Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The New Buffalo

If only there had been a few of these around during the so-called Black Hawk War.

This won't be one of my typical posts.

A friend of mine sent me an article that I think everyone should read. It was written by Paul Harris for The Observer. Harris writes about how successful gaming operations on Native American reservations have served to increase an already exceptional poverty gap and led to tribal infighting. Many have dubbed casinos the "New Buffalo" because of the role they play in sustaining First Nation Tribes. Ironically, as opposed to driving the New Buffalo to extinction, whites are going to great lengths to preserve it.

For purposes of convenience, I'm posting it here in its entirety. Be forewarned. It is long so if you're anything like my mother-in-law, you'll want to read it in sections.

Paul Harris
Sunday August 19, 2007
The Observer

It is called Indian Country and it exists in tiny patches and forgotten reservations dotted across the face of America. It is home to 2.8m people. One part of Indian Country lies on the prairie behind Bob Lone Elk's trailer home. There, at the end of a dirt road that rides over South Dakota's undulating grasslands, Lone Elk has built a prayer field. It is a simple, private place of a few wooden huts and logs lashed together to provide shade for dancers and singers.

A member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux - who beat General George Custer - Lone Elk lives on the Pine Ridge reservation. He built his prayer field to carry on the Lakota religion. He holds ceremonies here, just as his ancestors did.

Walking through the field, Lone Elk does not look like the stereotypical image of an Indian medicine man. He wears shades, his arms are covered in biker tattoos and his T-shirt bears a Harley-Davidson logo. But when he lifts that shirt his identity is written in livid scars across his chest. For Lone Elk - like many Lakota men - practises the sacred Sun Dance where skewers are pierced through his chest, tied with rope to a tree and then stretched until they rip free. He Sun Danced earlier this year, praying that Lakota traditions would survive, spilling his blood in the prairie dust. 'Why do I do it?' he laughs in a sing-song Indian accent. 'One day I want my grandchildren to do this. I want Lakota ways to go on.'

But Indian Country is no longer just for men like Lone Elk. Or places like Pine Ridge, with its awesome beauty and appalling poverty. For Indians - few of whom use the term Native Americans - are gripped by immense social change that has altered the face of Indian Country. In the wake of new legislation allowing casinos to open on Indian reservations in the Eighties, many tribes have grown rich. Last year Indian gaming earned a staggering $25.5bn. Some tribes now have social issues the Saudi royals might identify with: too many fast cars and no need to work.

Once, Indians were united by marginalisation and poverty. Now they are divided. Like the rest of America, Indian Country is both very poor and very rich. They now own famous brand-name companies such as the Hard Rock Cafe and wield power in the white world that once scorned them. They also now compete with each other and fight among themselves. Indian casinos - dubbed 'the new buffalo' - have raised the question of what it means to be Indian in modern America. Indians have survived hundreds of years of massacre, oppression and racism. But will they survive becoming rich?

Foxwoods casino rises above the surrounding woodland like an enormous temple. It towers into the sky, surrounded by sprawling car parks, and dominates the Connecticut landscape for miles around. It is the biggest casino in the world and it sits on the reservation of the Mashantucket Pequot, a tribe who 25 years ago were impoverished and virtually unknown outside a scrap of tribal land only a handful of them called home. Now they are arguably the richest Indians in America.

Foxwoods has more than 7,400 slot machines and 390 gaming tables. The clattering slots funnel more than $1bn a year into tribal coffers. The casino has three hotels and 40,000 visitors a day. Next year - in its eighth expansion - a new hotel and 4,000-seat theatre will be added.

The Pequot, living on the coast of New England, were among the first tribes to experience white men. They were decimated by disease and the brutal Pequot War in the 1600s, which ended with the tribe being hunted down, its men massacred, its women sold into slavery and the Pequot language banned.

Yet they survived. Finally, allotted a swampy reservation at Mashantucket, they continued to scrape by, inter-marrying with whites or freed slaves. In 1774 they numbered 151. By 1970 just two elderly Pequot remained on the reservation, the rest having dispersed into America. In the Seventies, activists encouraged members to come home, won compensation from the government for land thefts and started new businesses. They tried running a pizza restaurant and selling maple syrup. But when the law was changed to allow Indian tribes to open casinos the Pequot struck it rich. Here, in the heart of the wealthiest state in America, within a few hours' drive of New York and Boston, the tribe's fortunes were transformed.

The Pequot share out Foxwoods's profits. Numbering around 800, each member of the tribe receives $100,000 a year for life from the age of 18. The tribe provides healthcare, pays for college and arranges jobs. The reservation boasts golf courses and gated luxury housing where driveways bristle with expensive cars. The Pequot have built a plush museum to their history and begun a language reclamation project to resurrect a tongue not spoken in decades. The tribe has also tracked down descendants and welcomed them back.

