Love, hunger, money

  • Jack of Indians playing cards and dice

    Diane Sylvain

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 poets.

"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, not stirred.

"Where do you want us to sign?" the councilmen asked and took out the pens that they all saved for special occasions.

"Sign here. And initial here and here."

Unable to read the fine print, I inched closer and closer - too close, in fact.

"What seems to be the problem?" one of the wiseguys asked as he grabbed me by the front of my Atlanta Braves T-shirt.

"Who is this young man?" the head wiseguy asked.

"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 cheek.

"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 loss
of trust. It's never been
about money. Gambling is
nothing new for the Indians.
Gambling is traditional
and began when Columbus arrived
in our country. Indians started
to roll the dice every time
we signed another treaty
but we've always been the losers
because the dice were loaded
and the treaties broken
by random design. Now
we've got our own game
of Reservation Roulette
and I'd advise the faithful
to always bet on red.

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.

Indians need money.

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 you.

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."

Indians need
the money, Indians need
the money, the money
because we all need
all of us (meaning
me and you) need
the money. Indians
need it more
because we have less
of everything
except our stories and poems
but you can't buy
a can of Spam
with a metaphor. We need
the money, the money
because money is America's
religion, because money is
prayer and hymn, because
a dollar bill can fill
our empty stomachs
like a good savior will.

I've 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).

Does that frighten me? Of course. But I think it's more important to ask the non-Indians why they are frightened of it.

Is it because of the imagined threat of gangster influence? The profits from reservation gambling are small change on a Mafia scale.

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 year.

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.

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