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Betting on American Indians

Indian tribes, flush with casino wealth, gain political clout


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PALO ALTO, California (CNN) -- American Indian tribes, now flush with tremendous casino wealth, may be the most intriguing new political force in America today.

Emerging from a long history of genocide and injustice at the hands of European colonizers and then white Americans, American Indian tribes have begun to exert significant influence in American politics.

A major Supreme Court case in the late 1980s, followed by supporting congressional legislation, made it possible for dozens of tribes from California to Connecticut to own and operate casinos on sovereign reservation lands.

Last year, the nation's more than 400 Indian gaming casinos generated more than $18 billion dollars in revenue -- a staggering amount that is more than the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball generate in one year combined.

Today, Democratic and Republican strategists regularly identify American Indian tribes as a top fund-raising source for aspiring and incumbent congressmen and senators.

Prominent politicians such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert know to schedule key tribes on their fund-raising tours.

Several key states in the Southwest and the Great Lakes region also have seen the emergence of American Indians as a swing voting group.

In recent, hotly contested races in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, American Indians have comprised as much as 15 percent of the vote.

Many observers credit Democratic South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson's narrow victory in 2002 (by 524 votes over John Thune) to heavy Indian turnout.

While many minority groups have aligned with the Democratic Party over the last 50 years, American Indian tribes have built strong relationships with Republicans. From Sen. John McCain of Arizona to Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the tribes' staunchest patrons increasingly have come from the GOP.

This recent closeness to the GOP could be due in part to the fact that Republicans are currently in power, but it may also reflect competing interests between traditional Democratic constituencies, such as environmentalists, and some tribes.

Significantly, American Indian ties to the GOP are not always trouble free. For example, some of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's recent difficulties are tied to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who some allege was bilking Indian tribes out of political lobbying fees in exchange for supposed access to DeLay and others.

Despite their growing political influence, it is important to remember that the Indian community in the United States still consists more of "have-nots" than "haves."

While many tribes are starting to change their economic circumstances in dramatic ways, mostly through the operation of casinos, almost 30 percent of American Indians in the United States live below the poverty line -- nearly three times the national rate.

Hence, one of the larger questions looming over the political emergence of American Indians is: Will the few help the many?

Can prosperous tribes help improve the situation of poverty-stricken, non-gaming reservations like the one in Red Lake, Minnesota (where a troubled teenager recently killed nine people)?

And by influencing change in education, health care, economic development and other policies for American Indians, can the tribes with political muscle have an even broader impact on overall national policy in those areas -- profoundly affecting the policies not just as they relate to American Indians, but whites, blacks and others?

Even with greater wealth and political influence, Indians undoubtedly will have to continue to combat racism, negative stereotypes and the lingering effects of the loss of their land, culture and traditional way of life.

But if they can overcome the various challenges, the tribes could become a significant new force to be reckoned with in mainstream political America.


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