About 60 miles east of Los Angeles, in the heart of what’s known as the Inland Empire, sits a vibrant, highly successful modern-day casino replete with table games, slot machines, fine and casual dining, and lively entertainment. Minus the hotel component, it’s not unlike what you find up and down the Las Vegas Strip.
Dial back the calendar a few decades, however, and all that existed on this sovereign land were endless rows of orange groves and hope for a better tomorrow. It’s a time Lynn Valbuena recalls all too vividly. “I can remember when we literally had nothing on the reservation except five government homes,” she said. “We stood in line in the old orange groves where our parking structure now sits waiting for the welfare commodities truck to show up and give us food. So we’ve come a long way.”
To say the least.
Today, Valbuena is chairwoman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, which on Feb. 21 announced its $9 million gift to UNLV to create an endowment for on-campus and online initiatives, all designed to educate and empower young Native Americans and gaming students for possible careers in all facets of tribal gaming and hospitality.
The donation — the largest the San Manuel Tribe has ever given to an out-of-state education or health care institution — will be shared between two UNLV entities, with $6 million going to the William F. Harrah College of Hospitality and $3 million to the William S. Boyd School of Law. It’s a gift San Manuel’s leadership believed was critical for two key reasons: to continue growing what is now a $33.7 billion-a-year tribal gaming industry and to ensure the long-term economic future for tribal nations across the country.
“Today there are 246 Indian tribes that operate 506 gaming properties in 29 states, so this partnership with UNLV provides an opportunity for all of Indian Country to develop talent among our own people, enabling them to pursue careers in gaming management, marketing, hospitality, food and beverage, and law and policy,” Valbuena said. “One of the policy goals of tribal gaming is that we promote economic development and diversification while maintaining sustainability and self-reliance. By placing an emphasis on education, we not only will help our tribal nations fulfill this important goal, but also ensure economic prosperity for generations to come.”
Thanks to San Manuel’s philanthropy, the Hospitality College and Boyd School of Law will be able to expand existing curriculum in gaming management as well as gaming law, policy, regulation, and tribal governance. Additionally, funds will be used to develop new programs, including degree-track and non-degree track (professional development) courses specifically focused on tribal gaming operations; hire faculty (including a professor-in-residence) to develop and teach courses in the intricacies of tribal government, sovereignty, and tribal gaming operations; and host symposia and workshops centered around issues related to this unique industry.
“Our college is in the life-changing business,” said Hospitality College Dean Stowe Shoemaker. “We truly believe that it doesn’t matter what situation you came from; if we give you a great education, you can have jobs and lifestyles you never imagined. But to maintain that great educational foundation for students, the college must continue to focus on areas of growth — areas where there are jobs and career opportunities. And one of the largest areas where we see growth is in all forms of gaming.
“This gift allows our college to continue its leadership in this space by giving us the resources to focus our gaming classes not just on traditional gaming operations but also on Native American gaming.”
Boyd Law School Dean Dan Hamilton views the partnership with San Manuel as an opportunity for his school — which is regarded as a leader in the study of gaming law — to continue its exploration of Native American gaming law as well as issues related to tribal governance. In fact, Boyd professor Addie Rolnick teaches a Federal Indian Law course and has devoted much of her scholarship to tribal issues, including assisting with constitutional reform, criminal law and jurisdiction, juvenile justice, and child welfare.
“We have a history at UNLV of working with the Native American community, and this grant enables us to work with tribal communities throughout Indian Country on issues related to gaming law,” Hamilton said. “This also will enable professor Rolnick to build upon her existing expertise in the area of tribal governance.”
A natural fit
While it might seem a bit out of the ordinary for a Southern California-based Native American tribe to offer such a substantial grant to a public university from a neighboring state, the reality is the two entities have been cultivating a relationship for quite some time. On the hospitality side, numerous UNLV graduates have gone on to work for San Manuel Casino in various gaming-related capacities, including executive leadership. Also, Jacob Coin, who is San Manuel’s director of public affairs, has participated in a Federal Indian Gaming Law course taught by Boyd adjunct professor Greg Gemignani, including bringing in national tribal gaming policy, regulation, and law experts as guest speakers.
San Manuel's Valbuena said, “It was important for us to identify a place where native young people who are interested in pursuing careers in hospitality and gaming law can get the best education, and we know that UNLV is among the best-in-class universities for all things related to these industries. Together, we want to reach all tribal nations and their students with this grant.”
Indeed, Valbuena noted that there are 37 tribal colleges and universities spread across the country in such states as South Dakota, Washington, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arizona, and California. So another goal with this gift is to facilitate relationships between those tribal colleges and UNLV.
That said, it’s important to note that each program developed as a result of this grant will be available to anyone, regardless of their heritage. To expand accessibility, courses in tribal gaming operations will be offered in both on-campus and online formats. And that speaks to yet another objective: Teach the nuances of Native American gaming to all students interested in exploring this particular field and train those students in the exact same manner in which they would be trained for a career in traditional gaming.
Needless to say, all parties involved are eager to put this momentous gift to good use and embark on a mutually beneficial journey — one that’s destined to positively impact the lives of many and create an understanding about the uniqueness of tribal governments. The growth and success of tribal government gaming has forged levels of interdependencies between tribal nations and state and local jurisdictions where virtually no relationships existed 33 years ago.
“UNLV brings significant gaming law and policy expertise to the table, and combined with our ambition, we strive to provide the best gaming law and policy research in the country,” Hamilton said. “We look forward to collaborating with the Hospitality College on this extraordinary gift, and we’re very excited to build something that tribal nations can rely upon as a resource as we study and develop best practices for tribal gaming law, as well as the larger questions revolving around tribal governance.”
Added Shoemaker, “This gift shows the community at large that UNLV is leading the way in terms of multidisciplinary collaboration. To have two separate, very successful schools like the Hospitality College and Law School want to work together, leveraging each other’s strengths, to create an innovative educational path like this one … it’s just not happening at a lot of other universities.”
Sharing is Caring
Ask Valbuena to pinpoint when the tribe and its reservation — named in honor of their great-great-grandfather and Kiika’ (leader), Santos Manuel — began to transition from economic challenges to a level of self-sufficiency, and she’s quick with an answer: It was the mid-1980s, when the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians first opened its bingo hall.
Valbuena remembers it well because she used to follow up an eight-hour shift with the nearby San Bernardino Police Department by working another six hours — from 6 p.m. to midnight — in the bingo hall’s count room. “I wanted to learn the business hands-on,” she said. “It was important to our tribe that we run our own business and not have an outside management company come in and run it for us.”
Jump ahead three decades, and it’s her hope that through this substantial philanthropic endeavor with UNLV, tribal citizens from around the nation will be inspired to seek similar hands-on experiences, grow the family business, and live a life of self-reliance her great-great-grandfather could have only dreamed of.
“This contribution will allow our tribal youth to have an opportunity to manage their own career paths and change their futures and those of future generations,” she said. “We always say we’re a very sharing and caring tribe, and we always remember those days when we had nothing. To now be able to give back to our community in this way is truly a blessing.”