FROM small bingo halls to huge, glitzy casinos, gambling on many Indian reservations in the United States has exploded into a $7 billion industry in less than a decade. Encouraged by this runaway success, more and more reservations are launching gambling enterprises.
But despite the popular image of phenomenally lucrative Indian casinos like Foxwoods in Ledyard, Conn., some experts say many tribes in the US continue to live in poverty, struggling with severe domestic problems, unemployment, and little economic opportunity.
``Indians operate about 124 gambling establishments in 24 states,'' says Matthew Snipp, sociologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. ``This means that only about one-third of all tribes receive income from gambling,'' he says.
``The whole purpose of creating reservations, unfortunately, was to isolate Indians in remote places and isolate them as far from the American economic mainstream as possible.''
Many tribal leaders and politicians agree: What gambling has done for some reservations close to urban centers has been to reverse 150 years of economic and political oppression.
``Indian gambling has brought to historically impoverished Indian communities ... something the federal government has never been able to provide in a meaningful way,'' Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii told Congress recently. And that is to create jobs, health clinics, new schools, sanitation systems, elderly care, etc., all as a result of local efforts, work, and pride.
But scale is important when measuring the success of Indian gambling. ``Every Indian gaming establishment is thought to be like the Pequot's [in Connecticut], the biggest,'' says Paul Moorehead, government affairs director of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington. ``Many are just bingo halls, which are like a parish church bingo game. The revenue is welcomed, but not what (Atlantic City casino developer) Donald Trump would expect.''
For tribes like the Absentee Shawnee in Oklahoma, even with bingo producing the most revenue, the unemployment rate is around 40 percent. Only 29 percent of the tribe has completed high school.