Thomas Elias: Casino tribes still slow to help Indian causes
Almost any trip to the mailbox reveals just how wrong is the current perception that because of proliferating casinos, most American Indians have now become wealthy.
Mailed appeals arrive daily throughout California from charities like the American Indian Education Foundation, the Sioux National Relief Fund, the St. Labre Indian School and scores of other charities aiming to help Native Americans across the nation. Some of those appeals come from questionable groups, but most are legitimate, with the bulk of the money they collect going toward the causes they’re set up to help.
At the same time, casino Indian tribes grossed more than $6 billion last year. Because most casino tribes are small, members of many receive yearly stipends averaging more than $125,000 with no obligations to assist in tribal operations. California tribes reportedly raked in more than $1 billion of the national total in their 53 casinos.
So it’s natural for recipients of all those fund-seeking Indian charity mailings to wonder why the casino tribes don’t take care of their own. Poverty is the rule on many reservations from Arizona to the Dakotas. Just a small portion of current Indian gaming receipts could turn that around in a hurry.
But there’s no sign most casino tribes are willing to help other Indians out of poverty and into solid medical care and middle class life.
Yes, some tribes do give to Native American-related causes. But many don’t. And no one can force any tribe or association of tribes to reveal how much it does give.
Calls requesting such information from several California gaming tribes as well as the Washington-based National Indian Gaming Assn. and the Sacramento-based California Nations Indian Gaming Assn. drew no significant response.
Meanwhile, whenever they come to California voters for permission to build more casinos or add more slot machines to the tens of thousands they already operate, the gambling tribes stress their generosity. The campaign for last February’s Propositions 93-97 was no exception. Those measures gave four Southern California tribes already operating large gaming palaces permission to double their number of slots, creating some of America’s largest and most lucrative casinos, Indian or not. The more than $40 million worth of TV commercials pushing expanded gambling bragged repeatedly about casino tribal generosity.
There were videos of teachers grateful for donations to local schools and firefighters driving new fire engines bought with casino cash. And more.
But little or nothing about gaming tribes giving to other Indians.
If the casino tribes won’t discuss what they do and don’t give, executives of some Indian related charities do.
“Over the past four years, we have communicated at least once with all 53 (California) gaming tribes,” reports John Andrews, executive director of the Whittier-based American Indian Healing Center, a medical clinic serving thousands of poor Indians in the Los Angeles area.
“Two tribes, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians have made contributions to our clinic … The total amount contributed to date is less than $20,000.”
That’s less than $20,000 over four years from all California casino tribes for one of the leading health care providers to poor California Indians. Out of about $4 billion in gambling take during that time. That’s an infinitesimal .00005 percent of their take.
Another major Indian charity that usually gets only small amounts, if anything, from California tribes is Catching the Dream, an Albuquerque-based outfit providing college scholarships to the most academically talented Native American youths it can find. The only California tribes donating to Catching the Dream are the Barona Band of Mission Indians and the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, both of which run major San Diego-area casinos. Each has provided less than $10,000 to the scholarship organization over the last two years.
“The gaming tribes can be very generous,” says Dr. Dean Chavers, a founder and top official of Catching the Dream. “But about 75 percent of their giving is local.”
Still, when he contemplates casino tribe revenues and what they provide to organizations like his, “I ask the same thing as people might who get our appeals in the mail. Yes, there are some rather rascally organizations out there which don’t meet the criteria of a solid charity. I know of one that’s been run out of five states. So the gaming tribes may be leery of outfits that are not local and well-known to them. But still …”
In the end, no outsider can know precisely what the casino Indians give to Indian-related charities. But the fact that those groups must depend on non-Indian foundations and mass mailings to the general public indicates it isn’t much and certainly not as much as the tribes’ pro-gaming commercials have implied.
Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who writes about California issues. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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