Episode 42 of “The Sopranos” opens with gangster boss Tony Soprano and his henchmen complaining about a protest threatened by American Indians at the upcoming Columbus Day parade in Newark. When Christopher (Michael Imperioli, who wrote the script) reminds them that native peoples were massacred, Silvio (Steven Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen’s one-time guitarist) replies “It’s not like we didn’t give them a bunch of shit to make up for that like land, reservations and casinos.”
Tony decides to consult with Chief Doug Smith, who operates a casino in rural Connecticut owned by the “Mohonk” tribe (a fictionalized version of the Foxwoods resort owned by the Mashantucket Pequots). If the chief could make some phone calls to have the protest called off, Tony would use his mob ties to benefit the casino. Over dinner at the casino, when Tony tells the chief that he doesn’t look like or act an Indian, he replies with a smirk on his face that despite his 1/16th blood quotient he had an “awakening” that led him to claim his indigenous roots and start the casino. You are left with the impression that there’s not much difference between a Mafia don and a phony Indian. It’s all about the money.
In 1995, seven years before the “Sopranos” episode, Sixty Minutes aired an “exposé” of Foxwood that made the same point, namely that Indian casinos were a scam. The target of their investigation was Skip Hayward, the Pequot chairman who had been working as a pipefitter until he got the idea that running bingo games could improve his people’s economic situation. The bingo games proved very successful and led to the formation of Foxwoods with Malaysian seed money. The right of people with only a 1/16th blood quotient to benefit from casino profits outrages Sixty Minutes. Since a smallpox epidemic wiped out 90 percent of the tribe in 1633, it is remarkable that any have survived even on a 1/16th basis, especially when the colonists would wipe out even more Pequots a mere 4 years later with gun and sword.
The name Pequot might ring a bell since that is identical to the Pequod, Captain Ahab’s boat. Did Melville intend to evoke the tribe that was a victim of genocide? I would like to think so since he was a powerful advocate of indigenous rights in the South Pacific.
The question of Indian gaming casinos is close to me, having grown up in a tiny village in Sullivan County just 90 miles north of New York City. After many years of legislative wrangling, the county has received the green light from Governor Cuomo to open up a casino that will benefit an area hard-hit by the collapse of the tourist industry. For local residents, casinos represent a life preserver thrown to a drowning man just as does fracking, another proposed solution to the county’s economic misery. When I check my local newspapers each morning, there’s either an article on casinos or fracking. After following the Indian gaming casino discussion in Sullivan County newspapers for over 25 years, I am convinced that local opposition to the former probably has more to do with the message of the Sopranos episode than anything else. If there’s anything that white racists hate more than a poor Indian, it is evidently a rich Indian.
Both the Pequots and another tribe, the Stockbridge-Munsees, put in bids for a casino in Sullivan County but withdrew after learning that Orange County, a good 30 miles closer to New York City, got the green light as well. It is a universal rule that casinos succeed when they are in proximity to large cities. If a casino is closer to New York, it will get the lion’s share of the profits. This is one of the reasons that so few tribes start casinos. For example, there would be little reason for the Lakota, the Blackfoot or any other remnant of the once-proud plains Indians to open one up since they are so many miles from major cities.
Like the Pequots, the Munsees are a tiny shard of a once populous tribe (despite the controversy around this term, it is simply a description of a pre-state social formation and not intended as a sign of backwardness. In fact, there is more “tribalism” among advanced capitalist societies, when defined as irrational belief in one’s racial superiority.)
Unlike the Pequots who built their casino on reservation land in Connecticut, the Munsees were based in Wisconsin. This would lead one to ask what their connection to New York was. Were they acting cynically like Chief Doug Smith? In 2011, the Department of the Interior rescinded a 2008 rule adopted by the Bush administration blocking the opening of a casino beyond commuting distance from a reservation. It was only natural that the Munsees would take advantage of their roots in New York State.
Like many other American cities, rivers and mountain ranges bequeathed with indigenous names, Muncie, Indiana owes its to the Munsees. Wikipedia states: “The area was first settled in the 1770s by the Lenape people, who had been transported from their tribal lands in the Mid-Atlantic region (all of New Jersey plus southeastern New York, eastern Pennsylvania, and northern Delaware) to Ohio and eastern Indiana.”
