Playing the Political Slots

The sociological influence wielded by the Native American tribes in the United States is profound to say the least. From government programs and subsidies to political lobbying, these tribes create opportunities for themselves that are unavailable to almost every other minority group in America. Money affords a special few Native American tribes access to an elevated status in the American political system, allowing those tribes to succeed while others languish in poverty.

James E. Billie, the Seminole Indian Tribe chief from 1979 to 2001, was the first to identify the potential power, wealth and prestige that gambling could provide. After winning the right to build casinos nationwide, these tribes began to structure themselves to conduct their operations as corporations. While the government continues to slash funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), these new found corporate powerhouses have assembled teams of lawyers and lobbyists to pump capital into the campaigns of those best positioned to wring the maximum amount of subsidies and loose regulation out of the agencies assigned to regulate them. The power and control that the income from their casinos gives them, empowers these tribes to compete for resources on a level that no other minority group can access. Unfortunately, this power is not equally distributed throughout the Native American community. Like all groups with power and influence, the select few tribes that have been able to build casinos use their power to further their own political influence and stature, at the expense of the less fortunate tribes. It’s an example of how a capitalist system allows a few rich to dominate the majority of the poor. The aid distributed to the Indian Reservations in the U.S. is controlled by a small group of agencies all of which are susceptible to the lobbying power and campaign donations of the few largest, casino owning, tribes.

Native American tribes enjoy an additional benefit unavailable to other minority groups. Tribes are classified by the government as Sovereign Nations, which generally exempts them from state and local laws, as well as taxes. Tribes use this preferential status to further increase their own political and economic power. This sovereignty also leads to conflict over resources with their neighbors. Indian casinos cause a strain on the surrounding infrastructure, and since they pay no taxes they contribute nothing to the upkeep and improvement of this infrastructure.

No one can argue that the Native American population of this country has suffered great losses to both their societal structure, through the taking of their land, and their culture, through their systematic execution and marginalization. Over the course of the past 20 – 30 years a fortunate few have turned this adversity into a very rare form of minority power. As members of the out-group they’ve used the profits from their gambling operations to buy their way into the in-group. Through political contributions and high level lobbying, a small group of tribes have gained an incredible amount of wealth and power which they use to keep and increase their special status in our country.