That casino on the nearby reservation? Think of it as revenge for Christopher Columbus, as some wags have put it—but also a sophisticated operation that makes use of every legal loophole available.
Indian casino gambling began, to give it a charitable spin, as a means of encouraging economic development on reservations. In that, writes federal Indian law expert Mitchell (Sold American: The Story of Alaska Natives and Their Land 1867-1959, 2003, etc.), it works on the principle of “inherent tribal sovereignty,” which allows Indian nations some measure of self-governance and autonomy. In practice, that means that while the local convenience store has to layer on tax after tax on the cigarettes it sells, the drive-up reservation shack does not, which is why lines stretch down the street to buy tax-free cigarettes on Indian land. It’s a complex story, and it gets all the more so when the big players move in. Among them are some shady figures such as a fellow who managed to hold onto a consulting business even while serving prison time. Furthermore, even with that record, he managed to work his way into a position developing bingo parlors for California tribes, parlors that became gateways for slots, blackjack tables, and all the other things that have popped up on reservations even in states where gambling is otherwise illegal. When the Mafia goes to war with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, it’s a pretty easy guess as to who will win—at least the first rounds, anyway. Other players figure in Mitchell’s tangled but highly readable tale, including none other than Donald Trump, who correctly perceived Indian “gaming”—the slightly denatured term for gambling—to be a competitor against his own casinos and tried to have one owned by the Pequot Tribe shut down on the grounds that the Pequot were “fake Indians.” Guess who won that round?
Indian casinos are likely to be around for a long time to come, and Mitchell’s exposé goes a long way toward explaining the whys and hows.