Following the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) 15 years
ago, Indian casinos flourished across the United States, particularly
in the Ninth District. From the eastern point of the Upper Peninsula to
the western reaches of Montana, a map of the district is—depending
on your point of view—bejeweled or besmirched with Indian casinos.
There are 58 Indian casinos in the district, though that number may well
change by the time this fedgazette gets into your hands: New ones
pop up quickly, names change and data aren't standardized nationally.
They range widely in size. The Mille Lacs' two casinos, for example, have
4,000 slot machines between them, while the modest Rosebud Casino in Todd
County, S.D., has just 250 machines. A few district casinos are bigger
than Mille Lacs' and other reservations have no casino at all.
Numerically and financially, casinos tend to cluster in the eastern portion
of the district, where various factors—tribal interest, large metro
markets, state government acquiescence—have favored their growth.
The Bay Mills and Keweenaw Bay Indians began their own
high-stakes gambling ventures in the early 1980s—well before IGRA
formally legalized such operations—and the Upper Peninsula has been
a national leader ever since.
The U.P., northwestern Wisconsin and Minnesota now account for nearly
two-thirds of the total number of casinos in the Ninth District and about
87 percent of their estimated 1998 revenue. North Dakota casinos do reasonably
well on a per casino basis, but South Dakota and Montana casinos, hampered
by heavy non-Indian video gambling machine competition as well as geographic
isolation, are quite small by comparison to the eastern district casinos.
In any gambling proposition, losers far outnumber winners, and casino
operations are no different. In the Ninth District, as in the nation generally,
estimated casino revenues are very unequally distributed among reservations.
Of the 42 district reservations for which 1998 casino revenues could be
estimated, the top five account for 54 percent of casino revenue but just
5.5 percent of reservation population. The top 10 generate 71 percent
of casino revenue for 18 percent of district reservation population. At
the other end of the scale, the bottom 10 reservations have 1 percent
of casino revenue but 42 percent of total reservation population. Some
of the smallest casinos are said to be losing money, but their owners
say they'll restore them to profitability with better marketing campaigns.
These data undermine the new myth about Indian casinos, that they've enriched
all American Indians. In reality, the median per capita income of district
reservation residents was $10,291, less than half that of residents in
all district counties ($23,099).
"You know, 15 years ago we had the stereotype of all Indians being
drunks, unemployed, uneducated and on welfare," observed Lee Cook,
director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University
in Minnesota. "And now, we all have big casinos, lots of money and
we're all good looking. It's amazing. The perception has changed overnight.
But on the other hand, a lot of people still don't like us. It's a funny
kind of thing."