TIME marches on Indian country
PINE RIDGE RESERVATION, S.D. - Plains and Midwestern tribal gaming officials and leaders are banding together to combat the Dec. 16 TIME Magazine cover story on Indian casinos.
They are unified in calling it a scathing, unprofessional piece of yellow journalism that does not present current factual data.
"When a government attacks its enemy it goes through the media to demonize that group of people," said John McCarthy, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association (MIGA). "This is against Indian people."
The story implies that a vast amount of the revenue from tribal gaming goes to the white entrepreneurs who set up the gaming enterprise in the first place. McCarthy replied that most of those investors are now out of the picture and the two reporters Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele are a few years behind the times.
"They don't mention the fact that few lenders would touch anything in Indian country in the first place," McCarthy said.
Gaming officials also charged that neither of the reporters understood sovereignty or the cultural diversity of the tribal nations.
CNN, a division of Time-Warner-AOL, the publisher of TIME Magazine, jumped on the story Dec. 10 when Lou Dobbs, host of the "Moneyline" program, interviewed Barlett. During the program Dobbs encouraged Internet users to use the CNN website to voice their opinion on whether or not tribal gaming should be taxed.
On the afternoon of Dec. 11, 54 percent of the respondents said tribal gaming should be taxed, perhaps a remarkably low figure given the propaganda campaign.
For years, gaming officials argue, the Indian gaming industry has had to combat misconceptions about regulation and taxation. Claims that Indian gaming is weakly regulated focus solely on the National Indian Gaming Commission, with its limited budget, and neglect two other layers of regulation, state bodies mandated by gaming compacts and tribal gaming commissions. Tribal and industry officials say that the three layers together make Indian gaming the most regulated segment of the entire gaming industry.
Barlett and Steele used the tactic of comparing a casino located in a major metropolitan area with one in a poverty-stricken remote location. They mentioned that members of the Minnesota Mdewakanton Shakopee Community receive $1 million each in per capita revenue but on Pine Ridge a payout from the Prairie Wind Casino would give tribal members 16 cents a day.
This is an unfair comparison. Pine Ridge has 41,000 members as opposed to the Shakopee's 300. The Minnesota community has a prime location outside the Twin Cities. Prairie Wind Casino is located on a prairie, thus the name, and the nearest major city, Rapid City, is more than 100 miles with only 60,000 residents.
Kevin Lien, comptroller of the Prairie Wind Casino on the Pine Ridge Reservation, said he had no idea how the two reporters got the information about the gross revenues of that casino. Mostly the gross revenues are a closely guarded secret, as is legally the tribe's right. And the article implied money was not going to the right places on the Pine Ridge Reservation because there was inadequate housing and unemployment runs at 80 percent plus.
Lien said Prairie Wind Casino employs 190 people who make above the minimum wage. Profits go toward tribally run programs, as is required by the compact. There are plans to expand the casino, ground has been broken and when the new casino is completed, it will employ around 300 people.
The TIME writers also slanted their reporting heavily against the economic benefits of casinos. "There was no mention of success stories," said MIGA's McCarthy. He pointed to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe that owns the Mille Lacs Grand Casino and the Hinckley Grand Casino in Minnesota as one of the model tribes not just for economic development but for progress in social and other programs for tribal members.
McCarthy said that Minnesota tribal gaming is the state's 11th largest industry employing 13,339 people, American Indian and non-Indian, in the year 2000.
Tribal casinos pay $16 million in lieu of taxes to state and local governments. The impact on tourism in Minnesota is $191 million from out-of-state visitors who spent that money on lodging, food and entertainment. Minnesota casinos completed more than $500 million in construction in the past three years, adding their construction payrolls to the local economy.
"Tribal gaming has eased the burden on state and county public assistance programs by providing gainful employment for rural communities," said a prepared statement from the MIGA.
"AFDC payments have decreased 17.8 percent in casino counties. And the number of Native Americans receiving general assistance has decreased by more than 58 percent," MIGA said, citing state records.
The direct payroll with benefits totals $280 million and more than $80 million is devoted to payroll taxes, which includes state income and federal tax, and FICA contributions by employers and employees. Of the people employed by the Minnesota gaming industry, 78 percent are non-Indian.
No tribal leader or gaming official can remember whether or not Barlett or Steele or one of their associates contacted them.
Thelma Thomas, Santee Sioux tribal council member and manager of the tiny Ohiya Casino located on the Santee reservation in northern Nebraska, said a reporter from New York called and asked if the federal government actually did what has been reported to the Santee. She said she was not going to respond to the reporter unless he would report something positive.
The federal government froze the assets of the small Santee Tribe in a dispute over its casino. In 1995, the tribe, with more than 70 percent unemployment, opened what the NIGC later determined was an illegal casino just to put some people to work, 23 at first. After a federal judged ruled against the tribe and imposed a $6,000 per day fine, the court froze the assets to recover the fine.
The attack on tribal politics by Barlett and Steele comes out of ignorance as well, tribal leaders argue. There is no denying that some tribal members are upset over the disparity in per capita payments, which are not as common a practice as many think. Some tribes pay none and instead invest money in job opportunities other than gaming for tribal members.
Tribes like the Ho-Chunk of Wisconsin own three casinos in a very populated area. A new clinic, housing and a new tribal building are obvious examples of what the profits have done. Also tribal members have an opportunity to attend college at tribal expense as long as they maintain a high grade average and assist the tribe after graduation.
Tribal leaders are discussing a number of measures to combat the TIME Magazine article, McCarthy said. They are considering banding together to buy full-page ads in major magazines and newspapers and also encouraging bi-partisan Congressional leaders to add their names to the ads.
"You can build any other project that will fail, and the media will not mention it," McCarthy said. "What TIME Magazine has done may be irreparable."