If you’re as pathetic as I am at poker, you also probably aren’t a good judge of whether gambling is a good thing. I just discovered recently that Texas Holdem doesn’t refer to something cowboys do in private. Some state and local leaders have raised concerns about the casino economy growing in and around New Mexico’s Indian Pueblos. Some folks, not just the self-righteous and poker-challenged, think gambling is right up there with kicking squirrels for fun. The “special treatment” tribes get to conduct gaming comes at the expense of other governments, they say. Others, including the Texas Holdem crowd, believe gambling is an individual freedom that should be protected, like guns or eating at McDonald’s.Regardless of where you fall on the “Is gambling good?” spectrum, one thing is certain. I am not a good poker player. Besides, Indian gaming is generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue in the state. Maybe it has something to do with gambling math. This may come as a shock, but even the highest-payout slot machines still have a built-in profit. That’s why I believe the best self-help program for problem gamblers is a mandatory statistics course. When I learned I was more likely to give birth to a chimp than win the lottery, I sort of lost interest in making it big at the craps table. Instead, I decided I would go there just for the humiliation and occasional fun.Now, clearly, there are some folks (including a few of my relatives) who spend way too much time and money at the casinos. And it isn’t just to get away from their annoying relatives. Some of them believe this is their big chance at prosperity. They play the quarter slot machines waiting for that big jackpot that will change their lives. For most, it never comes. And, sadly, sometimes they’re the ones who can least afford it. At the risk of offending my Libertarian fans, I agree that there should be limits on the amount of time and money anyone spends at a casino. If someone has a good idea about how to do that—I’m all ears. Maybe when you see a guy lose as badly as I usually do you ought to restrict him to the buffet or something. So what have most tribes in New Mexico and around the country used these hefty casino profits for? Luxuries such as health clinics, preschools, water systems, scholarships for Indian youth and, yes, even lobbying. Despite the myth, most gaming tribes in our state and in the U.S. do not give so-called per capita payments, where individual tribal members get a check every month from gaming revenue. If they did, I’d be trying harder to trace my ancestry back to Sandia Pueblo. Instead, most tribes with casinos use the revenue to supplement funding for services and facilities for some of the poorest members of our community: Native Americans. Despite the growing wealth and power of New Mexico’s Indian tribes, due mostly to gaming but also to good tribal leadership, Indians continue to be overrepresented in almost every negative social indicator in the state—alcoholism, diabetes, suicide, dropout rates, homelessness and so on. Gaming and its related economic activities have made a big dent in lowering some of these statistics. But there is much to be done.What also gets lost in today’s discussion about casinos and economic development is the acknowledgement that Indian tribes have a right to use their land to make money. Not many folks understand this whole “sovereignty” thing. Kind of like me and poker. It means tribes control their own destiny, pick their own leaders and write their own laws, within reason. Why? They were here first. Thus, the name “Native American.”One fifth of all gambling revenue now takes place at Indian casinos in America. As several state leaders have acknowledged, tribal gaming is here to stay. Casinos already provide more than 15,000 jobs in New Mexico. Tribal gaming revenues are responsible for almost half a billion dollars in new construction in the state. For most of New Mexico’s tribes, the days of dependence on federal dollars are over. The stronger gaming tribes have turned revenues from gaming into multimillion-dollar investments and development corporations. Tribes from Sandia to Pojoaque to Laguna have diversified their economies. Yes, they still run casinos. But they also run construction companies, resorts, hotels, convenience stores and much, much more. Native American entrepreneurs are starting solar energy, telecommunications and construction companies. My point, and, surprisingly, I do have one, is this: Rather than see this newfound tribal wealth and power as a threat, we should view it as a huge opportunity to partner with some wealthy neighbors. Tourism, marketing and joint events are just part of working together. With the resources generated by Indian gaming, New Mexico could be the first state to truly make Native Americans real leaders in creating a strong, diverse local economy.But to do so, we all have to realize we are in the same boat. Tribal leaders and local leaders should partner on economic development deals, whether it is attracting a major new employer, creating a signature arts and culture festival, or simply making our cities safer for all our citizens. With the incredible resources gaming has provided tribes, we have an opportunity to make life better for all of our citizens; even the ones with limited math and poker skills.
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