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Defending the Seneca Nation: When Indian Rights and State Gaming Intersect

Gaming and Indians is the subject of a battle being waged in the western New York media by activist groups opposed to gaming, Indian rights, Indian sovereignty and related issues, and who seek to halt construction of the proposed Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino in an impoverished area of the city of Buffalo.

The struggle, which has turned bitter at times, involves the intersection of two strains of history: U.S. Indian policy and government involvement with gaming as a revenue substitute for taxes.

Euro-American governments and gaming are not new. There are at least four eras in the history of colony and state-owned lotteries and gaming. The first was from 1607 to the 1840s, which obviously began almost with the first settlements and involved lotteries. They ended when scandals erupted beginning in 1823 in the District of Columbia.

The next wave erupted primarily in the South after the Civil War and lasted into the 1890s, when lottery proponents were caught bribing public officials. It was revived in 1920 with pari-mutuel gaming involving horse racing. That era ended with state-sponsored lotteries, 1964 to 1993.

State-sponsored gaming is an ancient tradition in the United States, pre-dating the republic and existing during most of it. Casino gaming came next. State revenues from casino operations exceeded lottery revenues in Massachusetts in 1995, and New York officials hope one day to raise up to 10 percent of the state’s budget through gaming.

Tribes began gaming as enterprise in the mid-1970s in Florida, Wisconsin, California and Connecticut with low-stakes bingo halls.

They then began raising the stakes above limits set by state laws. State officials moved to halt the operations, but the Indians claimed that their sovereignty meant state laws do not apply; and in 1987 the Supreme Court, in the California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians decision, created a compacting process between tribes and states intended to bring about compromise agreements, which would permit the Indian nations to have casinos at the cost of some erosion of sovereignty. The law provided for negotiations between states and Indian nations to be conducted in “good faith,” but numerous states vigorously opposed Indian casinos, as have successive smaller jurisdictions.

Lawsuits have been in the courts for years, and will be for many more years, and in some cases have postponed or deflected casino development; but for the most part when a state and an Indian nation have signed a compact, the casinos have gone forward despite spirited local opposition. The fact that there are about 360 Indian gaming establishments indicates that opposition to them hasn’t been very successful.

The Seneca have bought nine acres in Buffalo, about 30 miles from the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation, in a “brown field” section of the city. The anti-casino movement has had an anti-Indian slant to it. One would hardly know, listening to the debate, that the casino was primarily desired by New York’s officials, and that the state will enjoy a 25 percent “take” of slot machine (or slot like machine) revenues, which is very high for state – Indian compacts. That money goes to the people of New York state.

Research on the impact of casinos supports the argument that privately owned commercial gaming casinos of the variety that invaded Atlantic City do not benefit local existing economies. Indian casinos, usually situated on reservations, do not do harm because there are usually no established businesses as competition.

Researchers urge that bankruptcies around newly built casinos increase by about 10 percent in the early years, meaning if there were 10 bankruptcies the year before, there will be 11 the year after. That kind of information needs to be associated with the fact that about 80 percent of all start-up restaurants close within five years.

Proponents of the casino claim it will create a thousand new well-paying jobs with a payroll of some $35 million per year. Many, if not most, of the people likely to work in the casino will come from the suburbs, but some of them could be enticed to live and shop and be entertained in the city if the city had things to offer. That $35 million payroll could be a boon, if the city can find ways to become more attractive as a place to live and raise families.

The attack on the casino in the media has become an attack on the Seneca, and the casino has emerged as the object of fear as though it were the only gaming venue. Missing from all this is a discussion about the fact that gaming, including horse racing, off-track betting, racetrack slots and lotteries have long been a mainstay of New York state public policy designed to create revenue streams while shielding people from taxes. People complain that a casino in Buffalo will bring increased gaming addiction but it can only be a marginal increase because there are so many ways to gamble. The government of Ontario, five minutes across the bridge, also has an aggressive gaming program, which includes high-stakes bingo and the huge, glamorous Casino Niagara at Niagara Falls, and other casinos as well. Some people say that Buffalo-area residents are spending $100 million annually in Canada and that perhaps $60 million of that would stay in New York if there was a casino in Buffalo. Eliminating the Buffalo Creek casino will do little to address gaming addiction, and no one is talking about New York state’s addiction to gaming revenues. This new casino could be called the New York State – Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino to set the paternity straight.

There is a small percentage of the population who can’t make choices among negatives. They want a perfect world, so they oppose things that are imperfect. They are jokingly called NIMBYs, Not In My Back Yarders, or CAVE (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) people, and they are evident in this discourse. Any development, from a giant sporting goods store to a Wal-Mart, will have some negative impact on someone, and responsible citizens need to weigh the costs against the benefits.

In the SBCC case, some of the money will go to the Senecas, most of whom live nearby and will spend in the region; some to Albany in lieu of tax dollars; and some to the employees of the casino, who hopefully live in the community. Some will repay the people who loaned the Seneca Nation the money to build.

I hope the NIMBYs and the CAVErs can learn to make lemonade. The heated rhetoric about how the casino will “devastate” Buffalo is in the American tradition of politically motivated moral panic and belongs alongside the expected invasion of black U.N. helicopters and liberal home invaders out to seize Bibles.

If it were as dire as portrayed, there would be nightly reports of victims from Niagara Falls, where a world-class Seneca Niagara Casino provides a lot of jobs and entices a lot of tourists. Niagara Falls had a bit of a tendency to sit back and wait for the benefits, but that’s not how it works for a city.

I hope that Buffalo will view the creation of a thousand new jobs in the city limits as an opportunity and will try to make the downtown area a people- and pedestrian-friendly place where a well-educated work force can find good housing.

Recently a Buffalo public school was named one of the five best public schools in the nation, and the city can build on that. Attracting people with jobs to work, play, be entertained and live in the city is what urban development is all about. It could become an opportunity to make Buffalo a place where people matter, and Buffalo is not going to get many such opportunities.

I hope the Seneca Nation understands the casino era to be temporary, an opportunity to prepare the people for future economic realities by focusing on education and wealth-creating institutions and assets. Economic landscapes change, and technology enables people to do things in their homes like virtual gaming; and the gaming casino era will not last forever. The early rush of casino dollars can be intoxicating, but this, too, shall pass. I know it’s a lot to hope for but, given all the negative rhetoric lately, someone has to be an optimist!

<i>John Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is a noted author and historian. He is an associate professor of American studies and director of Indigenous studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo.