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Stewart Huntington
Special to Indian Country Today

The Indian gaming industry inched a step closer to an historic milestone Tuesday when the Palms Casino Resort announced plans to reopen under tribal ownership.

The planned April 27 public opening date would mark the first time a tribal entity would own and operate a gaming resort in the heart of the nation’s gaming industry.

The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians bought the Palms last year for $650 million. The nearly 1,400-room complex has been closed since Nevada shuttered all resorts for 78 days in March 2020 due to the pandemic.

“It’s an honor and a privilege for us to welcome everyone back to Palms Casino Resort Las Vegas,” San Manuel Gaming and Hospitality Authority Chairwoman Latisha Casas said in a statement. “We look forward to introducing our guests to our rich history, culture and signature hospitality. We can’t wait to make history together.”

The introduction of tribal culture and values began Tuesday with a four-hour employee orientation and training that management introduced to the staff, said Palms Casino Resort General Manager Cynthia Kiser Murphey.

“We’re excited to educate Las Vegas about the tribe,” she said.

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She said the tribe has already established a philanthropic presence in town by making $10 million in donations since 2020 to Las Vegas-based community groups and nonprofits, including the University of Nevada at Las Vegas’ William F. Harrah College of Hospitality and William S. Boyd School of Law; the Public Education Foundation; Three Square Food Bank; and Shade Tree Shelter.

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The San Manuel Band’s plan to open shop in Las Vegas puts 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 hotel 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.

The move into the Palms is the first major off-reservation gaming investment for the San Manuel Band which opened its first bingo hall in 1986 on its reservation in San Bernardino County some 60 miles east of Los Angeles. That bingo operation began a journey out of the poverty the nation endured since it was relocated to a reservation in 1891. The single-room bingo establishment mushroomed into what is now the 432-room Yaamava’ Resort and Casino in Highland, California.

Tribal and business leaders credit a dedication to culture and original values for helping the nation steer into more prosperous times.

“Growing up, I was very close with my Tutu (grandmother) Martha Manuel Chacon,” Casas wrote in an essay for Women’s History Month last year. “She previously served as chairperson of the tribe and taught me about the hardships that our people went through and sacrifices that had to be made in order to survive…

“These experiences taught me to value even more the culture and traditions that enabled us to survive,” she wrote. “My grandmother and my mother Carla Rodriguez, a recent San Manuel chairperson, reminded me to never take for granted what the Creator has provided and to make sure we secure the future for generations to come.

“So at 18, I made a promise to my Tutu to go back to school, get an education and bring that education back to the tribe. I am now the treasurer for the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, which is an elected officer of the seven-member business committee where I currently serve with four other amazing tribal women.”

The highly visible expansion of a Native gaming operation into the capital of American gaming illustrates how the tribal gaming industry got its first big boost when the Supreme Court’s 1987 ruling in California V. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians limited a state’s ability to regulate gambling on reservations.

In 2000, there were 256 Indian gaming operations and they handled a combined $10.6 billion in gross 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.

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