work on a book about modern reservation life.