TIME Magazine's recent vandalism to the public's understanding of Indian gaming could roll back years of progress for our tribes, progress that is just now starting to lift centuries of darkness from all over Indian Country.
The relentlessly negative reporting by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele basically repackaged stale, outdated and previously reported news from the Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe, to name just two media outlets. William Safire of the New York Times also followed suit by parroting the magazine's distorted view of Indian gaming.
The TIME Magazine story was also inaccurate in its description of me as currently working as a lobbyist. I'm not. And it cynically referred to my "rubber-stamping" a gaming agreement with the Mohegans while chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission. In fact, I openly and enthusiastically advocated on behalf of the agreement because, in addition to Sol Kerzner, it marked the first time respected Wall Street institutions became involved in supporting an Indian gaming venture. That was a historic threshold, important because it was the beginning of a departure away from tribes' complete dependence on wealthy, individual investors - the same people TIME went out of its way to malign.
The Mohegan Sun project opened the doors of Wall Street for tribal issue bonds for building not only casinos, but many other reservation enterprises. It was the Wall Street investors who required that the Mohegans needed someone with a winning track record to manage the investment, someone such as Sol Kerzner. Whatever sweet deal he negotiated when the Mohegans bought out his contract did not, apparently, require the approval of either the BIA or the NIGC. That occurred long after I left the NIGC.
If TIME really investigated who benefits the most from tribal gaming, it missed a huge beneficiary. State governments rake off hundreds of millions of dollars each year in "fees" under the federally mandated compacts (about three quarters of a billion dollars in Connecticut and California alone). Perhaps Congress itself should direct those "fees" to poorer isolated tribes that will never have a substantial gaming operation because of their location.
But what is even worse, the perspective of many Indians has been totally ignored.
Forced onto scattered chunks of near-worthless land, our culture, pride and independence nearly extinguished, the fate of Indian Americans as little as 10 years ago appeared predictably bleak. We were left with few resources, no capital, a mostly uneducated population and virtually no chance of duplicating the standard of living enjoyed by most Americans - many of whom viewed the deplorable state of reservations as justification for self-satisfied, racist beliefs.
So at one point, tribes decided to take the government at its word - and that word was sovereignty. Could we really act as independent entities pursuant to our treaties and federal statutes? Were we really free to find our own route to economic success? We were, indeed, tribe by tribe. And I suppose society expected fully developed financial institutions and high-tech manufacturing plants to sprout from the baked earth of the Rez. Fat chance. And everybody knew it, too.
For the most part, tribes were trapped in a Catch-22: Without an existing economy, investors stayed away. But with no capital of their own, tribes required outside investment to stand any chance of creating a job-generating, revenue-creating economy.
Before the advent of Indian casinos, nobody complained when the BIA routinely approved numerous deals that gave non-Indian investors 49 percent ownership of any business they invested in on reservations. The federally mandated limits in the Indian gaming act of 1988 were actually an improvement over the standard deals struck in Indian Country.
That's not to say that the 40 percent-for-seven-years deals under the IGRA are all that great. They aren't. But some tribes have since negotiated far better deals, especially after the original terms ran out. Those tribes can now access capital at far more favorable rates, depending on risk factors for the investor.
Even with the strangulated investment atmosphere that existed prior to IGRA, many tribes have figured a way out of this trap by using the same rules given to us, - and they are still winning. Through a lot of good, old-fashioned hard work and calculated risk, a few tribes are now realizing true economic independence. They have used Indian gaming to jump-start tribal economies and work toward a truly diversified employment base. More will follow. It will not be a perfect process, no more or less smooth than America's experience with capitalism in general.
But we learn fast. Just ask the investors who have had to renegotiate their deals during the last five years.
And we also know how to convert financial power into political power; as if no one's ever done that before. In its fight against tribal casinos, Nevada's gaming industry has spent millions on political causes. It's an institution, and a well-accepted one at that. With all the consistently negative press on Indian gaming, though, we have to wonder if Nevada casinos have found better ways to affect outcomes than through political contributions.
In the end, what TIME Magazine is telling its readers is that making money and achieving success just aren't things American Indians should be doing.
How patronizing. How hypocritical. How wrong.
How long before the American media will look at Indian gaming and get it right?
Harold Monteau is an enrolled member of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe, Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, Box Elder, Montana. He is also a partner at Monteau & Peebles, LLP, a national law firm specializing in federal Indian law, complex governmental negotiations, business transactions in Indian Country, land trusts administrative law and issues related to Indian gaming.