From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Commentary: Go below surface to understand Native gaming

From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Wed, 23 Oct 2002 14:23:35 -0500

Oct. 23, 2002  News media contact: Tim Tanton7(615)742-54707Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: For related articles on gambling, see UMNS stories #439 and #457. A
photo of Ray Buckley is available at 

A UMNS Commentary
By Ray Buckley*

Picture an iceberg. Above the waterline, a small piece of ice protrudes in
easy view. Beneath the surface, however, is an enormous expanse, unseen yet
critical. This image has been used in explaining issues facing ethnic
cultures, and it also applies to the controversial topic of Native gaming.

Understanding the issues around Native American-sponsored gambling requires
going below the surface of the iceberg and examining Indian history, culture
and self-determination, as well as the church's own moral standards and
track record.

Looking at the opposition to Native gaming, I see the same sort of violence
that targeted German, Slavic and Irish people during Prohibition. What
began, for some, as moral opposition against alcohol became a crusade
against immigration. Today, church members find themselves protesting Native
gaming alongside white supremacists, anti-tribal lobbyists and the
non-Native gambling industry. In some areas, the church has hardly whimpered
in opposition to legalized gambling, yet at the same time it has reduced
support for Native congregations because "they've got that gambling money."

Native gaming has become the issue, while the desperate economic and social
needs of Native people have hardly merited a response. We ought to be
suspect when opposition to a moral issue enables us to overlook centuries of
neglected Christian responsibility. When the hungry scramble to feed
themselves, we lose the right to pontificate.

It is a fact that Native people remain the poorest of all Americans.
Unemployment among Native people as a whole is 15 percent, three times the
national average. Unemployment on all reservations is around 60 percent and
on some reservations nearly 80 percent. In addition to poverty, the U.S.
Department of the Interior is reported to have misplaced billions of dollars
owed to Native individuals and tribes. 

Health and mortality statistics are staggering. The death rate of Native
children is more than three times the national average, according to the
Harvard School of Public Health/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Moreover, Native Americans have the lowest life expectancies in the United
States. They are 70 percent more likely to commit suicide, 270 percent more
likely to die of unintentional injury and 350 percent more likely to
contract diabetes. 

Poverty, unemployment, disease and the lack of access to many of the things
most Americans take for granted have led to desperation. Tribes have been
seeking ways to bring their people out of poverty and keep communities
intact. For some, that search has led to tribe-sponsored gambling.

Historically, forms of gaming have strengthened social linkages and served
as a means of celebration in indigenous cultures. However, Christian
missionaries saw these customs as a threat to individual attainment. Gaming,
along with tribal religions, was outlawed.

The church's role in attempting to dismantle Native culture is well
documented, so its voice was suspect when it began addressing the Indian
community on the issue of gambling in the 1980s. Though Native people
themselves addressed the apparent conflict in values between traditionalism
and gaming for profit, the decisive factors for some tribes proved to be
poverty and the need for self-determination.

Tribes saw gaming as a way to provide better schools, housing and basic
needs, but it became a broader issue and led to efforts to limit tribal
sovereignty. That sovereignty, recognized by Congress and supported by a
long history of case law, protects the rights of tribes to pursue economic
development, even when that may mean legalized gaming.

It's important to note that tribes may not engage in gambling operations
unless the state in which they are located already has legalized gambling.
Tribes do not have the ability to initiate gaming in any state. Period.
Opposing gambling on moral grounds requires addressing the broader issue -
the acceptability of gambling within society. 

Tribal sovereignty had seldom been a major issue for non-Native people until
it was exercised. Federal legislators began attaching legislative riders to
appropriations bills in Congress, designed to erode tribal sovereignty. Some
lawmakers also saw gaming revenue as an opportunity for taxing tribes beyond
the scope of existing law. 

Congress established the National Indian Gaming Commission to oversee
gambling on tribal lands. In addition, the U.S. departments of Interior,
Treasury, and Justice have authority in specific areas of Indian gaming.
Native tribes and nations also have individual gaming commissions, as well
as tribal police forces and tribal court systems.  

The federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 requires tribes to spend
gaming revenues on tribal operations, welfare, charity and economic
development. Tribes that meet those criteria may petition the U.S. Secretary
of the Interior to develop a per-capita plan to benefit individual tribal
members. As of 1998, only 47 of the almost 560 federally recognized tribes
had attained that status. Most individuals benefiting from per-capita income
receive less than $1,500 per year.

Only about one-third of tribes own gaming facilities, many of which are
limited to bingo. Many tribes believe that gambling as a business damages
their cultures, and they detect a decline in the traditional values and
religion of tribes that have organized gaming.

Native gaming represents about 8 percent of the total revenues from gambling
in the United States. Nearly half of that revenue is from the six largest

A few tribes are becoming wealthy. However, the needs of reservation Native
people are so great that even if the total annual Indian gaming revenue
could be divided equally among all the Indians in the United States, the
amount per person would not be enough to raise Native per-capita income to
anywhere near the national average. Despite some new jobs, unemployment on
reservations with gaming remains at about 54 percent.
The United Methodist Church, by action of General Conference, has committed
itself to protecting Native rights and sovereignty, but that has not meant a
great deal in practice. United Methodists are leaders in business, politics,
economics, education and other fields, but we have not exerted our influence
to improve the lives of tribal communities.  

More energy has been expended in criticizing what we are "against" instead
of supporting what we are "for." When we condemn a means of economic
stability, we must be prepared to risk being part of the solution.  

United Methodists also send a mixed message when they support
gaming/entertainment industries in both Native and non-Native
establishments, and schedule church agency meetings in cities and hotels
largely supported by gambling. 

It is easy to create animosity against Native gaming. It is harder to invest
time, money and creative thought in helping Native communities find ways to
overcome social inequities. For some tribes, the voice of the church is
already null. Tribes are an easier target than whole cities or legalized
gambling by states. Still, there is a vast distinction.  

Native people are watching to see how we as the church live out our beliefs
in their midst.
# # #
*Buckley is director of the Native American Office of Communications, a unit
of United Methodist Communications.

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily
represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church. 

United Methodist News Service
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