Review: Wampum by Donald Craig Mitchell
April 29, 2016
“Wampum — How Indian Tribes, the Mafia, and an Inattentive Congress Invented Indian Gaming, and Created a $28 Billion Dollar Gambling Empire” by Donald Craig Mitchell, published by The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc., available June 2016.
This is a disturbing exposé on the juggernaut that Indian gaming has become in the U.S.A., authored by someone who identifies himself as a recognized expert on federal Indian law. It is also a revealing tutorial on the serpentine workings of government with committees, sub-committees, bureaus, select committees, bills, initiatives, amendments; the finagling, obfuscating, muddying, rewriting, resubmitting, wheeling, dealing, and one-upping. We learn that so many thousands of bills are introduced that the lawmakers cannot possibly read or understand them all, and that many minor bills are presented to a nearly empty house, passed with unrecorded votes. The congressmen depend heavily on their numerous staffers who are usually lawyers and have their own agendas and loyalties.
It is well known in U.S. history how the Native Indians were treated with the arrival of the first settlers ... pushed further and further away into reservations as the settlers increased and the Indian lands were confiscated for their resources. Forty years after the end of the Indian Wars, the consensus of Congress and the Committee for Indian Affairs was to encourage Indians still living on reservations to abandon what remained of the tribal relations, and like the Italians, Irish and other immigrant minorities, assimilate into the national economy and popular culture.
However, in 1933, President Roosevelt appointed John Collier to be Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Collier had come to Washington D.C. to lobby against a bill whose enactment would have compromised Pueblo Indian land rights. Collier, a former social worker, had visited New Mexico in 1920 and had been profoundly affected by the Pueblo Indians’ mystical connection to nature. So, as commissioner, he set about writing a bill whose enactment would have Congress abandon assimilation as the objective of its Indian policy.
To help Collier with this bill, a young lawyer named Felix Cohen was hired. Cohen developed the doctrine of inherent sovereignty which states that each tribe begins its relationship with the federal government as a sovereign power, recognized as such in treaty and legislation. Cohen believed that Native Americans who live on reservations should have the autonomy to govern themselves. Cohen’s book, “The Handbook of Federal Indian Law” was published in 1941 and is still in use today. Therefore, the states have no authority to enforce their laws on a reservation.
In 1964, one of the first Indians who understood how that jurisdictional situation could be used for financial gain lived in Washington State. He started selling unstamped (untaxed) packs of cigarettes from just on the boundary of the reservation to non-Indians from the nearby town. Soon, many tribes were doing the same and the state laws could not be enforced. Indian Bingo began in 1979, unregulated by the states. Organized crime figures became involved, and there was much politicking and lawyering, to no avail, and slot machines/video gaming machines eventually followed, spawning the massive casino complexes that abound today.
The lucky tribes whose reservations were situated near major population centers fared very well. Mitchell reports that “every adult member of the Seminole Tribe now receives $12,000 per month as his or her share of the multi-billion dollar cash flow from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casinos, four other casinos and their other businesses.” Tribes in remote areas, however, have to get by on welfare from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
When the first Indian Bingo Hall opened in 1979, there were 277 federally recognized tribes. In 2015, there are 340, Mitchell points out.
This book is packed with information and lawyer-speak. It is meticulously researched and cited, and not for the fainthearted.
Audience: Anyone interested in the history of gambling and current Indian affairs.
Joanna Brauer lives in Salinas and is an avid reader of many genres. If you wish to submit a book for review, send a copy to: Joe Truskot/The Salinas Californian, 123 W. Alisal Street, Salinas, CA 93901.