I've just returned from the Spokane Tribe's casino-and-gambling mecca at the western edge of our reservation, and I may have to enter the federal Witness Relocation Program because I have seen and know too much. I couldn't believe it. I had gone there expecting to see a few slot machines and some sweaty small-town gamblers. Instead, there were dozens of suspicious-looking men in expensive suits shaking hands with our Spokane tribal councilmen.
"It's the Mafia,"
I whispered into the tape recorder that I had carefully hidden
beneath the bill of my Washington Redskins baseball hat. Risking
life and limb, I maneuvered closer to the wiseguys and councilmen.
They barely noticed me, of course, because nobody, neither Indian
nor white, ever pays attention to
"The Family really
admires what you're doing out there," one of the wiseguys said to
the councilmen. His diction was perfect. "We believe your
reservation could become a lucrative member of our network."
My true identity could've been discovered at
any time. Confidently, I ordered a Diet Pepsi without ice, shaken,
"Where do you
want us to sign?" the councilmen asked and took out the pens that
they all saved for special
"Sign here. And
initial here and here."
Unable to read the fine
print, I inched closer and closer - too close, in
"What seems to be the
problem?" one of the wiseguys asked as he grabbed me by the front
of my Atlanta Braves
"Who is this young
man?" the head wiseguy
"Him?" the councilmen
asked, and looked at me. "He's just a poet."
"Prove it," the head wiseguy
demanded of me.
"My love is
like a red, red rose," I blurted. I waited for the response. Had
all my years of creative-writing classes finally paid off? The head
wiseguy looked me over, slapped my face gently, pinched my
"Leave him alone," he
said to the wiseguy holding me. "He's just a poet. Give him a
dollar and a free drink."
I took my dollar and
voucher for another Pepsi and went my way. However, I had time to
read the fine print on one of those contracts and it said the terms
of this agreement would be valid as long as the grasses grow, the
winds blow, and the rivers flow.
Help me. I'm
writing this from a seedy hotel room in an eastern Washington city.
I know too much. I know that the Mafia is on the Spokane Indian
Reservation and that they're making treaties. I know the Mafia will
break those treaties and only the United States Government is
allowed to break treaties with Indians. I'm caught in a crossfire.
Help me. I'm just a poet.
Gambling has always been
about trust and the
of trust. It's never
about money. Gambling is
*othing new for the Indians.
and began when Columbus
in our country. Indians
to roll the dice every
we signed another treaty
but we've always been the losers
dice were loaded
and the treaties
by random design. Now
we've got our own game
and I'd advise the
to always bet on
However, I have the
distinct feeling that America is not placing any bets on the
survival of Indians. America will not even allow Indians to become
citizens of the 20th century. We're trapped somewhere between
Custer and Columbus, between the noble and savage. I've heard it
said that Indians shouldn't become involved in high-stakes gambling
because it tarnishes our noble heritage. Personally, I've never
believed in the nobility of poverty. Personally, I believe in the
nobility of breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Forget the discussions about
self-hate or cultural dislocation. Forget the loss of land and
language. Most Indians cannot even begin to think about those kinds
of complicated issues. They don't have the time. They have to spend
most of their time worrying about where their next meal is coming
from. They worry about how love and hunger can get so mixed up.
Most Indians don't have time or energy enough to listen to me or
As Billie Holiday said, "You've got to have
something to eat and a little love in your life before you can hold
still for anybody's damned sermon."
the money, the
because we all need
of us (meaning
me and you)
the money. Indians
because we have less
except our stories and
but you can't buy
with a metaphor. We
the money, the money
because money is America's
prayer and hymn,
a dollar bill can
our empty stomachs
a good savior will.
also heard so much talk about the morality of gambling. How immoral
is the Washington State Lottery? How immoral is Grand Coulee Dam?
How immoral are the beer and tobacco companies?
Those questions have their answers buried somewhere deep in the
heart of capitalism, and the casino on the Spokane Indian
Reservation is proof that the Spokanes have embraced capitalism.
There was a demand for a product (gambling) and the Spokane Indians
have produced a supply (casino).
frighten me? Of course. But I think it's more important to ask the
non-Indians why they are frightened of it.
because of the imagined threat of gangster influence? The profits
from reservation gambling are small change on a Mafia
Is it because of the supposed threat to
the noble image of Indians? There isn't much non-Indian complaint
about the Washington Redskins or the fact that Tonto is still
monosyllabic on television every day of the
Is it really because of the immorality of
gambling? Capitalism has always rewarded immorality, regardless of
race, gender or religion.
I think it has more to
do with power. As Indians make money we also gain power. As we gain
power we develop a political voice. We can then use that voice to
demand that treaties be honored.
We can demand
that this country be held accountable for what it did to us and
what it continues to do to us. We can make those demands because
we'll have the power. We can make those demands because we'll have
the money. We'll have the money that used to belong to you.
The writer is a Spokane
Coeur d'Alene Indian, a poet, and the author of The Lone Ranger and
Tonto: Fistfight in Heaven.