‘Wampum’ exposes the dark side of gambling on Indian reservations

Wampum: How Indian Tribes, the Mafia and an Inattentive Congress Invented Indian Gambling and Created a $28 Billion Gambling Empire

By Donald Craig Mitchell; The Overlook Press; 2016; 392 pages; $29.95

“Wampum” author Donald Craig Mitchell couldn’t have chosen a better title.

Originally a type of bead fashioned by Native Americans in the northeastern United States, it was used as currency and eventually became a slang term for money. And a lot of money too. As the subtitle of his book says, it’s “How Indian Tribes, the Mafia and an Inattentive Congress Invented Indian Gambling and Created a $28 Billion Gambling Empire”.

Mitchell, an Anchorage attorney, is a nationally recognized expert on Indian law. His previous two books about Alaska Natives before, during, and after their fight for a land settlement in 1972 contain the same extensive research and detail you might expect from a lawyer preparing for trial.

You might be wondering why a lawyer who represented Indigenous interests so well in Washington, DC a generation ago is now exposing the dark side of what the reservation game has become.

Perhaps, in his later years, he is warning of what is happening in Alaska now that the taking of trust lands – reservations – has been approved in Alaska by a court in Washington, DC.

In the first chapter, Mitchell explains how the doctrine of inherent tribal sovereignty was invented by a government lawyer, Felix Cohen, who was on loan from the Department of Justice to the Department of the Interior to write a manual for Indian reserve superintendents intending to advise them. on legal issues. The unfinished book was scuttled by the Home Office when it was discovered that the project had moved to left field.

However, Cohen was allowed to complete his work upon his return to the Justice Department. It was published in 1938 as “Handbook of Federal Indian Law”.

The book was distributed in Washington, DC, and into the hands of the Supreme Court. Within months, it became the basis for a ruling by Judge William O. Douglas. The doctrine has prevailed ever since.

As tribal sovereignty gradually became the accepted law of the land—without congressional approval—states were barred from enforcing regulations and reservation laws on their borders. This becomes the basis for cigarette sales from a trailer on a Florida Seminole reservation, and then eventually widespread gambling, often involving the mob and billions of dollars.

Typically, Native Americans or their leaders were cut off on a small portion of the profits. But many ways have been found to siphon money from the hands of operators.

When help was needed in Washington to move a reserve or help in some other way, the congressional regional representative was often happy to help. When it came to creating reservations where none existed or for “Indians” of questionable blood, such well-known names as Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut or Representative George Miller of California, leader of the House Committee on Resources, appear (Miller was no friend of Alaska when Congress carved up Alaska during the ANILCA era).

In 375 pages, Mitchell provides a sad case of how Congress can be driven to pass laws that take care of vested interests, particularly the Indian gambling industry. As one reviewer has already pointed out, these are good intentions gone wrong.

In one case, Congress appropriated money to buy land to create a reservation where none existed for the dubious Western Pequot Tribe in Connecticut.

Mitchell gives many examples, whether it’s the Mafia’s migration from Florida to California, the creation of new reservations, the creation of new Indian tribes, or the tricking of Congress into passing legislation he did not read. Some examples are so numerous that one could get bored and move on to the next chapter. If you do, you’ll miss how some of the same names resurface time and time again when new opportunities arise.

The author adds an epilogue after Donald Trump became a figure on the world stage, detailing how Trump got stung trying to expose fake Indian casinos.

Atlantic City’s Foxwood Casino was grossing $40,000 a month in 1973, while three of the area’s Trump casinos were unprofitable. Trump sued to prove that Foxwood was not made up of real Indians. He told Don Imus on the radio that none of them were Indians. Trump said one of them told him his name was Running Water Sitting Bull. When Trump questioned this, he told Trump to just call him Ricky Sanders. Trump then tried congressional legislation, but that also came to nothing. Then Trump “woke up” (these are the words of the author) and went into the management of an Indian casino in Palm Springs, California.

“Wampum” is not a silly, fun read. Nor is it a manual. Mitchell deserves credit for shedding light for the first time on a subject that plagues America. Resident Indian rewards are as low as $20 per year in Pine Ridge, South Dakota and as high as $12,000 per month in Florida. It depends on the number of tribe members and how close the casino is to a metropolitan area.
While we’re not likely to see big casinos in Alaska for some time, we might see cigarettes, liquor, and pot being sold in trailers.

Chuck Gray is editor emeritus of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Nohemi M. Moore