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Patrons important to tribal public perception battles

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To all tribal leaders, your casino marketing people and American Indian
entrepreneurs: please consider how and how much you are educating your
clientele of the fact that your businesses are Native-owned and that your
tribal nations have important indigenous histories and many powerful
stories to tell.

Recent research on public attitudes about Indian issues gave strong
indication that the more the American public has contact or does business
in an Indian community, the more sympathetic those people become about
Indians - provided they have access to information.

However, the vast majority of Indian casinos, mostly as a result of
non-tribal management theory, shun the idea of reaching out to their
clientele with historical and cultural information that could deepen their
clients' identification with the situations of American Indians. Perhaps
this is starting to change and we gladly would receive word on innovative
examples of clientele education among Indian enterprises. But for the
moment we sustain the call for much more concentrated, sophisticated and
consistent efforts by tribal businesses to educate their regional and
national clienteles to the deeper purpose of raising the public's
consciousness and understandings of Native peoples.

The focus-group research, which concentrated on western New York but with
survey questions adaptable in any region in which tribal businesses have a
presence, was conducted by the Communications Department at Buffalo State
College for the American Indian Policy and Media Initiative. It found that
"those participants who were more knowledgeable of Native American history,
sympathized with them. These participants [in the study] were much more
adamant about shopping on Native American reservations and supporting their
rights to remain sovereign nations."

Tens of millions of American people shop, gamble or seek entertainment in
tribal enterprises as well as businesses owned and operated by tribal
members. Extensive, direct daily contact between the Indian world and the
general public now exists to an extent hardly imagined a generation ago. It
represents a wonderful opportunity for tribes to captivate substantial
public perception, one that could in large part carry positive
understandings to the rest of society. Yet, it remains largely wasted as
the majority of people who utilize the services of tribal enterprises and
independent businesses experience little or nothing that in any way relates
them to the American Indian experience.

This is not to say that every Indian business or tribally-owned casino must
become a museum -- although some, like Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, have
done very well with their design concept -- but that a well-thought-out,
cogent and easy-to-absorb message would go a very long way in wrapping the
American mind around the seemingly complicated reality of tribal
self-government, cultural survival and economic prosperity that the new
enterprises represent and promise.

Some national organization, such as the National Indian Gaming Association
or the National Congress of American Indians, should take it upon itself to
commission the production of the institutionally delivered programs to
explain to the American public the nation-building mandate of American
Indian peoples at this time in history. After all, if the turn toward
gaming and enterprise among the tribes is not about building the strength
of the much-distressed American Indian communities, then how can it be
supported?

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Beyond the few openings that the courts allowed, which made possible an
economic effort of the magnitude of tribal gaming, there is a crucial
social-cultural level that must also be addressed. If tribes cannot or do
not succeed in the court of public opinion, they are doomed to have their
tribal rights reduced or destroyed for, ultimately, the courts that have
supported tribal self-government will not be able to do so in the face of
public outcry and the attendant media hostility.

An educational effort with just the right message for and just the right
amount of dissemination among the millions upon millions of patrons of
Indian businesses, casinos and resorts can have a large positive
repercussion for the national Indian effort and help each and every tribe
hold its place while strengthen the still precarious position of its
people.

So, why are such educational efforts generally not happening?

Here is one reason: Many managers running Indian casino promotions are
woefully operating on the basis that Indian history, culture and even
statements of tribal political fact would only distract or turn off their
patrons. This is obvious at Indian casinos across the country from New York
to Wisconsin, Minnesota to California and elsewhere. Smaller tribes,
particularly, have a hard time running herd over all the ways their
enterprises are developing, often at breakneck pace. Poorly thought-out
efforts to "integrate" Indian culture into the mix can miss the mark
horribly. Example: at the Foxwoods Casino not long ago you could see (also
on cable, no less) fully costumed Plains Indians, drumming and singing a
beautiful and authentic Indian song while carrying a big hide piled high
with bundles of cash to be draped over a poker table as dollar prizes for a
major tournament.

It's so much better to simply present the Indian cultural reality with
purpose and dignity, not at garish moments and events, which after all can
be jazzed up with other forms of entertainment. This avoids making Indian
people look buffoonish in ways that distort or cheapen Indian culture in
the public mind; which in itself raises concern among most tribal leaders,
who then more easily shy away from projecting cultural and historical
messages. All Indian performers seek work, and it is understandable that
they take what jobs they can within an often insensitive industry. The onus
is on the lack of cultural competency among managers who conceive these
promotional acts.

The good news is that proper and more effective presentations can be done
-- ones that achieve a much deeper and useful objective, always coupling
cultural self-dignity with serious public perception strategy. Most Indians
sustain their dignity, sometimes with great effort. The missing piece is
often the public perception strategy. Projects such as the American Indian
Policy and Media initiative at Buffalo State College point the way to a
deeper, Indian-guided understanding of media and public perception work at
this time in history.

The recent AIPMI study, preliminary to much wider coverage, provides
already one guidepost: reach out to the patrons of your businesses. Beyond
gaming, gasoline and cigarettes, many clients and customers wondered what
other kinds of places existed on the reservations for them to visit. They
found very few. Direct connections -- particularly in the context of
well-focused media materials -- is the best conduit for sympathetic
relations (all politicians know the value of "pressing flesh"). A second
important admonition from the study reiterated how just a few anti-Indian
interest lobbies have in fact set the tone of press coverage in the state's
drive to tax reservation economies.

Tribal leaders, from Pequot to Morongo, from the Pueblos to the Rosebud
Lakota, are honing in on the message of their peoples as they position
themselves to prevail within the political discourse in the present
climate. The national Indian mandate is either about nation building or it
is about nothing supportable. The American Indian national goal is to build
strong and prosperous American Indian communities and peoples. American
Indian professional initiatives in the media arena -- and a wide and
growing field of Indian-oriented research by journalists and academics --
can greatly assist this struggle, where clear and positive outcomes are not
yet nearly guaranteed.