If anyone in Indian country has come to know me, they know that I am a
staunch activist for the protection of tribal sovereignty. I am a proud
member of the Spokane Tribe, and I have served on its tribal council with
my most recent term ending just a few short months ago.
As a tribal leader, my deepest conviction was twofold: to protect the
welfare of the Spokane people and the sovereignty of the Spokane Tribe.
That is why in 1986, when jobs and opportunities were scarce and living
conditions on my reservation were deplorable, I opened the Double Eagle
Casino, one of the first Indian gaming facilities in the United States. The
casino immediately injected jobs and revenue into the tribal economy, and
it was the cornerstone of the gaming industry for the tribe and gave hope
for a brighter future.
When state attorneys general around the United States started to attack
Indian gaming, I joined the fight with other tribal leaders in the 1980s to
ensure that Indian tribes' right to conduct gaming would be protected. As
tribal leaders, we knew that Indian gaming was the resource to pull tribes
out of centuries of devastation and despair. As a result, the Indian Gaming
Regulatory Act was created; and while we were not pleased with IGRA
altogether, we were content that at a minimum, Indian gaming would
The founding fathers (myself included) of the National Indian Gaming
Association are often credited with responsibility for IGRA's so-called
"grandfather clause," which permits casinos operated by tribal members
prior to the IGRA's enactment to operate subject to a generous revenue
sharing agreement with the tribe.
Since the enactment of IGRA, I continued to operate the Double Eagle Casino
and kept my attention focused on preserving tribal sovereignty while
consulting for former council member John Kieffer (now deceased). The small
family-owned and -operated casino continued to provide jobs and has
contributed more than $25 million in revenues to the Spokane Tribe. During
this time, I advocated for tribal sovereignty and gaming rights nationwide;
and when other Washington tribes signed compacts, the Spokane Tribe, while
under the leadership of John Kieffer, never yielded its sovereignty to the
state. While standing alone, the tribe fought hard in court and won,
securing our right to conduct gambling on our reservation, even without a
I have now become disheartened because Indian gaming is being attacked
again. This time tribes are initiating the attacks because of their own
reckless greed. In desperate attempts to get rich quick, tribes are waiving
their sovereignty to sign development agreements with Las Vegas gaming
companies, engage in "reservation shopping" and attempt to lure states into
supporting them by offering the states ungodly sums of taxes under the
guise of "revenue sharing."
These actions by tribes have disgusted our most loyal political supporters
while simultaneously providing the firepower for opponents to potentially
bring Indian gaming to a screeching halt. However, the consequences of
reservation shopping and revenue sharing are far greater than creating
potential attacks from the outside world. Once tribes foolishly buy into
the false promise of getting rich and head down this primrose path, they
bring despair to their own people.
The Spokane Tribe is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Despite a 9th
Circuit court order giving the tribe its ability to conduct gaming without
a compact, the tribe has now suddenly and inexplicably abandoned its
15-year legal battle for the preservation of its tribal sovereignty and
changed its policy to negotiate a compact with the state of Washington.
The tribe first decided to replace experienced tribal members for operators
with Las Vegas interests. Next, the tribe rashly trusted the state and
negotiated a compact, which would pay the state an unprecedented 34 percent
of its revenues. In exchange, the state would cooperate with the Spokane
Tribe to conduct reservation shopping and create a new sliver of the
reservation for a new casino off our reservation, near the city of Spokane
and right down the road from a neighboring tribe with an existing casino.
The tribe's actions did not stop there. In an effort to gain favor with the
state, it appears that the tribe, during closed-door and behind-the-scenes
meetings, had to agree to close an existing grandfathered casino operating
on the reservation: expressly, the Double Eagle Casino. The result is the
Spokane Tribe methodically breached its agreements with its own tribal
members to force the closure of the casino and took away a vital source of
revenue that the tribe has enjoyed for the past 20 years. The closure took
jobs from the people who worked at the casino. The tribe forced this
closing without following its own laws for due process, and exerted
Draconian authority to run roughshod over tribal members' rights.
I have read many commentaries by tribal leaders expressing their concerns
about tribal sovereignty. My observation is when you take an inherent right
like sovereignty and mix it with the gaming industry, your result is greed.
My traditional teachings never included greed. Those of you who may have
had to hunt or fish to feed your families remember being taught to share
your kill or catch with your entire extended family to solidify your
importance and bond as a member of your American Indian family. Where have
those teachings gone?
Where has greed left the tribe? The results of the tribe's actions are
shocking, although not unexpected. You see, the state has suddenly changed
its position and now does not want to sign the compact it negotiated with
the tribe. Even though the state is receiving 34 percent of the tribe's
revenues, it needs even more concessions of the Spokane Tribe's
sovereignty. In addition, the state is now second-guessing whether it
should allow the tribe to go reservation shopping.
In a signed letter by Gov. Christine Gregoire dated Oct. 27, referring to
the proposed compact between the tribe and state, she wrote: "I appreciate
the hard work done by both the Commission staff and tribal representatives
on this difficult issue. I am especially pleased that the proposal includes
provisions for revenue sharing and contributions for problem gambling
services. However, I am concerned about some aspects of the proposed
compact and believe it should be revisited."
Her letter went on to say: "Specifically, I ask negotiators to look at the
provisions that potentially changes the process by which gaming facilities
are located on trust lands as set forth in federal law. In addition, the
number of authorized gaming machines and the leasing of machines for the
benefit of non-gaming tribes should be reconsidered."
The Spokane Tribe was hoodwinked, fooled by the empty promises agreed to by
its advisers, and in the end got nothing for its concessions.
Nonetheless, what has come of the tribe's dealings is damage to legitimate
businesses run by tribal members, the elimination of badly needed jobs and
the erasure of a huge portion of the Spokane Tribe's budget.
Even though I brought gaming to the Spokane Tribe and lived my life
fighting to protect tribal sovereignty for decades, I am dispirited to
witness the conspiracy to effectively eliminate grandfathered gaming on the
Spokane Reservation. Driven by greed, the Spokane Tribe destroyed our
businesses so that they could offer more money to the state than any
compact in the nation, all in an ill-advised attempt to offer gaming
outside the reservation. So the promises of revenue sharing and reservation
shopping are doing much more than creating opposition to Indian gaming, at
least in the Spokane Tribe's case. The false promises are bringing a new
level of despair to enterprising Spokane tribal members.
What is happening with my tribe is an example of what is facing all
American Indians. American Indians are rapidly learning a lifestyle of
greed. It will be the deadly ingredient that will take us far from our
Native way of life. Take a long, hard look around Indian country and see
what it has already caused us to do. We are taking livelihoods away,
memberships away and encroaching upon each other, all in the name of greed.
The cannibalization must end and the battle to achieve unity must continue.
The time is now ripe throughout Indian country for a summit of older and
younger leaders. Understanding how we got where we are and what the future
holds for our unborn leaders would be a good starting point.
We must heal ourselves. Our healing can only begin when we are truthful to
our people and ourselves.
Ronald L. "Buzz" Gutierrez was a founder of the National Indian Gaming
Association and is a former Spokane tribal chairman and councilman.