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Indian Casinos Threatened by the Pala Compact: The Coming of the 'New Buffalo'

Galit A.

From poverty stricken ghettos to prosperous enterprises, American Indian reservations have been transformed in recent years by the stampede of the `new buffalo'-the lucrative gambling operations on American Indian land. Since Indian gaming was approved by Congress and President Reagan ten years ago, many tribes have flourished into bustling cash centers, bringing in more than $6 billion a year in total revenue. While a third of all tribes involved in the gaming industry have not achieved the same financial success, there is no denying that this new business has created thousands of jobs-over 15,000 in California alone-and has given rise to investment in cultural programs, scholarships, schools, and language revival on the reservations. Yet, American Indian gaming now faces a crisis that threatens to severely limit gambling operations, thereby sending many American Indians back on welfare. The key issue in the recent crackdown on American Indian casinos is the sovereignty of the tribes themselves.

Given the tribes unique status as "domestic, dependent nations," defined as such by the U.S. Supreme Court, American Indian tribes are considered sovereign nations while still subject to federal regulations. As one of the four major government levels in America, including federal, state, and local powers, tribal governments have the power to levy their own taxes and enforce their own land-use regulations and criminal statutes. However, this special nation-within-a-nation status has met opposition while American Indian tribes venture into gambling operations which are illegal within their state. The assault on sovereign gaming issues began with the Pala Compact between the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Pala Band of the Mission Indians in California-a tribe that currently does not operate any type of gaming.

In spite of vociferous opposition from the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA), whose members include a majority of the states 104 tribes, California Governor Pete Wilson signed the agreement on April 25, 1998, thus establishing guidelines for gaming operations within the reservation. The Pala Compact declares all video slot machines, which provide up to three-fourths of the revenue at most tribal casinos, illegal and requires that they be replaced by unproven new pari-mutuel games, with each tribe limited to a maximum of 975 machines. This agreement was made in response to the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 requiring states to negotiate in good faith with tribes that want to offer Class III games (casino-style games such as lotteries and slot machines). After nearly a decade of disputes and negotiations over the permissibility of video poker and slot machines prohibited under California law, Governor Wilson finally developed a compact with the Pala Band.

An Assault on Tribal Rights

In addition to outlining provisions for gaming on the Pala reservation, the Pala Compact is being used as a model for all of California's American Indian tribes. Despite Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Kevin Gover's, assertion that "this compact applies only to the future gaming operation of the Pala Band," Governor Wilson, nonetheless, gave all other tribes a mandate to "sign the Compact within 60 days or face the consequences of the U.S. attorneys." Not only is this regulation prohibited by the Indian Gaming Regulation Act, which states that each compact "shall be specific to the tribe signing the agreement…and shall not be construed to extend to other tribes," it is also a direct affront against individual tribal sovereignty in a number of ways.

By not allowing tribes to negotiate individual compacts, the state is treating all tribes as a collective whole, thereby restricting the choice of each nation to enter into such an agreement, thus, refusing to recognize tribal sovereignty. Many tribal leaders are comparing the Compact to the "sign or starve treaties" passed in the late 1800s in which the government threatened to take away treaty amenities if American Indian tribes did not sign away their land. "We're once again in the role of having something that someone wants and having it taken away under the guise of the law," says Daniel Tucker of CNIGA. By enforcing local and state government regulations on reservations, the Compact invades tribal sovereignty and gives the tribes no alternative but to accept the Compact or face the consequences which may include seizing the tribes' slot machines and laying off most of the state's 20,000 casino employees.