Not surprisingly, the Pequot bask in their success. Take Kimberly Hatcher-White. She had a Pequot great-grandmother - born on the reservation in 1910 - but she herself grew up in tough circumstances in a nearby town. Her mother struggled on a nurse's salary and Hatcher-White had to drop out of college. She worked at McDonald's and as a bus driver. She remembers how the Indian side of the family was discouraged in favour of the black American side. She tells a story of being a child and wanting to play an Indian, not a pilgrim, in a school Thanksgiving play. 'A great aunt told me: "Never tell. Being an Indian is worse than being the n-word,"' she says.

Things are different now. Hatcher-White was enrolled in the tribe in 1997. The Pequot paid for her to finish college. Now she heads the tribal museum. Sitting in her office, she is an American success story. Though she looks black, she has no doubt about her Indian identity. 'I am proud to be part of this tribe. This is where our culture and heritage is.'

One simple story illustrates just how much has changed for the Pequot. Outside the reservation lies a peak called Lantern Hill that was once holy to the tribe, but owned by a quarry firm who strip-mined the mountainside. It is a tale of abuse familiar all over Indian Country, where sacred sites have been mined or developed. But Indian money can now accomplish what moral argument cannot. The Pequot simply bought the offending quarry. Then they closed it and re-employed its workers in Foxwoods. Now they are re-landscaping the mess.

Such power has local whites worried. The Pequot are buying up land around their reservation. After centuries of being abused and marginalised, they now have the upper hand. 'A lot of it is the fear of losing white land to the tribe,' says Hatcher-White. She then pauses, perhaps reflecting on Pequot history, before adding: 'It is ironic, isn't it?'

The Pequot are far from alone in wielding new-found tribal power. There are now 400 Indian casinos across America. Each one brings in money and influence.

The Seminoles are a Florida tribe once hunted to near extinction in the Everglades. Last year, flush with cash, they bought the Hard Rock chain for $965m. In California, too, powerful casino tribes are flexing their muscles. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger initially campaigned with a promise to curb Indian gambling. But once in office - and after certain tribes revealed they were willing to spend millions of dollars to derail a raft of his policy initiatives - Schwarzenegger changed his tune. Even the mighty Governator respects the power of the Indian dollar.

But wealth is a two-edged sword. Indian tribes were at the heart of a scandal that has rocked Washington DC for the past two years. It involved the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a shadowy figure close to influential politicians. Six tribes gave him more than $82m to spread about the nation's capital. Unfortunately Abramoff played fast and loose and wound up in jail. Even worse, when his case came to court, it seemed the tribes had got little for their money. Abramoff had referred derisively to them as 'monkeys' and 'troglodytes' in emails revealed in court.

The case also showed how Indians now lobby against other tribes. Those that already have casinos actively prevent others from joining the gold rush. Money has also caused some tribes to turn on themselves. Last month a dispute on a California reservation between pro-casino and anti-casino factions ended with the eviction of some Indians by tribal police firing pepper spray. It also prompted many tribes to start kicking out people in order to share the cash among a smaller group of members. In Iowa, the Meskwaki tribe has started using DNA tests to screen 'pretenders'. The Cherokee recently threw out descendants of black slaves once owned by the tribe. In California an estimated 2,000 Indians have been booted out of tribes who accepted them during poor times, but do not want them to share in new wealth.

The Pequot aren't immune. Recently the tribe's internal politics have been riven by dissent. Their tribal leader since before Foxwoods was Richard Hayward, who led the Pequot for 23 years and turned them from dirt poor to filthy rich. Now Hayward and his family have been cast out of power. New factions have taken over and he rarely visits the reservation. At the same time some young Pequot have fallen victim to the temptations of wealth, enjoying their American life and leaving behind tribal traditions that survived centuries of oppression. When asked about her adult son, Joseph, Hatcher-White grows reticent. 'I don't like publicly talking about it. He does not participate in the culture. That is his choice,' she said.

But there can be little doubt that being excluded from the casino riches flowing through Indian Country is a far worse fate. Life on Lone Elk's Pine Ridge remains brutal and marginalised. The reservation's main town - also called Pine Ridge - is a dusty place of two traffic lights and a handful of fast-food stores. Most people live in decrepit trailer homes whose yards are piled with car wrecks.

Life here is tougher and shorter than anywhere else in America. Male life expectancy is 56. Unemployment is 70 per cent and 75 per cent of residents live below the poverty line. The average annual income is $3,700. Twenty per cent of houses have no water or electricity. 'This is the Third World in the middle of America,' says Jeaneen Lone Hill, a Lakota woman who is planning to move away. She has little hope for life improving. 'I need to go somewhere I can make a difference to people's lives. I don't see myself able to do that here.'

