The Roulette of Indian Gambling


Yesterday’s L.A. Times had a fascinating look at how casino-rich California tribes prevent other tribes from opening casinos. It’s the same dynamic that was on display in Ralph Reed’s work for Jack Abramoff, where Reed assembled Christian anti-gambling coalitions in Texas and Louisiana to help defeat competition to the lucrative casino of Abramoff’s client, Louisiana’s Coushatta tribe (or, as Abramoff termed his Indian clients, “monkeys” and “troglodytes”).

Having recently driven through both the remote Northern California coast, where the Yurok tribe is seeking approval to build a casino, and the busy Central Valley, where casinos and billboards for them dominate the landscape, I found the piece especially poignant. The example of the Yurok tribe below serves as a microcosm of the forces at play but the whole piece is worth a read.

In California’s southeast corner, the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Nation has 3,250 members and a 45,000-acre reservation that bridges California and Arizona. At California’s northwest edge, the Yurok tribe has 5,000 members and a reservation that straddles the Klamath River, a mile wide on each side. They are the state’s two largest tribes.

Schwarzenegger struck deals with the Yurok and Quechan last year that would have permitted each to build casinos on their own land. Last year, rich tribes’ leaders and their representatives, operating from the office of state Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland), lobbied against the two tribes’ deals. The legislative session ended without a vote on either.

“It’s frustrating to have tiny tribes that have benefited so much from gambling stop a far larger tribe such as the Yurok,” said Sen. Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata), who has tried to shepherd the Yurok compact through the Legislature.

The Yurok have an annual budget of $12 million — less than what one of its opponents, Agua Caliente, spent on a failed 2004 initiative campaign to gain unlimited gambling rights. Eighty percent of Yurok homes lack electricity, and 75% of the tribe’s members have no jobs or phone lines, according to a recent report by the California Research Bureau, an arm of the state library. The tribe wants a 350-slot casino.

“It never entered my mind that we would be challenged,” Yurok Chairman Howard McConnell said, sitting in his office in Klamath, near the mouth of the Klamath River and Redwood National Park.

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