Bingo! Indian Tribes Find Way to Make Money Native American Leaders Admit That the Gaming Business Has Its Shortcomings and Possible Bad Effects, but They See It as at Least a Transitional Way to Fight Poverty Series: WINDOWS ON AMERICA. One in a Series of Occasional Articles about Life in the United States
David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
AT 7:30 in the morning a small crowd gathers outside the Irene Moore Activity Center on the Oneida Indian reservation. When the doors open at 8 there is a polite rush into the big hall.
By 9 o'clock up to 700 people - mostly older, non-Indian women - are seated at rows of tables with marking pens and numbered cards ready to play big-stakes bingo when the clock strikes 10.
In nearby rooms the slot machines are clanging; blackjack games are underway, and men and women are seated on stools in front of video games.
Welcome to the rapidly expanding world of Indian gambling, a new kind of gold being heavily mined on economically deprived Indian reservations across the United States.
With the passage of the 1988 Indian Gambling Regulatory Act, revenue-hungry tribes from Connecticut to California are negotiating with states to either expand current tax-free gambling operations or draw plans for large Las Vegas-style casinos.
Since Congress passed the act, 20 gambling compacts already have been signed between tribes and states. More are on the way.
In a nation that gambles on everything from lotteries to horses, dogs and professional sports, increased gambling on reservations could push the total amount bet in the US to a staggering $500 billion by the year 2000.
The newly formed National Indian Gaming Commission estimates that tribes earned a total of $600 million from gambling last year after prizes were paid.
Examples of recent Indian gambling developments:
*-In Connecticut, Gov. Lowell Weicker having unsuccessfully opposed the plan, the Mashantucket Pequot tribe will now build a $48 million casino.
*-In southeastern Minnesota, the Prairie Island Sioux added 25,000 square feet to their casino to enlarge the gambling area.
*-In Wisconsin, the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe is seeking investors to build a $5 million casino as the result of a compact approved by Gov. Tommy G. Thompson.
*-South of Green Bay, the Potawatomi tribe will expand its bingo hall, which seats 2,500.
*-In Florida, the Seminoles have major bingo operations in three cities and are seeking the state's permission to run casinos, horse and dog racing, and jai alai.
Indian tribes have struggled for decades with massive unemployment and severe social problems as a result of ambiguous federal policies. Many reservations have few natural resources.
Successful gambling operations like those of the Oneida tribe near Green Bay indicate that conditions on reservations can improve dramatically when gaming revenue is used for social services and businesses.
"We started 15 years ago with bingo games in a gymnasium," says Oneida Tribal Chairman Rick Hill. "About 83 percent of our $73 million tribal budget now comes from gaming and has allowed us to support such programs as Head Start, day care, a health center, a nursing home, counseling services and land acquisition. We employ about 200 people from gaming."
Other tribes desperately want similar results. When the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe in northern Wisconsin recently signed a compact with the state, a spokesman for the tribe said, "Within six months we will be able to wipe out unemployment." As many as 400 tribal members could be employed on a reservation where unemployment hovers around 50 percent.
ve seen a lot tribes strive to get into the big-bucks bingo immediately," says Bobbi Webster, director of communications for the Oneida tribe. "In order to do that they need investors up front and have to bring in outside management. A lot of tribes want to get rich quick without taking the time to train their people and develop their operation. …