Gambling has long been a part of most Native American cultures. Traditional handgames, involving song and trickery, are still played in community halls away from the casinos.
But modern Indian gaming owes its roots
to bingo played in a double-wide trailer in 1975. To raise funds
that year to start a fire department, the Oneida Nation in New York
decided that because it was a sovereign entity, it could ignore the
state's control of bingo. The rest is history.
At Fort McDowell in Arizona, the bingo
operation, which was first called Ba'Ja (-the people" in Yavapai)
Gaming Center, still thrives. While it now provides only a fraction
of the casino's total profits, it continues to pack in some 2,000
players a day.
Newcomers to the Sunday Early
Bird Bingo Session find the game tricky. You don't have to think
much, but you have to know what to do and when to do it. You must
listen and follow directions. You must fill out paperwork. Luckily,
I happened to sit next to Ed Mead, who described himself as "one of
those 60-year-old bachelors with nothing to do" every Saturday and
Sunday - except drive 100 miles to Fort McDowell because it offers
the biggest prizes. He hovered over my bingo card and "dobbed" all
the numbers I missed. Dobbing is marking your bingo card, and the
word comes from the name of the fat ink pen you must use.
I never did win, but I became an expert at
sensing when somebody else was about to. A low murmur starts to
circulate throughout the hall and the "bingo ambassadors' prowling
the aisles with whistles in their mouths pick up the pace. Then
someone yells, "Bingo!" The whistle blows and a communal "awwhhh"
rises up from the losers.
Before we left, Ed
showed me his "mad dobber" pen, which depicts a crazy-looking old
man with hands moving so fast, they're blurred. Above his head, the
bubble says, "Life is a game, but bingo is serious."