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 bloody 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, D.C.'s power-and-money politics. In recent years, they've steered 70 percent of their political contributions toward the Democratic Party and President Barack 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, and even popular national parks.
In the small desert town of Joshua Tree, Calif., Victoria Fuller 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 the popular Joshua Tree National Park.
"They could do anything they want," said Fuller, the 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 out, 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."
Art Reber, a retired professor from Point Roberts, Wash., and the co-author of "Gambling for Dummies," said that the market ultimately will determine whether the tribes are overplaying their hands.
"When you start sticking neon signs and huge casinos at the Joshua Tree entrance, it starts to get a little ugly," Reber said. "If you overbuild, you will hurt yourself, and I'm not sure the tribes are necessarily sensitive to these market issues. There's a saturation point here that you can't go beyond."
The epicenter of the battle is in California, one of six states - along with Washington, Florida, Oklahoma, Arizona and Connecticut - that account for more than two-thirds of all Indian gaming revenue.
The Golden State already has more than 60 Indian casinos, the most in the nation. And when Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California introduced a bill last year that would make it harder for tribes to buy new land for gaming, she said the state could easily have another 50 casinos in coming years if Congress doesn't stop them. Feinstein warned that another 67 tribes in the state were already seeking federal recognition, the first step toward getting a casino. And she said "the problem is only going to get worse," with some tribes vying to open new casinos more than 100 miles from their tribal headquarters.
In many ways, the move marks the coming of age for Indian gaming, which started small with bingo halls in Florida in the late 1970s but then exploded in a way that few envisioned. But experts say it's just common business sense for tribes to try to go to places where they can woo more gamblers.
"Just like real estate, it's all location, location, location," said Barry Brandon, the former chief of staff for the National Indian Gaming Commission and now a New York-based consultant who works with tribes. An enrolled member of the Muscogee Nation and the former senior president of the Seneca Gaming Corp., he helped the Seneca Nation of Indians open an off-reservation casino in downtown Buffalo, N.Y., which now is being expanded and which tribal officials tout as a national model for urban settings.
TRIBES GETTING LAND
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 under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Cheryl Schmit, founder and director of Stand Up For California, a statewide organization that has been leading the fight against more casinos, called the rule change a mistake and said, if allowed to stand, it could result in casinos opening "on every off-ramp."
The tribes already have the largest land trust in the nation, at more than 56 million acres. And when the Bureau of Indian Affairs pitched its $2.5 billion budget request to Congress in February, Echo Hawk, who resigned in April to accept a position with the Mormon church, boasted that it had processed 697 applications from 2009 to 2011, acquiring more than 157,000 acres of new trust land for the tribes and individual members.
Nedra Darling, a spokeswoman for the BIA, said the amount of land held by the Indians actually represents a sharp decline from the 130 million acres they had in 1887. And she said the bulk of the land applications approved for tribes in the past few years have been for agriculture, infrastructure, housing and other projects, with only seven of 781 for gaming purposes, she said.
Schmit told a House subcommittee last year that tribes can easily change their minds and use their new land for gaming once it is placed into trust, even if they don't make that clear in their initial applications.
She said that if the tribes' new requests for land in California are approved, more than 15,000 acres will be transferred from local jurisdictions and put into federally protected trust land.
"Some of these are just land grabs by wealthy tribes," Schmit said, lamenting that the tribes are making their push to expand with little attention from either the press or the public. "It's huge, but everybody's kind of been numbed by all the gambling," she said. "It's here, but nobody really sees the expansion of it."
In the second installment of this series, a look at how small tribes are locked out in the casino wars in Washington state, an example of the growing warfare between tribes in the $28 billion-a-year Indian casino industry.
ROB HOTAKAINEN covers Washington state from the McClatchy Washington, D.C., bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com.