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Grabowski: Setting Bill O'Reilly straight regarding Indian gaming

In the Aug. 12 broadcast of "The O'Reilly Factor," the show's host, Bill O'Reilly, repeatedly pushed his guest, Ernie Stevens of the National Indian Gaming Association, to "open the books" of Indian casinos. O'Reilly maintained that doing so would quell criticisms that the profits of tribally-owned casinos go to only a handful of Natives and that gaming does little to address the high rates of poverty which pervade Indian country. "Opening the books" may be a catchy sound bite on the talk show circuit however the suggestion rings hollow as a remedy for ameliorating poverty in Indian country. Let's look at some basic facts.

Fact 1: All Indian reservations are not created equal. While Indian country as a whole is plagued with horrendous rates of poverty, these are not uniform from reservation to reservation. Instead, they vary with the proximity of a reservation to major metropolitan centers, with the natural resources located on the land, as well as with the legal history of each reservation. All three factors directly affect how reservation land is used by tribal members and what economic opportunities can be obtained on and near a reservation. Unsurprisingly, reservations which are located near thriving cities and the employment opportunities these provide generally have higher standards of living than those which do not.

Fact 2: All Indian casinos are not created equal. Some tribally-owned casinos are economic failures, some are moderate successes, while a lucky few reap hundreds of millions of dollars or more in profits. In fact, only a handful of casinos are responsible for the lion's share of the profits in Indian gaming. Of the top-earning three, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun are both located in Connecticut in the densely populated corridor between New York City and Boston; similarly, the Shakopee Mdewakantan casino in Minnesota is located near the Twin Cities and the consumer mecca, the Mall of America, which attracts thousands from home and abroad annually.

In addition to their fortuitous locations, the success of these three casinos has been aided by several historical factors. All are located on comparatively small reservations whose residents had emigrated to nearby cities out of economic necessity in the 20th century, leaving only a few families actually living on the land prior to the construction of the gaming facilities. When the casinos were first built, profits were divided among a small core of devoted tribal members and were reinvested in the casino and tribal infrastructure. Additionally, since the three tiny reservations were virtually abandoned prior to the casino development, all new construction could be directed toward meeting the needs of the casino and its tribal employees.

In short, the spectacular success of the three leading tribally-owned casinos derives from their geographic location and tribal histories and cannot be duplicated on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, no matter how brilliant the tribe's management and how supportive the state and local governments of South Dakota. "Opening the books" of Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun and the Shakopee casinos would do absolutely nothing to change the geographic and historical disparities between these wealthy Connecticut tribes and the poor ones in South Dakota and the economic chasm that separates these tribes as a result.

Fact 3: The high rate of poverty on many Indian reservations stems from an historical amalgam of federal policies which ostensibly were intended to push Indians to become "civilized," but were chronically ill-conceived, under-funded, poorly managed, not to mention culturally insensitive. Many problems have still not been corrected. Examples abound, yet in the amount of money involved and duration, it is hard to top the Indian trust fund debacle. The BIA cannot account for an estimated $3 billion that the agency was supposed to have held in trust for Indian wards. Under court order to provide an accounting of these funds for the last 100 years, the Bureau has yet to do so. Still, the agency is racking up thousands of dollars in legal fees to explain to the court why it shouldn't do what it is legally obligated to do.

To place the burden of correcting this legacy of mismanagement upon the few Indian tribes which have recently thrown off the yoke of paternalism, is to turn a blind eye to the structural factors which have long impeded economic development on Indian reservations. These problems are multi-faceted and cannot be resolved by a facile one-size-fits-all approach. "Opening the books" of successful tribal casinos will shed no light on what these impediments are and what steps can and should be taken to eliminate them. Nor will it provide tips as to how tribes can attract investment dollars even if they are located far from population hubs. Yet these issues are critical if more than a handful of geographically lucky tribes are to develop economically.

In fact, the myopic focus upon unusually successful tribal casinos has deflected attention from a persistent anomaly: large corporations more readily invest in foreign "emerging markets" than they do on reservations within the U.S. Those with a serious commitment to addressing poverty in Indian country would do well to think "out of the box." Gaming cannot solve the economic problems of all Indian tribes. Instead, different tribal traditions, legal histories, and geography necessitate creative economic strategies for specific reservations. Of course, forging these strategies will take longer than the 30 seconds Mr. O'Reilly wants to devote to the subject.

Christine Grabowski, Ph.D. is a consultant specializing in Indian affairs. With a background in anthropology and federal Indian policy, Dr. Grabowski has spent more than 20 years working for Indian tribes on such diverse issues as federal recognition, repatriation, and economic development, advising clients on public relations, policy planning, governmental relations as well as conducting research. She has presented both both oral and written testimony before Congress on the federal acknowledgment process.