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

Life Is a Circle
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Aug. 11 2009 12:30 PM

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

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Click here for a slide show on Indian Casinos.

One often hears that we believe life is a circle; that Indians are circular while non-Natives are lamentably linear. What does that make mixed-bloods like me? Oval? Helical? I tend to laugh at such simple distinctions, but I thought that perhaps there was something to Indian circularity when I planned my itinerary for the next day: pool, spa treatment, lunch, spa treatment, pool. This is the kind of research I can truly get behind.

The sense of circularity was heightened when I sauntered down to the pool deck: In addition to an actual swimming pool, buttressed by palms, bougainvillea, and desert flowers, there was a circular river that flowed and flowed and flowed and went nowhere. You know what it reminded metaphorical me of? Money. Always circulating, never going anywhere. Either money or the clap. Anyway. So, as the sun climbed over the valley rim, and the cool cave of the casino floor yawned behind me, I got on an inflated inner tube, grasped The Savage Detectives tightly, and floated around. This was, dare I say it, luxury. And as I reveled in said luxury and noticed the tan cocktail waitresses and the other happy floaters and the angular tower 17 stories high, it was strange to remember that Indian gaming as we know it (which brought in $25 billion in revenues last year, compared with the measly $12 billion generated by Las Vegas) began far away from the sun and palm trees and luxury of places like Morongo. It began in 1971 with a $147 tax bill on a run-down trailer in the small frozen village of Squaw Lake on my reservation in Minnesota.

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The pool at Morongo with the never-ending river in the background
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In 1971, Helen and Russell Bryan (both Ojibwe Indians) put a down payment on a modest used mobile home that they moved to the site of their previous home in the village of Squaw Lake on Leech Lake Reservation. Helen worked for minimum wage, and Russell was out of work. Their mortgage payments were $90 a month, and even that sum was hard for them to pay. In the spring of 1972, a car pulled up in their yard. A man got out, measured the trailer, took pictures, and left. A little while later, they received a piece of mail from Itasca County. The trailer was being taxed as personal property. The bill, for $147.95, was too large for them to pay. Helen was desperate. She contacted the newly established Leech Lake Reservation Legal Services Project, which agreed to take her case. Her case could be argued in one of two ways: Since tribal land, held in trust, cannot be taxed, they could have made an easy argument—the trailer was annexed to the tribal land and was, therefore, like a house, to be considered tribal property and thereby exempt from tax (just as county and state buildings are not taxed by the feds). Or they could make the hard argument that the state could not assess a personal property tax on Indians living on Indian lands. The young go-getting attorneys for the Bryans chose the hard way. And the legal battle went like this: They lost, they lost, they lost, and then (at the U.S. Supreme Court) they won. Their lawyers presented a narrow argument: that the state of Minnesota had no right to tax Indian property owned by Indians living on Indian land.

The legal relationship between Indian tribes (which are sort of sovereign nations—we have our own laws and courts and police forces, like many nations, but we can't raise armies or legalize murder) and the federal government is complicated. What tribes can and can't do and what the U.S. government can and can't do has been fought over for a long time. The question of jurisdiction is a particularly complicated one. As with all complicated things, perhaps the best way to help readers understand it is to write a sonnet.

"Crow Dog"

Killed Spotted Tail 1881
He was tried by his people, found guilty
But the Feds said they must try, be the one
To rule over Indian stuff you see.
The Supreme Court: nDns are in charge
Congress did not agree with them at all.
They pass the Major Crimes Act for crimes that are large
Such as: rape, murder, assault, et al.
1953 Feds get out of nDn business
They try to give rights back to states
PL 280 is passed, States like this.
States think 280 civil jurisdiction makes
Wrong. Says Supreme Court with the Bryan case
Criminal only, tribes retain civil base

The Supreme Court ruling in the Bryan case was expansive. More than just a ruling on taxation, it declared that states and the feds had the right to police the reservation only in the interest of "law and order" and had no civil or regulatory jurisdiction over sovereign Indian nations. Until this time, tribes and states more or less assumed that states had civil and regulatory power on reservations. But the Supreme Court maintained that as sovereign nations, Indian tribes had always had the right to govern themselves (including civil and regulatory powers), just as all nations do, and that tribes should deal with the U.S. federal government, not with states. Kansas, for example, has no power to levy taxes in Luxemburg—and not only because Luxemburg is far away.

This victory was the legal precedent that tribes (such as the Cabazon in California and the Seminole in Florida) needed to expand and protect various enterprises, such as tobacco shops, bingo parlors, and card rooms. The Cabazon and Seminole (both had cases before the Supreme Court in the late 1970s and early '80s) won in large part because of the Bryan case. And modern Indian gaming was born.

When the states realized they were powerless in these situations, they lobbied, and a law called the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed. It said that even though states had no direct control over Indian gaming, Indian tribes must negotiate compacts with the states in the interest of protecting states' rights. In some cases, states received revenue from casinos; in some cases not. So when you hear white people lament about how the government "gave Indians casinos" (like "life is a circle," this is a common refrain), you can say: The government did not give Indians casinos. Indian gaming is not some physical manifestation of the welfare state or a pity payment for wrongs done or injustices suffered. It is the outgrowth of a right that tribes have always had long before any other people lived in the New World: the right to govern ourselves and build institutions as we see fit. There are many other rights like that, which tribes have only begun to explore—banking, telecommunications, industrial development. It is quite possible that reservations could become new Switzerlands: centers for banking and international commerce, subject to entirely different and more lenient laws than the United States. Though no one has tried this yet. Anyway, to argue that it's "unfair" that we were "given" casinos is as silly as lamenting that it's unfair that the U.S. government "gave" Canada much better strip clubs and, out of pity, "gave" Sweden great health care and beautiful women.

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The writer at work, poolside at Morongo

Having experienced wonderfully warm and wet circularity in the never-ending river, it was time for my spa treatment. I wish I could say the treatment was better. But the masseuse seemed sad, like she'd rather be someplace else, as though she were working for some cold Soviet-style empire rubbing down party bosses rather than working and living in the sun for a kind and victorious Indian tribe. But maybe it's better to own a casino than to work in one.

On the other hand, before I got the rental car at LAX the day before, I met a young Puerto Rican woman who bummed a cigarette from me. I asked her where she was headed.

"Hawaii. I'm meeting some Facebook friends there."

"I thought the whole reason for Facebook was that you didn't have to meet your friends. Or see them. Ever."

"Ha ha."

"Where do you live?"

"Connecticut."

"How's that?"

"Great. I can take off work whenever I want, and my schedule is real flexible. Best job I ever had."

"Where?"

"Mohegan Sun Casino."

I thought about her as I staggered away from my massage back onto the casino floor to play some slots and sign up for the poker tournament. The floor was crowded, especially for a weekday. Crowded with Anglos and Filipinos, Thais, Chinese, African-Americans, Mexicans, and Cubans. No one seemed particularly rich or particularly poor. But white people were definitely a minority. I saw no Indians that I could recognize.

I thought about the battered mobile home on my reservation that started it all. And I thought also of the long struggles of the Cabazon people to make something bloom in the desert after decades of abuse. I lost $60 on LobsterMania. Somehow, I didn't feel so bad. And maybe the other old Indian chestnut—the one just as popular as "life is a circle"—is true: We are all related. Because what I felt on the floor and later when I played poker (sandwiched between a pale man with a goatee who looked like a mortician and spoke in somber tones and an African-American cement contractor) was that Indian gaming has brought a lot of people together. A lot of people from different classes and ethnicities and walks of life. And all of us, together, keep on giving and giving and giving, even if all of us don't win, and certainly never all at once.

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.

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