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Stewart Huntington
Special to Indian Country Today

LAS VEGAS, Nevada — A California tribe is poised to make gaming history later this month after the Nevada Gaming Control Board voted unanimously last week to recommend approval for its purchase of a Las Vegas resort.

If the state’s gaming commission green lights the sale of the Palms Casino Resort on Dec. 16, the San Manuel Band of Indians would become the first tribe to own and operate a resort in the heart of the U.S. gaming industry.

“It’s great to see tribes using their success (in gaming on Indian land) to diversify their economic portfolios,” said Dustin Thomas, the National Indian Gaming Commission’s director of compliance and citizen of the Mohawk and Oneida Nations. “As time goes on, more tribes are looking for opportunities off of tribal land.”

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 San Manuel investment goes a step further with proposed tribal ownership of an entire Las Vegas destination property.

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

“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.

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.

In May, the San Manuel Band, based in San Bernardino, California, announced plans to purchase the Palms Casino Resort located just west of the famed Las Vegas Strip for $650 million in cash from Red Rock Resorts, a unit of Station Casinos. The Palms opened in 2001 with a 42-story hotel, and a second hotel tower with 40 floors was added in 2005. The entire operation has been shut down since March 2020 when the state of Nevada shuttered all non-essential businesses because of COVID-19 concerns.

(Previous: Las Vegas feels tribal presence)

The potential expansion into Las Vegas comes at a busy time for the tribe.

On Dec. 13, the tribe will hold a grand opening for a new 432-room hotel addition to its casino resort in Highland, California, 60 minutes from Los Angeles. The $760-million addition and renovation will also be accompanied by a rebranding. The resort, which had been known as the San Manuel Casino, will now be 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 tribe started gaming operations on the property in 1986 with a bingo hall, and has overseen multiple expansions over the years.

Pictured: San Manuel Tribal Chairman Ken Ramirez.

A spokesperson for the tribe said it was in a so-called quiet period during the regulatory hearings in Nevada and couldn’t comment on the pending acquisition of the Palms or its plans for the Las Vegas resort if the deal is approved. But a clear theme has emerged since May, that the tribe is dedicated to its employees and its traditions.

“In Southern California, our tribe is well known for being a successful casino operator and recognized as a community leader and an employer of choice,” Latisha Casas,  chairman of the tribe’s subsidiary that will manage the Las Vegas project, said in a statement. “We live by values passed down by our ancestors; our values define us.”

The tribe was recognized this year at the Global Gaming Awards as the “Responsible Business of the Year” for its significant contributions to its community during the COVID-19 pandemic. The award acknowledged the tribe and its gaming enterprise for its commitment to corporate social responsibility in the gaming industry.

“(This) is a testament to our tribal values and we are proud to receive recognition of our philanthropy,” Ramirez said in a prepared statement at the time. “I look forward to working together to continue these meaningful efforts to give back to our community and those in need,” which is considered an answer to the call of Yawá, a Serrano word meaning “to act on one’s beliefs.”

Latisha Casas, shown here in an undated photo, is chairman of a subsidiary of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians of California, which has a contract to purchase the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas in 2021. It would mark the first time for a tribe to own a resort in the heart of the U.S. gaming industry. (Photo courtesy of San Miguel Band of Mission Indians)

The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, 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 what is known as the Inland Empire region in what is now Southern California. Their history is remarkable in its rise from near-annihilation to flourishing cultural and economic power.

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 a state government-sanctioned militia in Big Bear Valley during a 32-day campaign in 1866. Fewer than 30 members of the clan survived the massacre and ended up, in 1891, on what was established as the San Manuel Reservation.

The tribal lands have grown from 640 acres to more than 1,100 acres.

“Though the Reservation had very little usable space and natural resources, the community came together to establish a new way of life on the Reservation that not only led to our survival, but also honored our culture and traditions,” the tribal website states. “Our San Manuel Tribal Government works to provide a better quality of life for our citizens by building infrastructure; maintaining civil services; and promoting social, economic, and cultural development.”

The tribe this year is one of the largest employers and philanthropists in the Inland Empire as well as in the Las Vegas region.

“The generosity of (the tribe’s) investments is extraordinary,” said Cobb, the UNC professor. “Investing in the economy of the people who sought to eliminate them is a remarkable thing.”

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