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Stewart Huntington and Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

LAS VEGAS, Nevada — The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians made history Thursday after winning final regulatory approval for its plan to buy a Las Vegas gaming resort.

The approval makes the San Manuel Band the first tribal operation to own and operate a resort in the heart of the U.S. gaming industry in Las Vegas.

“This is monumental,” said Latitia Deanne Casas, chair of the San Manuel Band’s Gaming and Hospitality Authority. “Historic and humbling.”

The Nevada Gaming Commission voted unanimously to approve the tribe’s plans to buy the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. The commission’s vote was the final hurdle and allows the tribe’s $650-million purchase to proceed.

“This is very exciting,” commission Chair Jennifer Togliatti said in welcoming the new owners.

The news came one day after the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Hard Rock International announced it had reached a deal to purchase the operations of The Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas for $1.075 billion and build its iconic guitar hotel on the property. The deal must also be approved by regulatory authorities.

The guitar-shaped hotel is seen at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in Hollywood, Florida. The Guitar Hotel's grand opening is on the tribe's land in Hollywood. It's the latest step in the Seminole Hard Rock empire, which includes naming rights on the Miami-area stadium where the 2020 Super Bowl will be played. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

The Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut in March became the first tribe to operate a casino in Las Vegas when it opened the Mohegan Sun Casino At Virgin Hotels Las Vegas.

“This is an exciting story,” Daniel Cobb, a professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina, said recently.

“It’s one more chapter in a much longer story of renaissance and renewal,” as tribes across the continent reclaim their culture and re-assert their sovereignty, he said.

Unprecedented growth

The San Manuel Band, based in San Bernardino County, California, is buying the Palms Casino Resort from Red Rock Resorts, which spent almost $700 million on renovations after acquiring the 703-room resort in 2016 for $321.5 million.

The resort has never re-opened after Nevada mandated a 78-day shutdown of gaming due to the pandemic in March 2020. The tribe hopes to re-open the resort in the spring with some 1,200 employees.

In her presentation to the gaming commission Thursday in Las Vegas, Casas touched on the remarkable historic arc sketched by the San Manuel Band.

She told of the near-annihilation of her people in 1866 when the state of California sponsored a month-long campaign against them. Casas told how her great-great-great-grandfather, Santos Manuel, led a group of fewer than 30 tribal members to safety in the desert.

“His leadership is why we are here today,” she told the five-member commission.

After more than a century living mostly in poverty, the band opened its first bingo hall in 1986 and subsequently grew its gaming business into a Southern California economic giant.

The band is one of the region’s largest employers and on Monday opened a new 432-room hotel addition to its casino resort in Highland, California, 60 minutes from Los Angeles. The opening of the $760-million addition and renovation was accompanied by a rebranding.

The resort, which had been known as the San Manuel Casino, is now called the Yaamava’ Resort and Casino.

“As we watched Yaamava’ take shape over these last three years, the San Manuel community recognized we were building something special,” San Manuel Chairman Ken Ramirez said in a prepared statement.

The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians opened a 432-room hotel addition to its casino resort in Highland, California, on Dec. 13, 2021, and rebranded the entire property as the Yaamava' Resort and Casino. Three days later, it won approval to purchase the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy of Yaamava’ Resort and Casino at San Manuel)

The San Manuel Band, a federally recognized tribe, descended from the Yuhaaviatam clan, or “People of the Pines,” of the Maara’yam (Serrano), who thrived in the highlands, passes, valleys, and mountains in and between the southwestern Mojave Desert and an area known as the Inland Empire region in what is now Southern California.

Beginning in the 1780s, the Maara’yam were forced from their villages into church missions in order to provide unpaid labor to Spain. Later, after the territory became part of the state of California, the Yuhaaviatam were attacked by the state government-sanctioned militia in Big Bear Valley during a 32-day campaign in 1866. In 1891, the San Manuel Reservation was established. The tribal lands have grown from 640 acres to more than 1,100 acres.

The tribal gaming industry has ballooned since its early days.

In 2000, there were 256 Indian gaming operations in the country that handled $10.6 billion in gross gaming revenue. By 2019, the last year not disrupted by the pandemic, the industry had grown to 522 operations that handled $34.6 billion in gross revenue, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission.

Seminole plans

Hard Rock International, the worldwide hospitality and entertainment company owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, announced this week it has reached a deal to acquire the operations of The Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas from MGM Resorts for just over $1 billion.

Hard Rock plans to build its iconic guitar-shaped hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.

“We are honored to welcome The Mirage's 3,500 team members to the Hard Rock family,” Jim Allen, chairman of Hard Rock International, said in a statement. “When complete, Hard Rock Las Vegas will be a fully integrated resort welcoming meetings, groups, tourists and casino guests from around the world to its nearly 80-acre center-strip location.”

The first Guitar Hotel was built on tribal homelands in Hollywood, Florida, a 36-story landmark that shoots “string” light projections 200 feet into the air and has an LED light show timed to music that dances nightly on the hotel’s façade.

Hard Rock is buying the operating assets of The Mirage Hotel and Casino, entering into a long-term lease agreement with VICI Properties Inc. for the real estate.

Allen noted that the company had no previous involvement with the former Hard Rock Hotel & Casino that operated from 1995 to 2020 east of the Las Vegas Strip. That property was purchased in 2018 and was rebranded into Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, with a gambling floor operated by Mohegan Sun Casino.

Hard Rock International bought the naming rights in May 2020 with plans to eventually open a Las Vegas Strip property.

MGM Resorts International CEO and President Bill Hornbuckle called the deal “a significant milestone for MGM Resorts and for Las Vegas.”

The Mirage’s location and size prompted the bid and purchase. It’s not clear if the iconic Mirage volcano fountain will remain at the property, which opened with a Polynesian theme in November 1989 by former casino mogul Steve Wynn. MGM Resorts acquired the 3,000-room resort in 2000.

There is no announced date for the hotel’s construction and opening.

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