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Native American Bet on Gambling Enriches California and Reservations

According to the National Indian Gaming Commission, revenue from tribal casinos has grown from $5.4 billion in 1995 to $32.4 billion last year, representing a rise of 600%. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was signed into law by President Reagan in 1988 after the Supreme Court ruled to overturn existing laws on gaming and gambling on U.S.

Indian reservations in the case of California vs. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians. Even after that, it took a good 10 years, until 1998, that California passed Proposition 5, allowing tribal casinos to offer more than just bingo and games of chance by clearing the way for slot machines.

“Absolutely transformative,” says Victor Rocha, a member of the Pechanga tribe, about the ruling. Rocha a guitarist who publishes Pechanga.net aggregating stories on tribal gaming, also serves as the conference chair for the National Indian Gaming Assn., organizing the confab’s panels. “It pulled my family out of poverty by taking a people that has had generational trauma for years and given them the resources to make a life. Gaming has allowed us to send our kids to college, our brothers and sisters to mental health facilities and drug rehabs. It’s about repairing the damage.”

Tribal gaming casinos are the only places outside Nevada and Atlantic City, N.J., that allow gambling, and their success has made such California destinations as Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa in Rancho Mirage and Thunder Valley Casino Resort outside Sacramento competitive with the best of Las Vegas.

Agua Caliente director of entertainment Dan Pferschy points to his 2,200-capacity the Show, which opened in 2009 with a Billy Joel concert, as a jewel in the area, now booking the likes of Van Morrison, Sting and Brad Paisley in an intimate venue.

“We’re trying to differentiate ourselves and take it up a notch with high-caliber bookings,” says Pferschy, whose goal is to at least earn back the artist’s fee with a performance, if not a profit center at some point in the future.

Pechanga Resort & Casino, whose northern San Diego location attracts visitors from both Los Angeles and Orange counties (as do Pala Casino Spa and Resort and San Manuel Casino) earlier this year opened its Pechanga Pavilion. The 3,200-seat, 42,000-sq.-ft. venue has hosted Adam Sandler and Pitbull. Meanwhile its 1,245-capacity Pechanga Showroom Theater has featured everyone from Bob Dylan to Skid Row and the Backstreet Boys.

“We try to cater to our core audience, which is between 45 and 65,” says Pechanga entertainment manager Brian Cronenwett. “We get feedback from our guests, the tribal board and executive staff for suggestions, and then we go out and try to book them.”

Kell Houston is a talent buyer for tribal gaming casinos who runs his own Houston Prods. company headquartered in Las Vegas, with offices in Minneapolis and Seattle. Houston’s booked acts into Pechanga, Pala, Agua Caliente, Morongo, Chumash, Thunder Valley and Eagle Mountain, among others.

“Tribal gaming is a very elusive kind of fish,” he says. “They might not be experienced or business-savvy, but they’re getting better, bringing in expert outside management. But working with them is like dealing with individual governments. Each one is a sovereign nation with its own rules, regulations and protocol they adhere to.”

Doug Elmets runs his own Sacramento-based public relations company, which handles Thunder Valley, among other tribal gaming clients. “Every single casino, tribal council and member are intimately involved in operational decisions,” he says. “They have a responsibility to their members, their employees, as well as complying with the many provisions that require their intimate engagement and involvement.”

For American Indians including Rocha, these aren’t concessions, but rights being restored and long-broken treaties upheld.

“Our land and rights were stolen, and we’re just trying to get them back. Gaming has provided tribes with resources until anything we’ve ever had before. The U.S. government didn’t really expect the tribes to become this successful. The last thing this country wants is for the Native American tribes to stand up and claim what’s theirs — land, water, air, minerals.”

With Indian gaming casinos coming into their own, Elmets claims it’s a win-win for everyone involved. “They’re not only generating revenue for the tribes, but also for local economics and local government, while employing hundreds of thousands across the state.”

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