You’ll notice the use of the passive voice “had been transported”, a tendency often found in prose anxious to shirk responsibility. The Lenapes, including the Munsee, were not exactly “transported”—they were expelled, mostly in the 19th century. White settlers bought the land from beneath their feet and drove them westward, first from New York and then from Ohio. As they moved toward Wisconsin and finally to Oklahoma, they left their traces along a trail of tears, including Muncie.
In addition to having their roots in New York, the Munsees have the added distinction of giving Manhattan its name. Likely the Lenape tribe that the settlers encountered was the Munsees, who called the island “Mannahattanink,” the word for “place of general intoxication” according to Mike Wallace—the Marxist co-author of “Gotham”, not the television personality of the Indian-baiting Sixty Minutes. In describing Manhattan as a “place of general intoxication”, the Munsees certainly demonstrated a grasp of the fine art of futurology.
New York State was anxious to cut a deal with the Munsees in 2004 that would grant them the right to build a casino in Sullivan County. In exchange, they agreed to forego their claims to 300,000 acres in Oneida and Madison Counties in central New York. As anybody with a familiarity with Lenape history would attest, the whites robbed them of their land in the 19th century. As might be expected, a judge ruled against their claim, giving them a sop in the form of the right to open a casino in Sullivan County.
As opposed to the version presented by Silvio and Sixty Minutes, native peoples were never given the right to open casinos on a silver platter. They only came into existence through struggle. Furthermore, Indians have conducted one battle after another to defend their rights to keep them going.
As might be expected, someone like Donald Trump had a vested interest in keeping them out of New York State since they would be competition to his Atlantic City properties. In 1993 he told a Congressional Committee “it’s obvious that organized crime is rampant on the Indian reservations. This thing is going to blow sky high. It will be the biggest scandal since Al Capone, and it will destroy the gaming industry.” In an April 4, 2011 Huffington Post report on Trump’s testimony before Congress, Marcus Baram noted:
Trump neglected to mention that his initial partners on his first deal in Atlantic City reputedly had their own organized crime connections: Kenneth Shapiro was identified by state and federal prosecutors as the investment banker for late Philadelphia mob boss Nicky Scarfo according to reports issued by New Jersey state commissions examining the influence of organized crime, and Danny Sullivan, a former Teamsters Union official, is described in an FBI file as having mob acquaintances. Both controlled a company that leased parcels of land to Trump for the 39-story hotel-casino.
The best account of the origins of Indian gaming casinos can be found in Jessica R. Cattelino’s “Tribal Gaming and Indigenous Sovereignty, with Notes from Seminole Country” that appeared in the Fall-Winter 2005 American Studies journal. Although she is ethnically related to Tony Soprano and his goons, her real loyalties are with the Indians who have used their economic power to reduce poverty and increase their political clout.
In 1988 Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that allowed casinos not only to be built on reservations but also to be exempt from federal taxes and regulations. For many people, including the racist enemies of Indian sovereignty, this piece of legislation was an act of charity intended to make up for past sins as Silvio put it in the Sopranos episode. In reality, it was recognition of facts on the ground that had been established by various Indian tribes, including the Seminole.
In the 19th century the Seminole were driven from Florida into Oklahoma just like many of their Creek and Cherokee brethren were driven from states to their north. The Seminoles fought against the American army in three separate wars in the 19th century and put up a stiff resistance. The word Seminole is likely a corruption of the Spanish word cimarrón, which means “runaway” or “wild one”, an apt description for tribes that happily accepted runaway slaves into their arms. Unlike other Indians, they never signed a peace treaty with the United States.
In 1979 the Seminole opened the first gaming casino without anybody’s permission—just as you would expect from such a militant group. It was dedicated to bingo, the first type of gambling ever hosted by most tribes and one that paved the way for the slot machines and roulette tables at Foxwood.
The Seminole saw this initially as an experiment that would pay off economically. In the past they had tried light manufacturing, cattle ranching, land leasing, and tourism but these ventures either failed or produced very modest profits.
But their casino, named Hollywood Bingo (after the Florida city, not tinseltown), turned a profit almost immediately. By 2001 five Seminole casinos were generating $300 million a year. The economic impact of this revenue has been remarkable. The proceeds fund health clinic, law enforcement (a serious concern on reservations where poverty has bred vicious crimes), the K-12 Ahfachkee School, and housing. It has also funded cultural enterprises such as the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, craftwork, language classes, festivals and other programs.
