Still A Damn Indian? Call Me At The Bank

Haresh Shah


Even though there is an alternative theory about how and why the native Americans came to be called Indians – which is: Christopher Columbus  having observed how ritualistic and religious the natives were of the new land he had stumbled upon, he defined them as the people of In Dios – In God, smoothly transitioned into Indians. But I still like the popular theory of Columbus believing that they had landed in India and therefore… Whatever! Can’t help but feel a certain amount of affinity, precisely because both of us being called Indians.

The night Jan (Heemskerk) and I spent at Fetzer Valley Oaks Food and Wine Guesthouse, we walk across the street to check out  Pomo Indian owned and operated  – Shodakai Coyote Valley Casino. It looked like an old shack. It wasn’t all that big and it mainly offered slot machines and some black jack tables. The hall was dimly lit and the trolleys serving free  soft drinks passed by the customers every so often.  No alcohol served on the premises.  The on site guard-PR-spokesperson Philip told us that alcoholism was  rampant among the Indians on the reservations. Philip talked to us about their Pomo tribe and the future plans for the  expansion.  The glow and the wonderment on his face was undeniable, probably at the thought of what good fortune their lot had been bestowed upon. Jan immediately assigns me to do a story for the Dutch edition of Playboy of what was then the recent phenomena of popping up of the casinos large and small across the American continent on what used to be the Indian reservations.


‘You know, this used to be a one horse town in the middle of nowhere.’  Talking to me is Terri, a Pai Gow Poker dealer at Foxwood Resorts and Casino, perched atop  Mashantucket, the “much-wooded land” in Ledyard, Connecticut.  From the looks of  Terri’s face, she seems to have traveled back in time, perhaps picturing how desolate the landscape looked just a few years earlier.  Even though Terri’s table is temporarily abandoned for it having become too “hot,” as I look around, rest of the place is bustling. Hundreds of gaming tables across the huge expanse are all occupied.  I feel the din of the noise and the hush of the silence and suspense, all at the same time.  I observe the stern faces of the dealers and the flurry of activities of the pit supervisors in the background. I watch  the gamblers pondering, getting excited, and plain concentrating on their next moves so much so that most of them don’t even seem to notice the coming and going of the provocatively dressed cocktail waitresses in their buckskin short dresses bunched together at their waists by wide belts, and looking like wild treats with their Indian headbands and feathers in their hair.

When you approach the sign RESERVATION, on Rural route 2, what suddenly materializes in front of your eyes are the shining pagoda-like bottle-green rooftops dotted like centuries old castles along the European highways.  In not too distant a past, Mashantucket was deserted  of all human habitat and if not for two elderly half-sisters, Elizabeth George Plouffe and Martha Langevin Ellal having stayed put,  the state would have seized the land to build a park.

The same fate would have been awaited the bucolic corn fields of Wisconsin and Minnesota instead of the now imposing presence of their Mille Lacs, Hinckley and Ho-Chunk casinos. Once desolate country roads surrounding the Indian reservations, now bring to their huge parking lots of the glittery casinos, a constant stream of cars and busses unloading from just a few to hundreds of people in front of the Hole in the Wall Casino Hotel in Danbury, Wisconsin and Shodakai Coyote Valley Casino in Mendocino County in California, to forty five-thousand people per day in front of Foxwood Resort Casino in Connecticut.

They all come to try their hands at the loud clattering of the slot machines, whisper at the black jack tables, experience suspense of the roulette wheels, feel the exhilaration of the rolling dice on the Craps Tables and watch the unfolding of the numbers on the bingo boards.  Many come just to rest and relax, eat some of the best food and be a spectator of the grand shows featuring great names such as Frank Sinatra, Luciano Pavarotti, Tom Jones, Crystal Gayle, Loretta Lynn and Willy Nelson.

Though the nighttime brings out some men dressed in their evening best and women in their shiniest, tight fitting, low-cut sequined dresses showing off their perfumed cleavages, the most everyone is dressed in his or her street clothes.  While one may still notice intrigue and suspense on the faces of the gamblers occupying the game tables, the real excitement reigns supreme in the slot machines parlor.  It is in one of them that I witness a curly white haired grandma hitting a jackpot and suddenly the bells going off with the loud piercing wails, the crown light begin to twirl its rainbow and with the thunderous sound, the quarters gushing out of the mouth of the machine like torrential rain.  The grandma dressed in her bright red double-knit pantsuit, getting up from her stool, with her mouth wide open in astonishment, her granddaughter clinging to her and both of them jumping up and down in exhilaration is the sight to behold.  For a few precious moments, the entire parlor freezes to a standstill. The grandma has just proven that winning a jackpot is not just a dream.

What has changed the landscape of the American rural country life is the 1988 passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, commonly  referred to as IGRA.  It allows the native American tribes to offer versions of gambling that are not specifically prohibited in other parts of the state. Through IGRA, the United States Supreme Court recognizes Indian reservations as sovereign nations in that the Indian tribes have the right to make their own laws and be governed by them.

The astounding success of the Indian casinos has not only benefitted the native Americans, but the community at large. For a little over 300 Pequot tribe members that collectively own the Foxwood, it employs 10,000 people.  Of 2,400 jobs at Mille Lacs, 80% are held by non-Indians, majority of them by the “white man.”

