If only Geronimo were here
to see those glitzy casinos

Apr 3, 2007 12:53 AM

I spend most of my time in Indian country, and I learned early on about wampum.

I discovered quickly that it is far better to have it than not, and as far as Indians go, I learned in those early days that they didn’t have much of it. Most of them still don’t, and it amuses me when Washington politicians talk about terrorists and insurgents and conveniently forget the bloody history of how the insurgents in this country took it over from its former owners, and relegated them to places inhospitable to human habitation.

I am not going to weep here about the plight of American Indians — it’s not an appropriate place to do it — but it bothers me at times that a lot of the people I work for, and a lot of people who make millions in Las Vegas, regard native Americans as threats to their financial welfare, now that some of them have casinos of their own.

All of this was brought into clearer focus last week when a local rag I read printed some numbers about Indians and their casinos.

There was a nationwide Indian casino trade show in Phoenix, not an unreasonable location, and one of the ceremonies honored Arizona’s Yavapai Apache Nation as an example of how a small tribe can create real economic opportunity for its people.

The word Apache, of course, brings to most minds the image of Geronimo, the fearless Apache leader who stymied the might of the American military for a decade from a secret camp in the Sierra Madre Mountains. It took 5,000 soldiers, then a quarter of the entire U.S. Army, and 500 scouts and as many as 3,000 Mexican soldiers to track down Geronimo, and when he surrendered for the final time on September 4, 1886, with the 16 Apache warriors he had left, it marked the end of Indian guerrilla action in the United States.

So much for my fascination with Geronimo’s wily operations in the wild mountains of Arizona. Back to the Apache casino.

The Yavapai Apache tribe has 1,600 members, and its Cliff Castle Casino in Camp Verde has enabled them to diversify into farming, mining and business development with other tribes, and charity for fellow Indians. They grow hay to feed cattle, mine sand and gravel, operate an RV park, and are breaking ground on a cement plant with a partner from Peru. They also have helped four tribes on the West Coast start casino operations in the last five years, building intertribal relationships and cooperation.

Nationwide, tribal casino revenue topped $25.7 billion last year, and tribes picked up another $3.2 billion in revenue from gambling-related hospitality operations like resort hotels.

Arizona alone now has 22 casinos operating, bringing in $1.6 billion last year.

While all of this has brought joy to the Indians, it has not pleased others who make their money from gambling. The Indians, for the most part, do not pay taxes, being sovereign nations, which gives them a leg up on the giant gaming companies.

Their operations, made possible by the National Indian Gaming Act of 1988, a bill created by Nevada Senator Harry Reid, are not all in sandy spots in the desert. Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods in Connecticut, the best known American Indian casino operations, are huge and hugely profitable operations, advertising in this publication among others nationwide. They rival anything in Vegas or Atlantic City, and they pay guaranteed fees to the state of Connecticut, under a pioneering arrangement first established by Lowell Weicker when he was governor of that state, before he went on to serve 18 years in the U.S. Senate.

Foxwoods opened in 1992, and in July of last year it announced a partnership with MGM Mirage, calling for construction of a $700 million addition on its property and other worldwide projects.

That intertribal marriage made Terry Lanni (MGM chairman and CEO) a blood brother, I suppose, and brought to mind Geronimo again. He became a noted public figure after his final surrender, and was quoted widely. One of his quotes applies, I believe, to the Indians and their newfound friends in Las Vegas.

"We are all the children of one God,"Geronimo said. "The sun, the darkness, the winds are all listening to what we have to say."

And the wampum, Geronimo. Don’t forget the wampum.