A Stupid, College-Educated White Boy

In today’s world, navigating business and politics is difficult enough, but that’s especially true if the industry is tribal gaming and the politics are in California. It’s certainly a world all its own, one that can feel impossible to understand—here are a few things that an outsider like Richard Schuetz (l.) has learned over the years.

A Stupid, College-Educated White Boy

“I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there.” 

Black Elk

In 1991, I sold my Corvette in Las Vegas and bought a four-wheel drive vehicle to move to Minnesota. Before this, I had spent my time in commercial gaming and had the opportunity of working for Mr. Wynn, Mr. Boyd, Mr. Adelson, the Hughes folks and others. In Minnesota, an executive job with a new startup company called Grand Casinos awaited me. Grand Casinos provided financing and management services for Native American tribal nations.

Grand’s first engagement was with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. The reservation was located about 90 miles north of the Twin Cities. This was where I learned about commodity cheese and rez cars. I also understood quickly that I needed to give up my Vegas-bought leather shoes for something better suited to survive in the mud.

The Mille Lacs Band was in a socio-economic crisis. Before the casino, sixty-five percent of the tribal population existed below federally established poverty levels. The life expectancy for the males was under 50 years, and this was because of bad diet, drugs, alcohol, and doing unwise things on drugs and alcohol. Not helping was an essentially unavailable medical system.

The one thing they did have was a fierce determination to survive and an incredible leader named Marge Anderson. In working in the tribal world, I learned that women often held it all together, and in Mille Lacs, Marge was an important part of holding it together.

The dismal conditions challenging the tribe underwent a massive change with the addition of the casino. Every tribal member who wanted a job could work. The tribe was able to replace a lead-based water system that was killing them. There was now daycare, and housing was being provided for the elders. A spiritual center was in planning, tribal lands were being reacquired, and medical services were being made available.

There was racial tension in the area around the casino. It was in a somewhat rural area and featured good hunting and fishing. There were a few fishing rights disputes that exacerbated tensions between the tribes and the sporting crowd and then the normal anti-tribal racism that is a part of the culture around reservations (and beyond). We did have a few instances of bullets being fired at the side of the casino building from vehicles driving by, which was always interesting.

I was honored to be able to work with the Mille Lacs Band. It was a totally different trip from working in the commercial sector. Much less toxic. It seemed the goal in the commercial sector was to act important and make a bunch of money, whereas, in the tribal sector, I had the opportunity to soothe my soul. It seemed I was doing something worthwhile.

Following Mille Lacs, I had the opportunity to work with a number of other tribes, and it was always challenging—and always interesting.

After a number of years of working in the tribal world, I was invited to speak at a conference at Lake Tahoe. I gave a speech entitled “A Stupid, College-Educated White Boy.” It was about me.

The speech was a litany of my failings to even begin to understand what the tribal world was about. It ran long.

One of the many topics I discussed in my speech was when I would be on the reservations, especially in the early days, and would come across a tribal member in distress. Their car needed tires—the baby was sick—and on it went. My tendency was to reach into my bankroll (always kept in the left front pocket—hey, I am a Vegas guy) and hand them a C-note. Over the years, it added up.

I am sure a psychologist could have a field day about what this was about—and why.

One reality of this behavior was that it gave me resentment. The resentment was toward the tribes, and it was about them never really letting me in, despite the wonderful things I thought I had done for them over a number of years.

One day, I was out at dinner with a tribal leader, and as the evening progressed, I told her it annoyed me that no matter what I did, it never seemed to be enough. I was always treated as white, from the outside, and untrustworthy—and I thought that was unfair.

Her response was enlightening: “Richard, I am sorry for your suffering. Think of it as a price one pays for when your people spent over four centuries trying to wipe us off the face of the earth.”

Hello, I am Richard Schuetz, a stupid college-educated white boy.

I thought my tribal work ended when I moved back to Las Vegas to become the president and CEO of the Stratosphere. I did note that my tribal work had changed the way I looked at many things in running a commercial facility.

Then, in 2011, the Governor of California appointed me to the California Gambling Control Commission, the first of two appointments with which he honored me. One of the nice things about being appointed to this position was that it would again expose me to the tribal world, and I believe that there has never been a commissioner that spent more time going up and down that state to interact with the tribes.

I apparently had acquired some wisdom about the tribes when I joined the Commission. I was a better judge as to when it was okay to comment and when it was better to keep my mouth shut. I also had my expectations better in line with the reality of the tribal world.

