Mexican officials greets Oneidas as 'dignified diplomats'

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ONEIDA, N.Y. - If Mexico legalizes casinos, the Indigenous background of the Oneida Indian Nation should give it an edge on the market. That is the hope of nation leaders after a recent five-day tour of several potential gaming resorts on Mexico's Pacific Coast.

The six-man delegation signed pacts with the governor of the state of Morales and officials of the University of Acapulco to work toward a casino deal. The agreements aren't legally binding, but Oneida Nation's Representative Ray Halbritter called them an important step in "building relationships".

"We're very pleased with the relationships we have developed," Halbritter said in a press conference after the delegation's return. "We had a real simpatico and empathy with the people of Mexico because there is a feeling that both of our peoples have suffered from exploitation and ethnocentric oppression and economic oppression."

"They greeted us as if we were dignified diplomats," said Brian Patterson, a member of the Oneida Men's Council. "By respecting us, they respected our Indian nation."

Halbritter said the shared experience would help Oneidas enter the Mexican market if casinos are legalized, which he said could happen as early as September. Mexican President Vicente Fox said recently he favored a controlled number of casinos "in areas frequented by foreign tourists."

Halbritter said the Oneida Nation would invest as a corporation and pay taxes to the Mexican government. He said he expected a number of American corporations would rush to exploit the opportunity, but he hoped the Oneidas would have an edge from their Indigenous background.

The delegation toured three prime resort cities, adding Cuernava in the state of Morelos to the previously announced destinations of Mazatlan and Acapulco. Halbritter said it might be possible to do projects in all three locations.

"It will really depend on what licensing will be granted," he said.

The pact with the university, he said, would lead to a training program for the thousands of employees the casinos would require. That training would draw on the experience and personnel of the Oneidas' Turning Stone Casino Resort in upstate New York.

Halbritter emphasized however that the Oneida interest in Mexico developed long before the prospect of legalized casinos. He said it was a renewal of Indigenous trade routes that existed before European contact. Indian empires in Mexico, for instance, imported copper from what is now northern Minnesota.

"If Mexico didn't decide to legalize casinos there are still many opportunities there," Halbritter said.

He noted that Turning Stone spent $123 million on goods and services last year. "A lot of these products can come from that country."

In an interview, he touched briefly on another project that could expand trade even further.

He said he would soon be sending letters to other tribal casinos suggesting that they pool their buying power to reduce costs. Getting a better deal on supplies "would bring more profit to Indian gaming."

But the discussions in Mexico went beyond the balance sheet, Halbritter said. "One of the issues we discussed was how development could be a benefit to people in smaller outlying areas."

He said Mexican officials were impressed by Oneida programs to channel casino profits into restoring the integrity of the nation's culture. The officials were trying to devise ways "to develop without losing their culture and tradition. Mexico is only poor in material goods. It's a rich culture."

Halbritter said sharing these ideas went a long way toward building the relationships that would bring off the deal in the end. For success in Mexico, he said, "you need to establish relationships. They need to be certain you are who you say you are.

"Deals depend on how well you conduct yourself."