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Stewart Huntington
Special to Indian Country Today

LAS VEGAS, Nevada — Some things change and some things stay the same. And sometimes both happen together.

That confluence was on display Wednesday in Las Vegas with the grand re-opening of the Palms Resort Casino, when a small California tribe became the first Native nation to own and operate a casino here — all while staying true to Indigenous values.

“The top value we have as tribal people is giving back to others and that's regardless of location whether we’re on or off the reservation or here in Las Vegas,” said Latisha Casas, the chairperson of the San Manuel Gaming and Hospitality Authority that operates the Palms Resort Casino for her tribe, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.

“We’re going to carry those values with us wherever we go.”

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The tribe bought the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas last year for $650 million. The nearly 1,400-room complex had remained closed since Nevada shuttered all resorts during the pandemic.

Fireworks explode between the Palms Resort and Casino hotel towers during the reopening of the Palms in Las Vegas Wednesday, April 27, 2022. The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians bought the property from Station Casinos in 2021. The band made history with the opening by becoming the first tribe to own and operate a casino in Las Vegas. (Photo by Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun via AP)

On Wednesday the tribe put on a gala re-opening of the iconic Las Vegas property – a moment hailed as a milestone for Native economic development.

“It is absolutely phenomenal,” said Lane Parry, Hopi, who attended the festivities with his wife, Laura Parry, who is chairwoman of the Moapa Band of Paiutes, whose ancestral homelands are in present day Nevada. “We’ve gone through so many struggles in our lifetimes and our history that it is time for us to move forward in the development of this nation.”

The San Manuel Band’s relaunch of the Palms put it a step ahead of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which announced in December it would buy the operations of The Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas for $1.075 billion and build a hotel in the shape of a guitar on the property. The deal is awaiting final approval by regulatory authorities.

The Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut in March 2021 became the first tribe to operate a casino in Las Vegas when it opened the Mohegan Sun Casino At Virgin Hotels Las Vegas. The tribe is not an owner of the operation.

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The Palms celebration began with traditional songs and dances performed by a group consisting of both Paiutes and San Manuel citizens. When Casas spoke to the crowd of more than 250 people gathered to celebrate the re-opening, she told of how her great-great-grandfather Santos Manuel led fewer than 30 of his people to safety after California militia forces launched a month-long campaign to kill Native people in 1866. The band endured poverty for generations and had to rely on outsiders for help.

“We benefited from the kind heartedness of others when we had very little and appreciated all that people have done to help us from the beginning when we were just trying to survive and escape massacres,” she said.

Santos Manuel, who led the remaining San Manuel Band of Mission Indians after a massacre in the 1800s, is shown here in an historic photo. (Image courtesy of California State University, San Bernadino)

The experience, she said, “built us into these resilient people. It built us into these kind-hearted, warm-hearted people that just want to give back.”

Today, the tribe is in a position to give back in a big way. Its Yamaava’ Resort & Casino on tribal lands in San Bernardino County outside of Los Angeles is successful enough the tribe was able to envision – and then execute – its Las Vegas expansion plan.

But none of that happened overnight, said Dr. Dreon Marquez, a San Manuel citizen and vice chairman of the tribe’s gaming authority. He traced the beginnings of the path to prosperity to the mid-1980s and the wisdom of tribal leader Henry Duro.

“In 1985, he had a dream, a vision,” said Marquez. “And he acted on that vision.”

Marquez said that Duro encouraged the tribe to open a one-room bingo hall on its reservation back when that was illegal. The tribe wouldn’t be in its strong financial situation today if it hadn’t taken that risk to “challenge federal law and state law,” he said.

The tribe’s stance, and those of others, led to the 1987 Supreme Court decision in California V. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians that ultimately paved the way for legal Indian gaming. “We expressed the full body of our sovereignty,” Marquez said.

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The challenge carries additional heft when viewed from an Indigenous perspective, said Donald Fixico, Sac and Fox, who is a history professor at Arizona State University.

Merriam-Webster defines sovereignty as “supreme power” and “freedom from external control.” But there is an added element of responsibility in the Indigenous understanding of the concept.

“The word sovereignty means something different to Native people,” he said. “Natives believe that with sovereignty comes an obligation to take care of the land and the communities on it.”

The distinction is evident in the San Manuel approach to its new operation in Las Vegas.

Before the tribe even opened its doors at the Palms, it had given away $10 million in the Las Vegas community to educational institutions and nonprofit groups, officials said. At Wednesday’s opening ceremony, it gave away an additional $150,000 to three groups.

And the tribe is focused on its employees.

Before it purchased the Palms, the tribe’s gaming authority toured the facility, which first opened in 2001. “When we saw the back of the house it was immediately bumped up to the top of our priority list because we wanted to completely redo it,” Casas said, referring to the parts of the operation that only employees see. “When we welcomed the employees back we wanted to make sure they felt welcomed.”

The casino’s previous owners renovated most of the property just a few years ago but neglected the employee zones. The tribe did an overhaul for its staff.

“It’s fantastic,” said Kevin Glass, the Palms’ vice president of hospitality who boasts more than two decades in the Las Vegas casino industry. “I’ve never seen anything like” the San Manuel Band’s commitment to the staff.

Casas said her tribe knows no other way. “It’s who we are as people,” she said.

And they’re already planning the next step in respecting those around the new location.

“One of the things that we are absolutely working on is a land acknowledgement,” she said. “It’s going to be somewhere in the building, a land acknowledgement to the Southern Paiute tribes because we are on their Indigenous lands.”

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, left, shares a laugh with San Manuel Band of Mission Indians gaming officials  Dr. Dreon Marquez, center, and Latisha Casas during the grand re-opening ceremonies for the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. The band bought the Palms for $650 million and on Wednesday became the first tribe to own and operate a casino in Las Vegas. (Photo by Stewart Huntington for Indian Country Today)

An informal survey by Indian Country Today found no examples of land acknowledgements elsewhere in Las Vegas, and when a reporter asked Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, who was on hand to help celebrate the re-opening of the Palms, if land acknowledgements were a good idea that could be adopted by businesses and governments in his state, he answered, “We’ll respond to any request the tribe has.”

Clifford Trafzer, a professor of American Indian affairs at the University of California-Riverside, wrote a history of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. The band was first chased onto Catholic missions and subjected to forced labor regimes by Spanish missionaries, and then massacred by California vigilantes.

“I don’t know who had it worse,” he said, comparing the San Manuel post-colonial contact to other North American Indigenous communities.

The land acknowledgement could set another example of ways the San Manuel Band is spreading its influence.

“We survived everything that came up against us and we are still here today,” said Carla Rodiguez, a San Manuel citizen and secretary of the tribe’s gaming and hospitality authority.

But to Rodriguez, her people’s history only served to produce optimism.

The tribe’s journey, she told the crowd, “proves to every tribe that it is capable of doing exactly what we do. I would say hakup a’ai, meaning very good, and nuhuun a’ai, meaning my heart is very happy.”

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