As an academic who has been studying gaming issues for the last 15 years, I have always been curious about why indigenous casino development generates substantial social and political opposition. Such divisions are evident in Canada and flare up periodically. But in the United States the issues are much more extreme as they have been since Indian gaming’s fluorescence in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.
Advocates and opponents, academics and politicians, journalists and pundits alike did and continue to debate gaming’s anticipated effects on native culture. But what specifically did I find so intriguing? The fact was that most of these early analyses did not materialize from the front-line workers seeking to reignite reservation development. Instead the bulk of the writing came from academics—mostly non-natives at that—who chose to question the cultural appropriateness of contemporary high-stakes gambling to communities, most of which they had never visited.
The morality of Indian gaming dominated the discourse, but critics pursued arcane topics such as whether traditional games and wagering practices would be negatively impacted. A deficit approach came to dominate the analyses, and soon the literature was burdened with discussions about problem gambling, local crime increases, and ubiquitous regulatory concerns.
My fascination with the issue rests with the fact that native leaders’ assessments were habitually overlooked or intentionally obscured; rare was it to witness their perspectives emphasized regarding casino development and attendant reservation socio-economic revitalization. It is with this background in mind that I pursued my Eadington Fellowship research. I wanted to better understand how native leaders pursuing casino development envisioned gaming revenues potentially underwriting what I describe here as cultural investments.
The Katherine Spilde Papers on Native American Gaming, housed at the UNLV University Libraries Special Collections & Archives, is an especially inviting repository in this regard for it contains the words and ideas of native leaders who testified before the National Gambling Impact Study Commission in 1998 in their efforts to elaborate gaming’s economic significance.
They took the time to present their insights to the commissioners regarding gaming’s successes and how this translated into cultural investments such as language reclamation and revitalization programs, the reacquisition of reservation lands lost to federal programs such as termination and allotment, and what this meant to community members’ sense of pride and ongoing investment in local development. These insider perspectives offer invaluable insights that help us better appreciate reservation casinos and their relationship to cultural investments.