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Much at Stake In War Over Tribal Casinos

Naveen Sunkavally

The concept of luck is something that has been utterly foreign to Native American tribes since the days of Columbus. Left and right, those newcomers populating North America decimated the Native American population, mostly with disease but with warfare as well. Several times Americans made promises to Indian tribes guaranteeing them land, and on almost all those occasions, the tribes were deceived and their lands were taken. Now Native Americans occupy but a fraction of North America.

Luck hasn't always been on the side of Native Americans - but these days, Native Americans are relying a lot on luck. It's called the Indian casino, and it is at the center of debate in California, where Governor Pete Wilson signed a pact with 11 Indian tribes that allows those tribes to operate slot machines similar to the state lottery. There are currently about 13,000 casinos residing on tribal land. The state, which doesn't permit casinos on its own land, can now also regulate and tax the booming industry, which generates over $300 to $400 million a year in profits.

There are 99 tribes in California, and most of these tribes, especially the wealthier ones, are against the newly signed pact. Previously, Indian tribes have had virtually complete control over their lands, and they were able to set up their own casinos without government involvement. Now, with the new legislation, tribes feel that once again in their history that their sovereignty has been breached. In response, tribes have put up a new state new initiative, Proposition 5, that would give tribes back their authority over casinos.

Opponents of the proposition argue essentially that the tribes have too much power. They argue that, as a result of past history, the United States government has given Indian tribes special privileges that many U. S. citizens or groups do not have.

For instance, a U.S. citizen can't file a lawsuit against an Indian tribe or a member of an Indian tribe unless the tribe voluntarily grants a waiver of immunity so that it can be sued. Such a status makes it harder than normal to file personal liability, contractual, and financial liability suits.

Opponents also claim that Indian gaming may be a boon for generally accursed activities such as drinking, prostitution, robbery, drugs, laundering, and even traffic congestion. They think that California taxpayers should not have to pay for damages caused by people attending tribal casinos.

I think that the casinos should remain unregulated and under the purview of the Indian tribes. I am always a fan of personal responsibility, and, in this case as in most, personal responsibility should win out. Tribes should not be held accountable for the costs incurred when outside people gambling at their casinos contribute to general drunkenness and slovenliness.

It is not the tribal casinos' fault that people go there and choose to engage in the activities that they engage in. Taxpayers are not paying to cover damages caused by tribal casinos but are paying for damages rising from their own people.

But the "traffic congestion/drunkenness" excuse is exactly that, an excuse, a subterfuge that covers up the real problem the state feels with casinos. The Nevada casino lobby has a strong stake in seeing Proposition 5 not pass. Fearing that Native American casinos may take away from their own profits, Nevada casinos have waged a ruthless lobby against tribal gaming.

In addition, casinos are generating a lot of money, and the state feels that it would be simply great to tax some of that money.The newly signed law will go farther than any other law in restricting tribal power. The law is simply a result of popular sentiment and resentment against tribal success. It's hard to believe that one nation can legislate and try to enforce laws for another nation, but that's what the United States is doing. It's another case of luck gone bad for Native American tribes. If Proposition 5 fails, the dark cloud of doom will darken even more over North American tribes.