There are several other reasons why the Pala Compact has infuriated California Indian tribes. The Compact limits the number of machines for each tribe in California to 199, regardless of past history or market conditions. This will also drastically limit the number of people employed at the casinos. Tribes which do not plan to operate gaming facilities may then sell their allocation of machines to the highest bidder, allowing for a maximum of 975 machines per tribe. Consequently, tribes will be forced to bargain and compete against one another to acquire the limited number of available gaming devices. In addition, the Compact requires a shift from video gambling machines to new pari-mutuel machines which do not yet exist and have not been tested by the consumer or the market. Experts in the machine manufacturing business attest to the high expense and inferiority of these potentially unpopular machines, which will likely send many visitors to Nevada to spend their entertainment dollars.

The Compact also unfairly favors state sponsored gambling over reservation gambling by requiring that walls be erected around gaming machines to separate them from all other areas of the gaming operation. California Indian tribes will be forced to bear an additional financial burden of retrofitting their facilities. By protecting the interests of non-Indian gambling operators, the home-racing industry, and Nevada casinos, this compact not only restricts the central industry on many Californian Indian reservations, but also shatters the hope that gaming profits will enable future generations of American Indians to live free of poverty and become truly self-sufficient.

American Indian Tribes' Growing Political Presence

American Indian tribes' campaign against the injustice of the Pala Compact reveals their growing involvement in the American political process. The Califomia Indian Self-Reliance Initiative was developed by a coalition of over 40 gaming and nongaming tribes to assure that they are allowed to continue with the gaming that is currently operating on their reservations. In order to benefit the general public, a percentage (between five and six percent) of net winnings would be placed into trust funds controlled by the tribes and earmarked for "emergency medical needs," the elderly, compulsive gamblers, and unspecified "community needs." American Indian tribes have pledged to spend $30 million to push for a ballot measure bypassing the Compact and have gathered over I million signatures to promote the protection of American Indian gaming for the upcoming election. Daniel Tucker, Chairman of Californians for Indian Self-Reliance and a Sycuan tribal member, asserted "the measure will keep tribal members and our employees off welfare and unemployment, and will continue the flow of gaming revenues tribal government need to provide decent housing, education, and health care for our people."

This initiative is only one example of the political tactics being implemented by American Indian tribes against the state of Califomia. After the deadline for tribes to shut down or restrict the use of slot machines had passed, many tribes filed their own lawsuits seeking to block the enforcement of the Compact. By successfully postponing any direct action against them, American Indian tribes are now taking this issue to the courts, as well as the ballot box. This show of legal strength and political will reflects American Indian tribes' strong presence in Washington and political processes in general; a position directly resulting from economic growth. Giving more than $2 million in campaign contributions in the 1996 election, mostly to Democrats, tribes are sharing legal resources and using their political muscle to secure their rights. In the last 20 years, the number of tribal courts has increased four-fold to just over 300 and there has been more than a ten-fold increase in the number of American Indian lawyers.

Describing this political resurgence as "the civil rights movement for Native Americans," John Echohawk, Executive Director of the Native American Rights Fund, a non-profit legal defence group based in Boulder, Colorado, stated that tribal rights are finally being enforced because more and more tribes have the resources to procure their own lawyers. Now, more educated in the court rulings, treaties, and laws passed in the 1970s and `80s that gave the tribes more independence, tribal members are able to use the political process to fight unfair legislation like the Pala Compact. This manifestation of tribal sovereignty, however, is dependent upon the successful economic development of the tribes. It is, thus, necessary for tribes to preserve their lucrative gaming operations and prevent the `new buffalo' from becoming an endangered species.


Kerr, J. 1998. "California Indian Gambling Faces Crisis." The Wire-News from the AP. May 13th, 1998.

Casgraux, D. 1998. "California Tribes Face-Off with US Dept. of Justice over Direct Assault Sovereign Gaming Issues." Indian Country Today. May 18-25, 1998.

Egan, T. 1998. "New Prosperity Brings New Conflict to Indian Country." New York Times. March 8, 1998.

"Update Native North America" is a collaborative effort between the Harvard Native American Program and Cultural Survival. undergraduate students make a yearlong commitment to write a regular column on American Indian issues in the United States for Cultural Survival Quarterly.

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