To understand what has happened here it is necessary only to visit Wounded Knee. Set in a bowl of rolling prairie, a tiny cluster of trailer homes marks the spot where the US army massacred hundreds of Lakota men, women and children in 1890. People on Pine Ridge speak of Wounded Knee as if it happened yesterday. Certainly it's not just history for a man like Jerry McLaughlin, who works in the tribe's housing department. Standing on the windy spot next to a mass grave for its victims, he points down into the narrow defile where most Indians were killed: 'To me this is a sacred place. To white Americans this is something they'd rather forget.'

It should surprise no one that herding a defeated, nomadic, buffalo-hunting tribe on to a tiny patch of land far from a city and on marginal soil unfit for farming, would lead to the disaster Pine Ridge is today. In such circumstances 100 years is unlikely to improve much. What is surprising is not that the Lakota are trapped in poverty, but that they are here at all. Life is harsh. There are few jobs and gangsterism has infected the young. Men are often festooned with tattoos and are sucked into the violence and drugs that mark gang life. McLaughlin worries his only son, James, will fall victim. He is 13 and McLaughlin wants to move to the countryside to get away. 'I am trying to get out before my son gets any older,' he says in the garden of his battered Pine Ridge house. Nearby homes have rubbish-filled yards and are covered in gang graffiti. McLaughlin knows there are few options for his boy: 'He wants to join the Marines as a way out,' he says. 'But I discourage that. He is the only son I have.'

And then there is the booze problem. Though the reservation is 'dry' it is ringed by border towns with liquor stores and bars. Pine Ridge itself is nestled up against the Nebraska state line, and just a mile away lies the off-reservation town of Whiteclay, a collection of booze shops, a Christian mission and burnt-out homes. Its only street - even early in the morning - is lined with drunk Indians collapsed on pavements, drinking in the bushes or pan-handling on the streets.

Suicide is a big problem. On the neighbouring Rosebud reservation the rate among Sioux youth is 10 times higher than the norm. After a spate of deaths recently a state of emergency was declared there. In conversations with local residents the spectre of early death seems ever present. A cousin who had an overdose; a rumoured suicide; a drink-driving accident that took a school friend. That holds true for Dana Lone Hill, a Lakota woman who recently moved back to Pine Ridge after a decade away. Now she lives in a rickety house and is trying to make ends meet as a writer for the local newspaper, while selling beadwork. 'Every day is a struggle,' she says. 'Sometimes to get enough just to buy food for a meal is a struggle.'

Yet there is another story to Pine Ridge. One that harks back to before casinos and before the arrival of white people. Beneath the squalor, there is a community that has genuinely held on to its culture against seemingly impossible odds in a way the now-rich Pequot could not. Pine Ridge is not just the home of the poor and marginalised; it is in a very real sense true Indian Country. It is not yet fully part of America.

This explains why Bob Lone Elk has built a prayer field on the prairie. It explains the Sun Dance scars on the chests of many Lakota men. It explains why across Pine Ridge there are more than 40 spots where Sun Dances take place. It explains the yearly calendar of ceremonies that Lone Elk conducts, drawing hundreds of Indians to observe the rituals and dances their ancestors did. He talks of being possessed by 'thunder spirits' with the same matter-of-factness as a Christian pastor might preach the power of prayer. And all this goes on away from the eyes of white America, often because outsiders are banned from such places.

Lone Elk knows the reservation is poor, but he sees signs of cultural survival that give him heart. Despite growing up in a Lakota-speaking household, he was forced to speak English at reservation schools. Now Lakota is taught there. His daughter, Dana, recently attended her first religious ceremony in the prayer field. She brought her four children. They danced and sang along with scores of other Lakota.

It is that sense of identity - not as an American but as a Lakota - that brought Dana back to Pine Ridge. It is a tie that draws many. 'In the end I had a hard time being off the reservation. I realised Pine Ridge is my home,' she says. There is nothing about that feeling that is fake or contrived. Across Indian Country many tribes hold regular pow-wows, festivals of dance and music and opportunities for people to reconnect. In some cases these are tourist affairs. A recent Pequot pow-wow was held in the grounds of the tribal museum, attracting a crowd of white visitors. Not so the Lakota pow-wow. It was held in Pine Ridge and attracted Indians from all over North and South Dakota. They struck tents and tepees, held a rodeo and dance. 'I love pow-wow,' said Dana. 'It's where we come together despite everything.'

That fierce community pride explains the most incredible thing about the Lakota; for the astonishing fact is that they could easily tap a vast supply of wealth, but they have chosen not to on a point of principle. In their long struggle with white America, their greatest defeat was losing the Black Hills, a mountainous region sacred to the tribe. The hills were given to the Indians in a treaty, but shortly after they were invaded by miners looking for gold.

