Why Indians Have Casinos

Monday June 4, 2012

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker

In my conversations with people over the years about Indian casinos, I've noticed that there is a lot of misunderstanding about Indian gaming and I want to try to bring some clarity to the subject.

Yes, Indians have casinos because gaming can be lucrative. It provides a means for economic development in communities that are historically more impacted by poverty than any other group of people in America.  But the real reason stems from the relationship between tribal nations and the U.S. government.

Unlike any other ethnic group in America, Native Americans have a political relationship with the U.S. which has been affirmed by over 200 years of policy and American law.  This relationship is rooted in the hundreds of treaties made between tribes and the U.S.  While all the treaties have been dishonored in one way or another by the U.S., they are still the legal basis for the recognition of the inherent sovereignty of the tribes.  Sovereignty is the ability of a people to govern themselves.  Gaming casinos are thus ultimately an important expression and outgrowth of the vital political relationship between tribes and the U.S. and the nature of their sovereignty.

A common misconception about tribal casinos is that all tribes who have casinos are rich.  This is especially true where I live in Southern California where there are several very upscale tribal casinos and conspicuous wealth surrounding them.  The California tribal casinos do well only because of their proximity to large urban centers, but by far they are the exception to the rule.  The majority of tribes who have casinos (there are approximately 230 of them) are in rural areas (like the Navajo) far away from large wealthy cities, thus their primary function is to provide jobs and contribute to local economies.

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