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Bingo! Indian Tribes Find Way To Make Money

Native American leaders admit that the gaming business has its shortcomings and possible bad effects, but they see it as at least a transitional way to fight poverty

AT 7:30 in the morning a small crowd gathers outside the Irene Moore Activity Center on the Oneida Indian reservation. When the doors open at 8 there is a polite rush into the big hall.By 9 o'clock up to 700 people - mostly older, non-Indian women - are seated at rows of tables with marking pens and numbered cards ready to play big-stakes bingo when the clock strikes 10. In nearby rooms the slot machines are clanging; blackjack games are underway, and men and women are seated on stools in front of video games. Welcome to the rapidly expanding world of Indian gambling, a new kind of gold being heavily mined on economically deprived Indian reservations across the United States. With the passage of the 1988 Indian Gambling Regulatory Act, revenue-hungry tribes from Connecticut to California are negotiating with states to either expand current tax-free gambling operations or draw plans for large Las Vegas-style casinos. Since Congress passed the act, 20 gambling compacts already have been signed between tribes and states. More are on the way. In a nation that gambles on everything from lotteries to horses, dogs and professional sports, increased gambling on reservations could push the total amount bet in the US to a staggering $500 billion by the year 2000. The newly formed National Indian Gaming Commission estimates that tribes earned a total of $600 million from gambling last year after prizes were paid. Examples of recent Indian gambling developments: * In Connecticut, Gov. Lowell Weicker having unsuccessfully opposed the plan, the Mashantucket Pequot tribe will now build a $48 million casino. * In southeastern Minnesota, the Prairie Island Sioux added 25,000 square feet to their casino to enlarge the gambling area. * In Wisconsin, the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe is seeking investors to build a $5 million casino as the result of a compact approved by Gov. Tommy G. Thompson. * South of Green Bay, the Potawatomi tribe will expand its bingo hall, which seats 2,500. * In Florida, the Seminoles have major bingo operations in three cities and are seeking the state's permission to run casinos, horse and dog racing, and jai alai. Indian tribes have struggled for decades with massive unemployment and severe social problems as a result of ambiguous federal policies. Many reservations have few natural resources. Successful gambling operations like those of the Oneida tribe near Green Bay indicate that conditions on reservations can improve dramatically when gaming revenue is used for social services and businesses. "We started 15 years ago with bingo games in a gymnasium," says Oneida Tribal Chairman Rick Hill. "About 83 percent of our $73 million tribal budget now comes from gaming and has allowed us to support such programs as Head Start, day care, a health center, a nursing home, counseling services and land acquisition. We employ about 200 people from gaming." Other tribes desperately want similar results. When the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe in northern Wisconsin recently signed a compact with the state, a spokesman for the tribe said, "Within six months we will be able to wipe out unemployment." As many as 400 tribal members could be employed on a reservation where unemployment hovers around 50 percent. ve seen a lot tribes strive to get into the big-bucks bingo immediately," says Bobbi Webster, director of communications for the Oneida tribe. "In order to do that they need investors up front and have to bring in outside management. A lot of tribes want to get rich quick without taking the time to train their people and develop their operation. We started small and maintained control." Robert H. White, author of "Tribal Assets," a 1990 book about successful tribal businesses, says: "Plenty of tribes are not equipped to handle the downside risks of gambling. It's hard for me to say this, but I think gambling can be a good thing depending on how the tribe is prepared to handle all aspects of it. But they are kidding themselves if they think in the long run it will be anything but a way to jump-start an economy." So far the Oneidas have been successful for several reasons. "We're across the street from the airport and close to downtown Green Bay," says Mr. Hill. "We have the best location of anybody and we have a reputation for conducting a clean, honest game." Add to this the fact that a great many retired people regard gambling as social entertainment and a chance to get out of the house. "They set their limits," says Ms. Webster. "For many it's a social event; they visit with friends, eat together, and have their favorite workers to talk to. You rarely see people come here just to play bingo by themselves. The children of a lot of elderly people pay for their parents to come here." In Connecticut, a survey conducted by the University of Connecticut this year found that 36 percent of the state's residents would gamble at the Mashantucket Pequot casino once it is built. Within a 100 mile radius of the Oneida gambling hall three other tribes have bingo and gaming operations, including the Potawatomi with a bingo hall seating 2,500 people. "Some experts are saying that gaming has a 10-year life span before the market is saturated," says Hill. "Our long-range goal is to diversify because we know gaming isn't going to be forever. We recently bought four cattle farms in the area and we're building a construction company and a plumbing company. We're involved in a joint venture with an engineering firm to test air, water, and soil samples. Access to dollars has really turned on the turbo boosters so that we can do more." On a philosophical and historical level, Hill says, "I always say we have been reduced to gaming. From the standpoint of the time line of history, what have we given up to be reduced to this? Oneidas fought in the Revolutionary War [on the winning side]. Our land was supposed to be protected, but we lost it. And how could this land be discovered when we were already here?" Not lost in the rush for more gambling is the issue of compulsive gambling. Thomas Cummings, executive director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, Inc., says: "From studies we know that any expansion of gambling in a market will lead to about 4 percent of the people becoming compulsive gamblers." Experts insist there are from 6 million to 10 million compulsive gamblers in the US. m sure that some of the people who play the most here can afford it the least," Webster says. "But the benefits of this operation far outweigh the problems we've had. We have a referral service and if somebody comes and says, 'My father is over here continually. He's ruining our lives,' we can refer him to our human-services department and get him to the appropriate agency." Ann Marie Penzkover, of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa tribe in northern Wisconsin, indicates the ambiguity some Indians feel about gambling. "On a personal basis I have a big problem with it," she says. "But I see it as a way to get economic independence. I don't see anything else at this point that is going to work any better."

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