Indian Givers

Every time native Americans get a leg up, whites try to change the rules. This time, it's gaming.

There's a scene in Edna Ferber's Cimarron where a dirt-poor farmer uses his last penny to get a spot on an overloaded stagecoach during the Oklahoma Land Rush. Thousands of people will race to claim their plot of free land being given away by the government. (Of course, history tells us that hundreds, if not thousands, of people had snuck past the Army guards before the Rush and camped out on the choice sites. These cheaters gave Oklahoma and its college football team their nickname--the Sooners.)

Well, the gun goes off and the 20 or so men on the stagecoach begin jostling for position. Soon, the man is thrown off and lands hard on a barren piece of dirt only a few yards beyond the starting line. As the rest of the Rushers ride off in the distance--on horseback, in carriages and on one slightly lighter stagecoach--the man pulls out the official stake he has been given and, in plain view of his crying wife and bewildered children, claims the desolate piece of land on which he has fallen.

And then later he strikes oil. Which brings us to Indian gaming.

I'm one of those guys who read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee when I was a kid and have been pissed off about the situation ever since. I doubt that even a skinhead would argue (although GOP Attorney General candidate Andrew Thomas might) that America's treatment of Indians throughout our history has been absolutely shameful. And yet they persevere against staggering odds.

Sometimes the mistreatment has had a little added kick to it. After taking all the good parts of the Dakotas, the U.S. told the Sioux they could have the Badlands and the Black Hills. But then gold was discovered in the Black Hills, so that treaty was ignored. (The Sioux were able to express their displeasure one hot June afternoon, but it was only a temporary reversal of fortune.)

And so it goes. Oil in Oklahoma, gold in the Dakotas, diamonds in Arkansas, salmon in Washington. It shouldn't surprise anyone that when the U.S. had a dire need for uranium, it turned out that only two places in the world they could find it was in the middle of the Congo in Africa ... and on the Navajo Reservation. The pattern was always the same: Here, take this really crappy piece of land that no white man wants and try to make a go of it. And, if by some long shot, you do, we'll try to take it away from you.

Oil and diamonds are finite resources and uranium can be deadly to mine. But the latest Indian "gold mine" is by far the greatest. It doesn't require backbreaking manual labor, it's legal, it's lucrative and it's a completely renewable resource (as long as white people keep turning out little white people). Indian gaming is deliciously ironic, using the laws that were foisted upon them to carve out a niche that could lead not only to self-reliance, but to real economic clout.

With casinos, all the Indians have to do is throw open their doors and the white folks drive down to the Rez, open their wallets and dump the contents on the table. Then they get back in their cars and drive home, somehow feeling good about the whole experience.

That, of course, is why people are trying to screw the Indians yet again. In a few weeks we'll vote on three separate Indian gaming initiatives.

Prop 200 is a self-serving piece of crap being pushed by a group calling itself the Colorado River Indian Tribes.

The really vulgar one is Prop 201, which is the racetracks whining and stomping their feet that the Indians have something they want. For decades, racetracks had an absolute monopoly on gambling in Arizona and we don't need to be reminded of the distinct whiff of garlic that accompanied the history of these tracks. But then the Indians discover a loophole in federal law and use it to their advantage, and the racetracks cry foul? So what if you can't compete? You're not in the same business.

With untold millions at stake, the ads have been predictably sleazy. Prop 200 is using somebody who goes by the name Tina Montoya (a name probably made up by a focus group, ethnic but softly so). She utters the all-time insulting line when she says, "For years, Indian gaming has been helping Arizona's Indians. Now experts believe it's time that it help all Arizonans."

Experts?! What "experts?" What could possibly qualify one as an "expert" in the field of stealing money from Indians except for maybe a stint as a BIA agent?

Fortunately, the ads for 201 are among the worst in the history of political advertising. They use this annoying little twerp who calls himself "Joe Arizona," and they stink on toast. He's supposed to be funny, I guess, but he just turns out to be one giant fingernail on a chalkboard. I know nuns who would bitch-slap him if he walked into their church.

The ads for 202 are simple and straightforward. They have a certain sense of dignity, which might be out of place in this gutter fight.

Personally, I wish we had a fourth choice. I wish there were a Proposition 203 where the voters could empower the 17 tribes to tell the state to perform an anatomically impossible act upon itself. I think the tribes should be able to keep ALL of the money and spend it as they see fit. And they should be able to tell the legislators who are drooling over all that potential tax revenue, "Screw you and the leased SUV you drove up in."

Whaddya say, Arizona? Let's take a small step toward reversing a 500-year-old trend of dumping on these people. And if you vote yes only on 202, you'll have the added benefit of knowing that no ad agency in America will ever be tempted to use that Joe Arizona dork again. That alone should seal your strategy.