WASHINGTON — After buying a new chunk of land 50 miles north of San Francisco, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria just broke ground on a new, Las Vegas-style casino. It will be the largest in the Bay Area, with 3,000 slot machines, 200 hotel rooms, a spa, bars, restaurants and parking for more than 5,000 cars.
In New York, the Shinnecock Indian Nation is considering Long Island as a site on which to build the Big Apple’s first tribal casino.
And in Washington state, the Spokane Tribe of Indians wants a new 13-story casino and hotel next to the Fairchild Air Force Base, prompting fears that the city will become “Spo-Vegas.”
The plans are extraordinary for one reason: In all three cases, the tribes want to build their palaces on new land that’s not part of their original reservations.
The expansions are the latest twist in the nation’s Indian casino wars, and they mark a major shift for the tribes, which already run 385 casinos and bingo halls in 29 states.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for large-scale Indian gambling 25 years ago, tribes have been forced to keep the majority of their casinos on reservation land held in trust by the federal government, usually in remote regions far from public view.
But now, thanks in part to the Obama administration, Indian tribes across the country are ready to bust out, bringing gambling to the same land that was taken from them so long ago, when the U.S. government executed its campaign to relocate Indians to a patchwork of lands across the country and eventually to reservations.
In Oklahoma, the Kialegee Tribal Town went so far as to propose a casino half a continent away, on the coast of Georgia, on land that it said it once occupied, raising the specter of tribes going across state lines to pursue new gambling ventures.
Tribes are seeking to cash in on a loosening of the rules, announced in June 2011, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs junked a Bush-era requirement that a casino had to be within easy driving distance from a tribe’s reservation.
The decision by Larry Echo Hawk, who at the time was head of the bureau and is an enrolled member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, marked a clear win for the tribes, which have become big players in Washington’s power-and-money politics. In recent years, they’ve steered 70 percent of their political contributions toward the Democratic Party and President Obama.
Casino opponents now fear that the tribes, with their sovereign status, will have far too much authority to do as they please on their new land, especially as they press for even less federal control. And from coast to coast, the tribes are finding plenty of resistance as they angle to get closer to big cities, busy freeways, military bases, even popular national parks.
In the small desert town of Joshua Tree, Calif., Victoria Fuller said she worries what might happen if the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians is allowed to open a new off-reservation casino near the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park.
“They could do anything they want,” said Fuller, president of the Joshua Tree Community Association and a leading opponent of the plan. “They could put a 20-story building with spotlights on it, and we would have no say.”
The new push by the tribes is aimed at reviving a $28 billion-a-year industry hit hard by the recession. After growing at a brisk 14 percent annual rate from 1995 to 2007, gaming revenues have essentially stalled, increasing by only 1 percent a year.
And it comes as the 240 tribes that run casinos face an onslaught of new competition, from states eager to get a cut of the gaming business with lotteries and new casinos of their own, to poker players who want Congress to legalize online gaming this year. The changes will allow tribes to move into new markets, creating competition not only for existing Indian casinos, but also for gambling centers such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J.
The move already has ignited a debate over how quickly the U.S. will hit a saturation point with casinos. While polls show broad public support for gambling, some say the tribes are ready to push the envelope.
“The tribes are going to try to run the table, which means they’re going to try to move as many casinos off-reservation as quickly as possible,” said John Kindt, a gambling researcher and professor of business and legal policy at the University of Illinois. “It’s just all about the money, and the model is very simple: It’s to get as many slot machines as possible as close to maximum-population areas. … They’re going to go everywhere.”
The 1988 law passed by Congress has always allowed off-reservation casinos. But they’re extremely rare, with only a handful approved by the federal government.
Backers say that dropping the “commutable distance standard” adopted by the Bush administration will lead to more off-reservation casinos and help tribes create more jobs. That, they say, is just as President Ronald Reagan and Congress envisioned when they passed the law allowing tribes to get into the big leagues of gambling.
But even some tribal officials are leery, worried that off-reservation casinos stray far from the original intent of the law, which they say clearly was aimed at keeping the casinos on reservation land.
“I think Indian gaming had good intentions — it was intended to help tribes, but there are ways that I think it can be used to get away from what its intentions were. … We’ve been worried about off-reservation gaming,” said Chris Mercier, a tribal council member for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in Oregon. The tribe has gone to court to try to block its neighboring tribe, the once landless Cowlitz Indian Tribe of Washington state, from opening a casino on a 152-acre site it bought near La Center, Wash.
Because it still takes years to plow through the bureaucracy to actually open a casino, it’s far too soon to know whether the tribes will experience large-scale success in moving beyond their borders.
But the early signs are telling.
In California, gambling opponents say the new approach already has resulted in a flood of new applications for tribes to acquire more property. Casino opponents who are tracking the tribes’ activities said that at least 137 applications from California are pending with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which must sign off on the land transfers before casinos can be built. The bureau would not disclose how many applications it has received in other states or across the country and has yet to respond to a formal request for the data, filed in May by McClatchy Newspapers under the federal Freedom of Information Act.