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Anti-gamers rail against recognition: threaten tribal economics

Casinos and other types of gaming, particularly lotteries, have flourished over the past several years as more and more states look to remedy fiscal maladies in their budgets. Concerns over the social problems stereotypically associated with gambling ? crime, drugs, prostitution and compulsive addiction ? as well as issues of the "morality" of gambling, often provoke a knee-jerk, anti-gaming reaction from many otherwise reasonable people. Add in the Indian factor, with which usually comes a lack of understanding by the general public of the nature and roots of Indian sovereignty, and you're left with people who rabidly oppose something they may not completely understand and may not have a viable alternative for. The Indian gaming controversies in Connecticut and Maine visibly illustrate this phenomenon.

Connecticut

The recent federal recognition of the historic Eastern Pequot Tribe combined the Paucatuck Eastern Pequot and the Eastern Pequot factions, who had sought recognition well before Indian country's casino explosion. Their joint recognition ignited a vivid backlash of anti-casino sentiment throughout Connecticut. The state attorney general has indicated he will appeal the decision, as have the towns surrounding the tribe's Lantern Hill reservation and other anti-casino activist groups. The fact that other Connecticut tribes, including the Golden Hill Paugussetts and the Schagticokes, are seeking recognition and possibly casinos has even further fanned the anti-gaming flames.

Connecticut already boasts two Indian casinos, which just happen to be two of the most successful gaming operations in Indian country. The Mashantucket Pequots' Foxwoods Casino and the Mohegan Tribe's Mohegan Sun have both, under terms of their compacts, contributed millions of dollars to the state of Connecticut over the years. Curiously, the state divides this money among its municipalities based upon their population; thus bigger cities like Bridgeport and Hartford receive considerably more cash than do the smaller casino-adjacent towns that actually bear the brunt of such things like extra traffic and burgeoning school enrollments. Perhaps this flawed formula contributes to some of the local hostility toward the casinos.

On Aug. 23, there emerged a rather unlikely challenger to the historic Easterns. The Day, a newspaper in New London, reported that the Wiquapaug Eastern Pequot Tribe, based in Hope Valley, R.I., said that it plans to file an appeal of the historic Easterns' recognition. The 119-member tribe, which according to the AP was forced off the Lantern Hill reservation in the 1800s, claims to be the true descendant of the Eastern Pequot tribe.

The Wiquapaugs had filed for status as an "interested party" in the BIA's original recognition of the two factions (Paucatucks and Easterns). A BIA spokesman told the AP however, that the Wiquapaug's own recognition application, filed in September 2000, was incomplete, which was probably why the group was not included in the historic Eastern Pequot recognition.

Unfortunately for the Connecticut tribes (federally recognized or not) that do not yet have a casino, prospects for entering the gaming community seem to be a long way off. The historic Eastern Pequots, and the Golden Hill Paugussetts, if they do get recognized, will undoubtedly face a myriad of appeals, lawsuits and other litigious action aimed at depriving them of possible economic self-determination. These tribes have the double misfortune of not only living in a densely populated, highly trafficked state, but also of following the Mohegans' and Mashantuckets' wildly successful casinos.

Many of the anti-casino people claim that they are not against the tribes themselves; they say they only oppose the prospect of more casinos. But in order to prevent tribes from building casinos, they attack recognition and tribal legitimacy, in effect denying that tribe's existence as a people. And these attacks come, in the historic Easterns' case, despite the fact that Connecticut itself, the Colony of Connecticut, established Lantern Hill in 1683, a move predating the formation of the United States.

While gaming is certainly not a panacea, it has become the most successful means of economic self-determination throughout Indian country. If Connecticut's anti-casino crowd is genuinely concerned about the welfare of the state's tribes, perhaps they might suggest some viable economic alternatives to casinos that will allow tribes to house, educate, employ and provide medical care for their members.

Maine

When the Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe last year proposed building a casino in southern Maine, they unintentionally unleashed a firestorm of protest and opposition. Residents of several towns in southern Maine have since voted to prohibit casinos and/or slot machines within their municipalities.

As Maine's only federally recognized tribes, the Penobscots and Passamaquoddys are the only entities within that state with the potential ability to open a casino. Yet under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, tribes cannot legally conduct any form of gambling that is prohibited by the state in which they reside, and casino gaming is illegal in Maine. The current governor and the four candidates running to replace him in November have all pledged their opposition to legalizing casinos, leaving the tribes in the lurch. For their part, the tribes have said promised not to build a casino where residents oppose one.

The city of Biddeford, a burg of some 20,000 nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and Interstate 95 south of Portland, has expressed some interest in hosting a casino. City Councilors recently met with tribal representatives and their backers, the first such meeting between the tribes and any locally elected officials. The town council was expected to vote on having a residential casino referendum on Nov. 5. The casino proponents are scheduled to meet with officials in the nearby city of Sanford on Sept. 10.

The tribes have managed to attract a big-name supporter in former Governor Kenneth M. Curtis who, according to the Associated Press, told the Biddeford City Council on Aug. 22 that "this is an economic opportunity that should be carefully considered. It would be a very clean, good and orderly operation."

"We'll never live long enough to repay the Indians for what we did to them," said Curtis, a Democrat, governed Maine between 1967 and 1975.

Although one councilor called the proposed casino/resort "the best thing that has ever come down the pike for Biddeford," others remained skeptical about job creation, excessive traffic, and lessened business for existing merchants. The mayor of Saco, an adjacent town, told the AP "I hope it [the proposal] goes away."

Apparently, these folks have never read Indian Country Today, where we have consistently demonstrated that the strict regulation of Indian gaming has kept it corruption free, and that Indian gaming generates considerable economic benefits for both Indian tribes and the surrounding non-Indian communities. To its credit, the state of Maine has created an 18-member commission to study gaming and its effects on the state economy.

Maine, whose finances run on a two-year budget cycle, is reportedly facing a revenue shortfall of some $200 million dollars. In this rural state where coastal tourism during the summer months provides one of the main economic stimuli, a casino/resort such as the tribes propose would certainly seem to be complementary to existing resorts, parks and tourist attractions. It could provide badly needed finances for the state treasury and potentially create thousands of jobs. While states are prohibited under IGRA from directly taxing tribal gaming operations, many compacts negotiated between tribes and other states provide for a "contribution" to the state from gaming proceeds. Elsewhere, such contributions have totaled in the millions of dollars. Can the state of Maine afford to reject such funds out of hand?