Where the Buffalo Don’t Roam

Is the attempt by commercial sports betting companies to legalize online wagering (and eventually iGaming) just another attempt to strip Native Americans of their hard-earned gains and sustainable livelihoods?

Where the Buffalo Don’t Roam

“There’s a type of despair that is unique to those who are exiled on their own lands. When you are taken from your home and transported to a different place you can hold the dream of home in your heart. But, when your home is taken and you are hunted and killed on your own land, there is no home for you to dream about.” —Sherri Mitchell Weh’na Ha’mu Kwasset

In 1991, I left the Las Vegas casino scene to become a part of a company in Minneapolis, Minnesota called Grand Casinos. The vision of the company was to assist Indian nations in developing casinos on tribal land. At the time the tribes had little access to financial capital and lacked the managerial expertise needed to operate a casino. It was our goal as a company to fill these two needs.

Our first tribal partner was the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. The Mille Lacs Band had a reservation about 90 miles to the north of the Twin Cities. Before the casino, the tribe was suffering a variety of socio-economic ills. Sixty-five percent of the tribal population existed below federally established poverty levels. The tribe was plagued with issues of poor access to health care, high levels of un and under-employment, material challenges with substance abuse, and an incredibly low life expectancy, especially for the males of the tribe.

Two years after the opening of the casino, a miracle was taking place. All of the tribal members who wanted to work were employed. The tribe had greatly enhanced access for its members to health care. The tribe was constructing elder housing, building a spiritual center, providing daycare, replacing a lead-tainted water system on its reservation, and on and on it went. It was a wonderful story.

I have often talked of once visiting with a tribal woman who was a dealer at an unoccupied blackjack game and who I noticed while walking across the casino. I walked over to her and asked what the casino meant to her. Her response was that, for the first time in her life, she could dream of a good education for her two children.

While working at Grand Casinos I was able to see this transformative experience repeated across the United States, with both our tribal projects and others. One personal change I noted was that when I was a casino executive in Las Vegas, the work was interesting and often fun, but it was basically about the money. In the tribal space, it was also about the money, but there was something more to it—and that something more was almost spiritual in nature. I was helping a people who had been subjected to extreme racism, abuse, and attempted genocide—and this racism, abuse, and attempted genocide took place over several centuries in the land that is now the United States.

One of the symbolic photos that help chronicle the abuse of the tribal populations in America is shown at left. It is a mountain of buffalo skulls.

Within many tribal nations in the Americas, there was a spiritual relationship between the tribes and the buffalo. The buffalo was a dependable source of food, fuel, tools, housing, and other necessities for the survival of many of the tribes and it has been estimated that the buffalo population in America exceeded 60 million. Several tribes had relied on this resource for many centuries, and this relationship was one of sustainability. The invading populations changed all of that.

Within a very short period, the buffalo was an endangered species. In essence, it walked on the threshold of extinction. And this threatened extinction was brought on by numerous hunters slaughtering the buffalo.

There was a commercial reason for the slaughter of these buffalo and that had to do with the use of parts of the animals for fertilizer as well as the development of a hunting tourism industry. There was also a desire by the U.S. government and others to eliminate this resource to force the tribal people off of the land and expedite their elimination. The endgame of all of this was the vast herds of buffalo were essentially eradicated.

One of the last stands for the tribes was in California. The indigenous tribal nations had a solid foundation in this area. California’s location protected it for many years from the foreign settlement of the American continent that had started on the East Coast, and the fertile soils and rich coastline of California proved a suitable, sustainable, and safer environment.

That too changed. Many of the indigenous people in California were killed through the spread of disease brought on by foreign groups pushing into the state from southern origins. The tribes then sought out more remote locations to try and exist in the area as the invaders captured the more valuable terrain. The tribes were then challenged by the discovery of gold in California and the prospectors pushing them out into otherwise unattractive areas in search of this precious metal.

If the prospectors wanted to mine the ground occupied by the tribes, they would often accomplish this by murdering them. This eliminated any challenges of ownership. Also, during this time, the hunting of tribal people for sport took place, including of tribal children, with death being proven by the taking of a scalp or an ear. The area now known as the United States is a lot of things—and one of those things is a massive Indian burial ground.

The story of the treatment of the indigenous people in America is one of shame. In the many centuries of terror and abuse heaped upon the tribal populations in the land that is now the United States, one of the few bright moments occurred when, through the curiosity of the U.S. court system, select tribes in the U.S. could benefit from the ability to provide gambling products to the public.

While many tribal nations in the United States have benefitted from the ability to offer gambling, no state has even come close to the benefit experienced by the tribal nations in California. Approximately 19 percent of the federally recognized tribes in the U.S. are in California, comprising approximately 12 percent of the US Indian population. Moreover, the California-located tribes account for approximately one-third of the tribal gaming revenues generated in the U.S. This, however, is being threatened.

To a degree, I would suggest it is being threatened by a lie and that is an interesting conclusion in that the companies threatening the tribes in California are generally licensed based on the criteria of exhibiting character, honesty and integrity.

Actually, I believe that it is based on two lies, the first being that this has something to do with homelessness and mental health. Keep this between the two of us, but I believe these companies wanting to offer sports betting in the state do not care too greatly about such things. I would guess a spin doctor developed this story based on testing.

The other lie is that this is about sports betting. No, I believe this is all about iGaming, and sports betting is merely the camel’s nose in the tent for a desired robust iGaming industry. And if this happens, it is probably not good news for the tribes.

What we find, it seems, is a plan by a number of out-of-state firms to secure permission from the people of California this November to have a buffalo hunt.

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.