During my tenure in California, I was also appointed as a consultant to the Governor’s Office on iGaming and sports betting. And the Governor’s office loaned me to the legislative gaming committees on these same topics (I was always waiting for that time when I might have advised the legislature on draft language for a bill and then have to help the Governor draft a veto message for that bill).

Given all of this background, experience, and contacts, I thought I would tell you all what I think will happen in California –

I have no idea. It is too complicated. I’ll get back to you later.

But since we are here, I thought I would make another attempt to help some of you better understand California gaming. I saw some of your efforts before the election last November, where many of you proved that you have no earthly idea what California gaming is about.

After that humiliating sacrifice of incredible amounts of cash, I am hearing that some of the old players and a few new ones are starting to show up in California to again help the people of the state understand how they should handle gaming. To these people, I offer this advice:

  • California has the fifth-highest GDP in the world. It has over 39 million people and anticipates about 271 million tourist visits this year. It is of a scale that you will struggle to get your head around. The way your state works is probably nothing like how California works, especially if you are from a small state. I remember my first meeting where a $7 million cost overrun was described as “budget dust.”
  • If you have not logged a bunch of hours in the building, do not act like you understand California politics. If you do not know what the building is, I can’t really help you.
  • You are in the wrong game if you have never met the Bacteria Bear.
  • If you have not seen one of the tribal leaders walk through the Capital Building and create a scene reminiscent of the Pied Piper with a group of legislators trailing behind, trying to say “hi” and shake his or her hand, and trying to tell them something important, you do not understand California politics.
  • If you have not logged some serious time on tribal land and broken at least one tooth on fry bread at a pow-wow, you do not understand much about tribal gaming (for the record – an upper left canine at the Mille Lacs Pow Wow)
  • If you do not understand that tribal people have brilliant senses of humor, you do not understand tribes. Get used to being the last to get the joke.
  • If you do not believe that the tribes have generational memories, you know nothing.
  • There is a fine line between explaining things to the tribes and being perceived as talking down to the tribes. Most of you will screw this up. I certainly did and will do it again. Fortunately, I have had some friends like Victor who would call me out, tell me to shut up, and then hug me. The tribal world is a funny place.
  • If, at the end of a pow-wow, some male tribal members invite you to sit around the fire at night and have a few drinks, it is a great honor. It also may kill you.
  • Tribes are not a big homogeneous group with common attitudes and beliefs. Some tribes get along well, and some are almost at mattresses with one another. There can also be some pretty serious tensions within tribes that you will not necessarily know about, and these beefs may go back decades.
  • At some level, the tribes probably do not trust you—and probably shouldn’t.
  • Dating back to propositions 5 and 1A, which laid the foundation for tribal casinos in California several decades ago, a group of Nevada interests financed a campaign against the California tribes that was often insulting and demeaning –and shoved it in their face. I was there. The California tribes remember such things. This type of thing can give the tribes an attitude against outsiders, especially their neighbor to the east.
  • Tribal politics are a full-contact sport. Avoid tribal politics at all costs. You will lose no matter who wins if you are not a member.
  • Tribal leadership can change, it can change quickly, and it can change dramatically. In California, I received a phone call when one tribal faction rushed a casino armed with rifles to change the leadership. Oh, and there were about 500 guests in the casino.
  • Tribal people have amazing memories. They know who contributed the many millions to support Prop 27, and they believe that this money threatened their economic self-sufficiency and self-government. They do not see this as some business or market contest but as an assault on their very existence. They know the people whose names are associated with these payments. They will remember that for a very long time. A very long time.
  • The California tribes would have preferred to spend the many millions they spent to stop Prop. 27 on their own people and not have to burn a ton of cash to keep what they have worked for. They will remember that for a very long time. A very long time. Tribal people have a very calm way of letting things percolate.

Well, there you have it. There are certainly more issues, but that is enough.

If I may make a final suggestion—if you are from out of state and think you are going to do a drive-by and explain to the California tribes what is going on in their state or what they should do, they may not fully appreciate the service you are providing. They may think you are talking down to them, for they have been talked down to for a very long time.

At least, that is the opinion of a stupid, college-educated white boy.

Articles by Author: Richard Schuetz

Richard Schuetz started dealing blackjack for Bill Harrah 47 years ago, and has traveled the world as a casino executive, educator and regulator. He is sincerely appreciative of the help he received from his friends and colleagues throughout the gaming world in developing this article, understanding that any and all errors are his own.