Gambling Laws Make U.S. Reservations a Brave New World but All Indians Aren't Crying 'Bingo!'
Shortly before noon the long lines of tour buses begin snaking into the parking lot on the Otoe Missouria Indian land near Red Rock, Okla., pop. 376. “I’m getting Otoe fever!” squeals Frances Whitten, 25, jumping off the bus from Fort Worth and running toward the 66,000 square foot, hangar-like arena, the largest bingo parlor in the world. Shelling out $129 for 54 bingo games, Whitten rushes to pick one of the 5,100 available seats, while nearby Evelyn Thomas, 48, carefully lays out lucky charms: a candle, two stuffed felt elephants and miniature elephants made from oyster shells. Across the room retired Air Force Sgt. Lonzie Nickerson, 60, from Fort Worth, digs into his canvas bag and pulls out a veritable drugstore of nerve pills, potassium tablets, blood pressure capsules and Tylenol in preparation for the “early bird” $1,000-a-round games. Later in the day the stakes will jump to $50,000 per round. “The heart medicine is in case I win,” Lonzie explains, “and if I lose, I take a nerve pill.”
Then it starts. “I’ve got a pocketful of money to give you,” baits manager Steve Blad, 34, while the numbers are slowly called up front. Players’ eyes flicker over the Otoe Missouria Indians selling taco chips, fried chicken and hamburgers, settle on the closed-circuit TV monitors flashing the numbers, then check their cards. Suddenly—”Bingo!” is heard from the back of the hall. As a woman from Wichita, Kans. rushes to collect her $1,000, the band strikes up a rousing She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain.
Welcome to the New Bingo, a far cry from the familiar church basement stuff. Since 1982, when a federal appellate court ruled that Indian lands are exempt from state gaming regulations, reservations have become high stakes gambling islands, drawing carloads from thousands of miles away. In the last three years more than 80 tribes have opened bingo games, which could cater to as many as 55 million players.
At many reservations the white man’s wampum has been a bonanza. In Prior Lake, Minn. the Sioux-owned Little Six Bingo Palace has reaped $4 million in profits in three years—enough to wipe out unemployment and pay every one of the 121 men, women and children on the reservation an average of $1,000 per month. “When we were left destitute by federal budget cuts, a lot of tribes, out of desperation, turned to bingo as a way of funding programs for the poor, elderly, schools and alcohol treatment centers,” says Tim Giago, publisher of the Indian-owned Lakota Times in Martin, S.Dak. The Oneida reservation near Green Bay, Wis. has parlayed its bingo dollars into venture capital by creating a corporation that now owns a 33-acre industrial park and a nearly completed $10 million, 200-room hotel. “We are becoming an economic factor in the state and bingo is opening doors that were shut,” says Mark Powless, Oneida tribal council member and chairman of the National Indian Gaming Task Force.
But the potential lure for organized crime has raised concern in the Justice Department about tribes like the Otoe that contract out their operations. Says Indian activist Russell Means, “Many tribal governments are looking for a quick fix, so anyone with a used-car salesman’s pitch can dupe them.” Katie Roberts, former Otoe tribal council member, says “I’m still skeptical that outsiders are looking for a fast buck.” The Otoe have already had contracts with three management groups. Three years ago they accepted an offer to build a bingo hall from non-Indian investors who promised to pay the tribe $5 per head from the gate, a $100,000 guarantee per month and a percentage of the profits. The group couldn’t turn a profit nor could two subsequent investors. For help the Otoe have turned to the Seminole tribe of Florida, whose operation reportedly earns more than $13 million annually.
Now the money is rolling in, and Steve Blad, whose salary is a percentage of the profits, bounces with his microphone as a $50,000 round begins. “Oh, I only need two more,” shrieks one woman. No one wins during the required first 48 numbers called, but Magdalena Veliz, 63, of San Antonio claims $20,000, the last jackpot of the day, amid cheers and clanging cowbells. As the crowd trails to their buses at the end of a long day, Blad heads for his Cadillac. “For bingo players,” he says happily, “this is the Super Bowl.”