THE success of gambling on American Indian reservations has been called, even by some tribal officials, the ``new buffalo.'' Just as the four-legged creature provided ample sustenance for Indian tribes of old, gambling profits are doing the same today.
Despite efforts by some states to prevent Indian gambling, the tribal casinos and bingo halls in two dozen states are bulging with people who want to gamble. Add Indian gambling to legalized state lotteries, parimutuel betting, sports betting, and gambling in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, and the question is: Who isn't gambling these days in the United States?
According to an industry survey, half of all adult Americans have yet to gamble in a casino. The industry is working on them. Some Las Vegas casinos have been recast as ``family entertainment centers.'' Gambling is a ``leisure-time activity.'' Mom and Pop can play video poker while the kids are entertained in another part of the center. In an Indian casino in Minnesota, children from six weeks to 12 years old can be entertained in an indoor labyrinthian playground to rival any Disney creation. Teenagers are offered a video arcade.
We share the opinion of a few tribes that what the buffalo helped give, the casino takes away: identity, purpose, grace, heritage, and dignity.
Some may feel it is hard to argue against Indian gambling when it apparently is bringing prosperity to tribes that once knew poverty, and when gambling profits are used to build schools, health-care centers, and housing for the elderly. But the prosperity gambling offers is built on sand. The market for new casinos is close to being saturated. Casinos will likely fail because of this; others may wane as local economic conditions shift or new ``entertainment'' crowds the field. There are rumblings that organized crime may be involved on a few reservations.
After all, the heart of gambling is chance, the spin of a wheel, the toss of dice, the melodrama of it. There is no skill involved, no grace of the human spirit to be engaged when dice are rolled.
Which is precisely why it is done: to escape, to lose money and time and not care because you were entertained. To seek prosperity through such an activity, which is hinged on the lowest common denominator, is to hunt for squirrels instead of buffalo.