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Tribal casinos ignite hope, raise concerns

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By Jared Miller -- Casper Star-Tribune

WIND RIVER INDIAN RESERVATION, Wyo. (AP) - Leandra Eagle was a timid 19-year-old with low self-esteem and a minimum-wage job when she accepted a position at Wind River Casino two years ago.

Today, she oversees a small staff as the casino's daytime maintenance supervisor, looks her subordinates in the eye when assigning tasks and earns a salary three times what she made before as a fast-food cook.

''I'm getting a lot more bills paid, and things are getting a lot better,'' said Eagle, a Northern Arapaho who plans to buy a home on her salary and take courses at the community college in Riverton.

Two years after Wyoming's Northern Arapaho Tribe began offering Las Vegas-style gaming in an old bingo hall south of Riverton, the impacts of gaming on the people and on nearby communities are beginning to show.

Good-paying jobs are improving the lives of the nearly 300 casino employees and igniting new hope on the Wind River reservation, where the BIA calculates the unemployment rate is somewhere between 30 and 50 percent.

Yet, as some prosper, others lose. Local addictions counselors say the number of people hooked on gaming is growing, and lives are being destroyed by a problem that can be more difficult to treat than alcohol or drug addiction.

''We're seeing problem gamblers who cash the paycheck and go to the casino,'' said Becky Parker, a licensed professional counselor at Fremont Counseling in Riverton. ''Pretty soon, there went the rent money or grocery money.''

The number of jobs, and problem gamers, could continue to grow for the next several years.

The Arapaho Tribe is building a much larger 44,000-square-foot casino near the current location on Wyoming Highway 789 that will employ an additional 100 workers. It also operates a small casino in Ethete.

The Eastern Shoshone Tribe, which is also headquartered on the reservation, recently opened its first casino, the Shoshone Rose, north of Lander on Wyoming Highway 287. It has plans for a second, much larger casino north of Riverton.

More than 90 percent of workers at the Wind River Casino are tribal members, and more than 80 percent are Arapaho.

Wages at Wind River Casino start at $8.50 an hour, and climb quickly for those who show they are apt. Eagle said her pay rose from $8 an hour to $12 an hour after nine months, and jumped again when she became a supervisor.

The casino also serves as something of a worker training ground for tribal members who have little or no employment experience.

Tribal members who may feel uncomfortable seeking a first job off the reservation can learn the ropes of employment among colleagues who are mostly American Indian.

Yet, the casino is operated as a business, and managers are far less tolerant of tardiness, absences or incompetence than their counterparts in tribal programs, casino workers said.

''If they show up late, or don't show up, there are consequences,'' casino manager Jim Conrad said.

Before he got a job at the casino in August, Walter Steele's only work experience was as a janitor and a frozen-food stocker at Wal-Mart.

The 20-year-old Oglala Sioux from South Dakota earned $7.50 an hour at Wal-Mart but now makes $15 an hour in the casino's information technology department. The casino provided all of Steele's training for free.

''This [job] makes life a whole lot better,'' said Steele, who used some of his initial earnings to buy himself a 1995 Ford Taurus. ''It's all been good since I started here.''

Casino jobs come with paid health benefits, allowing many workers and their families to seek medical care off the reservation for the first time without worry about how to pay.

Workers said the health care benefits are a big relief after relying on the local IHS clinic, part of a federal program that has been found to be woefully underfunded.

The casino also offers a vehicle purchase program and housing assistance, said Melanie Gambler, the primary gaming regulator for the Northern Arapaho Tribe.

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The tribe plans to build 40 housing units for casino employees, which will ease the tribe's 600-unit housing shortage, said Pat Lawson, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Gaming Agency.

''It's been a real positive impact,'' Gambler said. ''People are driving better cars now, and they can take care of their families. They're not on welfare, and they have a fairly good income. Plus, they have health insurance.''

Rochelle Whiteman, a 25-year-old Arapaho, has been the Wind River Casino payroll secretary since December. Before that, she worked at two tribal programs, where she rarely got raises and her only benefit was a 401(k) retirement plan.

Now she has the freedom to see the doctor of her choice, and she makes more money.

''The starting pay and benefits are far better than all the other Northern Arapaho programs,'' Whiteman said.

Just a few miles down the road from the Wind River Casino, tribal addictions counselor Clarence Thomas is preparing a three-day conference on gaming addiction.

Las Vegas-style gaming is in its infancy on the reservation, but addiction is already here. The community needs facts about the problem and where to get help, Thomas said.

''It's something that we really need to address, because it can destroy families and lives,'' Thomas said.

Gaming addiction causes extreme debt, domestic tension and can lead to illegal activity, such as theft, Parker said.

Gaming debts can also trigger relapses in sober alcoholics and drug addicts, sometimes resulting in behavior that leads to jail or prison.

It is common for victims to show up in therapy with symptoms of depression or despair that are later revealed to be rooted in gaming addiction.

''We're seeing all of it and have been for a couple of years,'' Parker said.

Gaming addiction is tricky and hard to treat because it causes none of the physical trauma that can sometimes alert drug addicts and alcoholics to their problem.

''With alcohol and drugs, people might get sick with the withdrawals,'' Thomas said. ''There is nothing like that with gambling, and the individual will continue to the very end and keep going.''

The reservation and surrounding communities may be especially vulnerable to gaming addiction because gaming is new to the area. Awareness of the problem is low, and treatment options are few.

A lone chapter of the 12-step group Gamblers Anonymous meets every Tuesday at St. Stephen's Catholic Mission on the reservation.

''There are really no services here on gambling,'' Thomas said.

The Arapaho Tribe and the casino are attempting to take the lead in addressing the issue.

The White Buffalo Recover Center hosted its three-day conference in October to raise awareness about gaming addiction.

The Wind River Casino will also invite addictions counselors from around the state to the reservation for a separate training session to help enhance their knowledge about the problem.

In addition, the casino is preparing a free, statewide help line that problem gamers and their loved ones can call for guidance and referrals to addictions counseling.

''We want to create a statewide network - because we have lots of customers who come from all over - so people can call an 800 number and get referred to the nearest addiction workers,'' said Andi Clifford, human resource manager for Wind River Casino.

The Shoshone Tribe also emphasizes gaming addiction at its addictions treatment program and will use gaming revenue to provide treatment for addicts, Shoshone Business Council member Ivan Posey said.

''We understand that along with gaming comes different problems,'' Posey added.