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Coin: Fighting the myth of the rich Indian

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A lot has been written about the "myth of the rich Indian," the mistaken notion that tribal government gaming has eliminated poverty and neglect in Indian country. While the benefits of tribal gaming are evident in the 28 states where some 220 tribes operate 330 casino and bingo operations, prosperity has not trickled down to most Native Americans.

Tribal government gaming generated $14.5 billion in revenues in 2002, but just 41 of the operations won 65 percent of the gross. Roughly 20 percent of tribal casinos are generating 80 percent of the revenues.

Most tribal casinos and bingo halls are marginal operations providing valuable jobs and economic development on Indian lands. But they are not creating untold riches.

Of course, if you were to stack all the newspaper articles written about the lucrative Foxwoods Resort in Connecticut, it would tower over what has been published about all the other 329 tribal gaming operations in the United States. The result is the misconception that all Indians are rich Indians.

This myth of the rich Indian has created some tragic consequences in California.

As a result of a deepening budget deficit, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state Legislature is proposing to make some drastic cuts in state and local services to needy American Indians. Local American Indian tribes could see the end of a new experiment in managing their own welfare programs.

Elected officials are proposing to slash by 70 percent ($30.5 million from $43 million) funding to the Temporary Assistance to Needy Family program being administered by the California Tribal TANF Programs.

In addition, state and local funding for substance abuse and alcohol prevention at Indian health clinics has been slashed from $2.8 million to $100,000, virtually wiping out the program.

"The non-Indian community believes that because of the success of gaming tribes there is no need to provide services to indigent Indians living in California," says Marilyn Delgado, tribal liaison, California Tribal TANF Partnerships. "What people do not realize is that most of the 300,000 Indians in California are not members of California tribes. Many are members of tribes not recognized by the federal government. Others are members of tribes that are not significantly benefiting from gaming.

"The state of California has the responsibility to provide for all needy people, including Indian people who reside within the state," Delgado said. "Furthermore, it is not the responsibility of gaming tribes to provide for needy Indians who are not members of their tribe."

Tribal leaders are coordinating to petition the governor not to cut the funding, Dennis Turner, project director for the tribal welfare program in San Diego County, told the North County Times newspaper.

"We need to work with the governor's office and that's what's happening," Turner said.

Tribal welfare is a $90 million program that receives about half of its funding from the state. It receives $46 million from the federal government. However, losing $30 million from the state could spell doom for the fledgling programs, Delgado said.

Until 1996, needy tribal members had to look to county government to access welfare programs, which were often far from the remote Indian reservations.

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Under federal welfare reforms that took effect in 1996, tribes were allowed to administer their own programs, thus taking them off local governments' hands. Tribal officials have said the change allowed greater spending flexibility and the ability to provide local services.

H.D. Palmer, a spokesman at the state's Department of Finance, told the newspaper the cuts are being proposed because of a "declining tribal case load" in welfare rolls. He added that the state would continue to fund tribal welfare and that the program would continue to receive federal money.

"There is still revenue through state and local programs," Palmer said. "They will still be receiving federal funding."

A misguided policy

Meanwhile, Gov. Schwarzenegger is calling for California gaming tribes to rewrite portions of tribal-state gaming compacts agreed to in 1999. He wants a greater share of tribal gaming revenues to help bail the state out of its fiscal woes. The governor singled out Indians in the October recall election that swept him into office, claiming tribes did not pay "their fair share."

The concept of "fair share" will be discussed and hopefully resolved by the tribes and the governor's negotiating team, which over the next several months will be redrafting portions of existing compacts and writing new agreements. If the governor's team believes all California Indians are rich Indians, the talks may be a learning process.

As is the case nationally, much of the publicity surrounding tribal government gaming in California centers on the larger, more lucrative operations, the "Foxwoods of California," so to speak.

But there are some 54 tribal government casinos in the Golden State, and only 15 have the maximum 2,000 machines as allowed in the tribal-state compacts. There are between 40,000 and 50,000 enrolled members of the state's 107 federally recognized tribes. And more than 6,000 of them are members of just two tribes, the Hoopa Valley and Yurok tribes in Northern California.

Hoopa Valley has fewer than 350 machines. Yurok has no machines at all.

Hoopa Valley is still struggling with some 40 percent unemployment. Much of the Yurok reservation is without essential services such as water and electricity. Many tribal members live below the poverty level.

As California Nations Indian Gaming Association Chairman Anthony Miranda suggested in his landmark speech in January, the contributions of tribal gaming to the economic well being of American Indians and their non-Indian neighbors has been "nothing short of spectacular."

But tribes in California and throughout the country have a long way to go before they achieve economic and social parity with their non-Indians neighbors. And, as Miranda also pointed out, it must be done without compromising basic principles of sovereignty and self-governance.

The prospects of us all becoming rich Indians will likely remain a myth. But we can secure for our children, and the generations to come, a secure and bright future.

Jacob L. Coin is executive director of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, an association of more than 50 Indian nations in the state. Among his responsibilities and duties are organizational development, policy and legislative advocacy, education on tribal governmental gaming, tribal sovereignty and political development. Prior to his current work at CNIGA, Coin was executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) in Washington, D.C. He is a member of the Hopi Indian Tribe, Tobacco Clan, from the Village of Kykotmovi in Arizona.