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.
``Indian gaming is not an industry in which you spread the wealth with other tribes,'' says Mr. Moorehead. ``Tribes are sovereign entities under no obligation to share. But what you see are tribes using their gambling revenues very wisely for their own reservations.''
The 1990 US Census Bureau reported a poverty rate of 30 percent for Indians compared to 13 percent for the total US. The unemployment rate was 15 percent among Indians, but many reservations in rural areas have had chronic unemployment as high as 80 percent for years. And the median household income is $19,600 for Indians, reports the Bureau, only two-thirds of the US median.
``I would not say there has been a dramatic improvement in conditions for Indians since the 1980's,'' says Robert Robinson, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in Denver, Colo., ``but neither has there been a tremendous worsening. I suspect the overall trend is that tribes present a net economic gain to states now, and the tribes know the transitory nature of the gambling business, but why should they not do it?''
A 1993 University of Wisconsin-Extension study on the economic impact of Indian gambling there concluded that $49.5 million was added in taxes to the state. The study also concluded that welfare payments were reduced by $2.2 million.
Successful as they are, gambling casinos are not the panacea for solving Indian economic problems, Mr. Snipp says. ``Gambling is no substitute for more broadly based economic development efforts,'' he says. ``The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians are a good example.''
In 1966, the Choctaw's average family income was $1,000 and 90 percent of the band lived in poverty.
Through strong leadership, however, the ability to convince the federal bureaucracy to let the tribe tailor funds to community needs (and demanding ``overhead'' costs in contracts), the Choctaws learned and progressed.
They sought business partners, continued to work the federal government for grants, and built new housing. Today the band has an industrial park with several businesses - one a greeting card enterprise - employing 1,500 people, making the tribe the 15th largest employer in Mississippi.
Recently, the band had a ribbon-cutting ceremony to open a medium-sized bingo and gambling hall.