‘Most of us are so thankful for the casino.  I had just lost my job and there was no other place to go.  I came here with no experience.  They sent me to school to become a dealer and paid for my education. Two months later I started at $ 30,000 (a year). Where else can you make that kind of money with no experience?  The casino also pays for all  medical expenses, including free medication, which they even home deliver if I am unable to go to the pharmacy’, continues Terri, the Pai Gow Poker dealer – a white woman.

The next day, I broach the subject with Richard Tesler, the casino manager, ‘They have a tribal thinking in which their employees become a part of the Indian family.’

Back at my hotel Norwich Inn & Spa, I am talking to Dawn, a waitress. ‘My sister is not happy about more traffic and crowding in  schools because of the casino, but most of us are thankful that they (Indians) are here.  If not for the casino, we wouldn’t still be here.  This hotel was under bankruptcy and would have closed.’

With that kind of success comes dissent. Even though the Nevada gaming industry supported the passage of IGRA, the phenomenal success of the Indian gaming business has prompted others to protest the deregulation of casinos that favor the American Indians.  Among the protesters is Donald Trump, the owner of three casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey, who could face  stiff competition from a New Jersey tribe in the process of planning a casino in the region.

Though IGRA opened up a window of opportunity for the native American tribes, the ultimate success of their enterprises has come from the vision, business acumen and sheer hard work of everyone involved.  Even so, the success has come so sudden, it is as though they have hit a jackpot.  Within a few short years, Joey Carter, the PR director at Foxwood, has gone from cutting wood for five dollars an hour to being one of the owners of the largest grossing casino in the nation.

About a month later, I find myself sitting around the committee members of Ho-Chunk Casinos in Wisconsin. At the end of the day, what does this all mean to the native Americans? I ask.

‘For me personally, our success has gotten us the attention  we were deprived of.  It has given us the tool that white folks understand, namely, money and greed. Now we can capitalize on the same greed that we have learned from them,’ answers Ron Decoralt, of the Ho-Chunk nation’s Planning and Economic Development Committee.

Do you ever get a feeling that now you can afford to strike back at the white man for all the horrible things he has done to the native Americans? I shoot a pointed question.

‘For me, this is not a vendetta.’ Responds another committee member, Lorenzo Funmaker, chairman of the committee and a professional carpenter. ‘We owned all this land around here.  A lot of atrocities and thieving were committed in taking away what is rightfully ours.’

‘The money gives us means to bring back our religion, language and culture. Way back, the white man stopped us from speaking our language. Out went our history and civilization which was preserved and rooted in the oral tradition. White people are hardly civilized. We Indians are very highly assimilated. No matter what, I am still a damn Indian,’ says Amos Kingsley – a construction worker.

While most of the fifteen or so committee members are trying to restrain their resentment to the white man, a twenty-one year old Shawnee Hunt is blunt in his assessment in what this new found success can do for them. ‘The casino money empowers us in other ways.  It helps us get education.  As I am growing up, I realize that first and foremost I am a native American living in the white man’s world. I live in the white community and go to the white man’s school and listen to the older kids always berating how dumb the Indians are.’

Like Shawnee in Wisconsin, several hundred miles east of them, their brothers in Connecticut are as blunt.  ‘Success of the tribe as a whole allows the tribe to be re-born.  The tribe was broken up by the Dutch and the English in 1634.  Over the next centuries, it was assumed that the Pequots no longer existed.  To bring back whatever remained of the tribe, an economic base had to be formed. Thanks to the vision and efforts of our tribal chairman Skip (Richard) Hayward, we have been able to do just that.  It has allowed us to raise our heads a little bit.’  Talking to me is John Holder, director of project development for the ever expanding Foxwood.

‘You know, I don’t feel exactly like we are striking back.  But suddenly, people don’t look at me as the person I once was.  Now they look at me as the same person with money.  One of my close friends, a white man, continuously asks me, How much money do you make? And the good friends that we were, I would tell him. Over a period of time, he began to resent the amount of money I make.  Suddenly you don’t know who your friends are.’

‘You bet they resent us dark folks making all that money,’ Joey Carter tells it as it is, ‘behind our backs, they still call us all sorts of names.  But my attitude is, you can call me what you want, but call me at the bank.’

‘I make it a point to always work on Columbus day,’ continues Joey as a slight smile  crosses his lips.  As much as I feel that he does this in defiance to the white man as symbolized by Columbus, I feel that there is deeper significance to his non-acknowledgement of the very existence of Columbus, whose arrival on the American continent must mean to him and the native Americans as the beginning of them being pushed out of their way of life.

Whatever the case, they have learned well from their experience with the white man.  The French were the first ones to scalp.  The Indians imitated and perfected the art of scalping.  Likewise, the Ho-Chunks were first introduced to gambling, also by the French as early as 1634, in what was then known as the three beans game. And see now what they have done with that knowledge!

There are still people who are upset by this sudden resurgence of the damn Indians.  Most of them however, are happily clanging away at their slot machines, and the ones who are not, are quite happy for them.  ‘Good for them!  After hundreds of years of oppression from us, they deserve it,’ says my friend Beth (Jones). The owner at the local Midas muffler shop, Joe Simchak, sums it up pragmatically, ‘We had it a long time coming.’

© Haresh Shah

Illustration: Celia Rose Marks


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Next Friday, March 28, 2014


Just married in India. On her way to the west to meet up with her husband and start her new life. Miss her connecting flight in Rome. Totally lost. Run into me.