And like any other capitalist, the tribe has diversified economically. Profits from he casinos have been plowed into sugarcane and citrus fruit plantations, cattle ranching, ecotourism at the Billie Swamp Safari, and even airplane manufacturing. None of this is a result of government handouts. Instead it is a Horatio Alger story that if not vindicating the usefulness of capitalism at least is a testimony to native grit.
This is not to say that gaming casinos are a bed of roses. As expected, when millions of dollars are involved, there are men more than happy to separate Indians from their wealth, and none more so with such satanic duplicity than Jack Abramoff.
While Abramoff’s plot is far too complicated to review here in any detail, suffice it to say that he extracted millions of dollars from the Coushattas in Louisiana and the Tiguas in Texas by playing them against each other. In exchange for millions of dollars in fees, he promised them that he would lobby Congress to make sure that their casinos would go unmolested by the state and also protected from competition by each other. In an email message to his right-hand man Mike Scanlon, Abramoff wrote: “Fire up the jet baby, we’re going to El Paso!!” (The Tigua reservation and casino were near El Paso.) Scanlon replied: “I want all their MONEY!!!” In other emails, Abramoff referred to his clients as “morons,” “troglodytes” and “monkeys.”
After serving his prison sentence, Abramoff has tried to restyle himself as a reformer, speaking at various Washington confabs at presumably exorbitant fees. This has not impressed Indians who suffered the most from his heinous acts, especially the Tiguas who were essentially left bankrupt. After watching him in action at the Press Club in Washington, DC, Rick Hill, a member of the Oneidas, told the Huffington Post “It’s all bullshit. … You look at Jack — though he took money from my elders and our kids, and now he comes here, and he gets to prop himself up, and it’s an acceptable part of D.C. culture. He wouldn’t stand a minute on the reservation.”
Market forces, the sine qua non for capitalist production including that taking place on the reservation, generated the rivalry between the Coushattas and the Tiguas. The access to riches has made the blood quotient all-important. There are constant conflicts over who is really a member of a tribe that enjoys casino wealth.
On December 3rd, 2004, the LA Times reported:
Before the Indian casino opened here, few people had any interest in joining the Chumash tribe.
But now that each member collects close to $350,000 a year in gambling revenue, nearly everyone with a drop of Chumash blood wants in.
“A lot of people found out they were Indian,” joked George Armenta, chairman of the Chumash enrollment committee.
Infighting over lineage is tearing apart many tribes with gambling operations. Fueling the disputes is simple math: If tribal enrollment shrinks, each remaining member will collect more money.
Whenever a valuable resource become available to a historically oppressed people, whether it is oil or roulette chips, it will trigger such fights. That being said, it is foolish to expect Indians to renounce either oil or gaming. In the best of circumstances, such as is the case with the Seminole (or Bolivarian Venezuela), it can be used for the common good.
The vain hope that Indians can live as they did before Columbus persists among those who would prefer that time stand still. The most extreme version of that is Jerry Mander’s 1992 “In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations”, a work that warns Indians about the hazards of computers and other new-fangled technologies. The only sort of Indians that Mander seems interested in are those who are completely untainted by the outside world. If an Indian lives in a city or makes a living as a miner on the reservation, Mander ignores him.
He only pays attention to the “pure” Indian who survives by hunting or fishing the way that he did a hundred or a thousand years ago. Hence, he devotes an entire chapter to the Dene Indians in Canada, who live in the Northwest Territories where the traditional economy revolves around caribou hunting and ice fishing. In the 1970s, they discovered oil on Dene land and pretty soon all the usual culprits descended upon them: oil corporations, lawyers and real-estate developers. What is Mander’s biggest concern, however? It is that television, of all things, will disrupt the Dene’s simple life. He worries that televised soap operas will replace traditional story telling.
After surviving hundreds of years of genocidal onslaught, American Indians have developed survival strategies geared to a time and place. The right to make money from gaming casinos is part of that arsenal, whether or not some critics view it as contrary to the image of the “pure” Indian. That Indian was virtually destroyed in the 19th century, just as was the bison that the plains Indians relied on for food, shelter and clothing. It will be up to the Indians to define their own identity in the 21st century just as they have in the past. Our responsibility as supporters of indigenous rights is to offer our solidarity, just as we would when the FBI was besieging Wounded Knee. The battlefield has changed but the goal is as it ever was—to defend the rights of America’s native peoples.