In 1980, after years of court battles, a judge awarded a cash settlement for the broken promises in lieu of returning the hills to the Indians. That sum is now $500m and it is sitting unclaimed in a government bank account. The Lakota have not touched a cent though the prospects of ever reclaiming the Hills - now populated by tourist towns and ranches - appear to be zero. It is a heroic, some might say unfathomable, act of defiance. Even Jeaneen Lone Hill, as she prepares to leave Pine Ridge's poverty behind, does not want to see the money claimed. 'They should not touch it. Then white America will never own the Black Hills.'

What, then, still links the Lakota and the Pequot? Is Indian Country hopelessly divided between those who join America and prosper, and those who hold on to old ways?

At first it seems more divides than unites. The Lakota, too, have opened a casino, but it is a small place, hundreds of miles from anywhere, that attracts few visitors. And then there are the cultural voids opening up in Indian Country. 'I am Lakota first. Then I am American later,' Jerry McLaughlin says, standing at Wounded Knee. Others are more strident still. 'They did to us what America is now doing to Iraq,' says Jeaneen Lone Hill. That is not a sentiment found among the Pequot. Aside from the fact that every Pequot has white or black blood in their veins as well as Indian, they have embraced mainstream America. Take Lori Potter. Through her mother's Indian blood she has become a Pequot tribal member who acts as an ambassador between the Pequot and the government. Potter looks like a classic white American mom. She admits she grew up a 'Navy brat' mostly in California and, as a child, she had little knowledge of Indians. 'I had an image of Indians only living in the West,' she says. She bristles at the suggestion that being Indian might conflict with being American. 'I am a patriotic American,' she says.

But, digging beneath the surface, there are still links keeping Indian Country whole. All Indians, in different ways, still face the hostility of much of America. The Lakota talk of the difficulties of getting a job outside the reservation and being stopped regularly by the police. The Pequot battle white suspicions about their power and wealth. Potter says that looking as white as she does helps in her dealings with government officials. 'They have a sense of mistrust. It is easier for me to talk to them,' she says. For both tribes the white world still views them as potentially 'hostile Indians', feared for their wealth or their resentful poverty. America still prefers its Indians kept in the stereotypical box of myth: of the noble warrior who only exists in film and on TV. Being confronted with the complex reality can be uncomfortable.

That is something Kimberly Hatcher-White knows all about. She looks like a black American, but fiercely identifies with the tribe - especially given the historical reasons why the Pequot intermarried so much: their menfolk were killed and the woman sold into slavery. She is tired of justifying her identity as an Indian to outsiders: 'Why should we have to explain to everybody that we look the way we do?'

Perhaps, though, she should be thankful she is still being asked the question. That means Indians are still here; still different from the rest of America. 'We were always here. We never went away,' says Hatcher-White. That might not be true for long. For the real thing that unites all Indian tribes - whether the children of Bob Lone Elk or those of Hatcher-White - is the gradual creep of mainstream American culture into their youth. From the dusty streets of Pine Ridge to the clipped lawns of Mashantucket the impact of cable TV, fast food and all things American is huge, and getting bigger. On Pine Ridge the busiest restaurant in town is Pizza Hut. In Connecticut, at the recent Pequot pow-wow most of the Indian performers seemed to come from other tribes. The Pequot, no doubt, were busy; working, going to college and leading middle-class American lives. It would be ironic if, after centuries of bloodshed, oppression and poverty, what could really spell the end of Indian Country is MTV, a Big Mac and acceptance.

Labels: ,


At 12:18 PM , Blogger Breez said...


Very interesting article. It's incredible how, when Euro-American values are embraced, a culture loses itself almost completely.

At 8:53 AM , Blogger BLESSD1 said...

Good point Breez. I see we aren't the only ones coveting that which was aquired by the most attroicious of acts. Good post, Conflict

At 9:44 AM , Anonymous Viece said...

I wish all the time that more people were aware of what is going on in the Indian world. The fact that they had to fight for so much that was already theirs is appalling.

At 5:19 PM , Blogger Dana Dane said...

Thanks for posting the article, I was googling my dad's name and came across it. My name is Dana, I am the one who showed Mr. harris around our reservation. what Mr. Harris could not believe is how important our culture still is to us and how we still embrace it so near. One thing I must say though, had our tribe gotten as much money as other's I cannot say if our culture would live or if we would even have to resort to what other tribes do and "buy the culture back." that is why I write, I think to preserve what I can for my children.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

Technorati Tags: ,
Add to: | Technorati | Digg | | Yahoo | BlinkList | Spurl | reddit | Furl | Technorati Tags: , , ,