Travel: Where the Indians get their own back: Phil Reeves visits the Sycuan reservation in the Californian desert, where members of the tribe have gone from poverty to prosperity by capitalising on a nation's lust for gambling

Click to follow
The Independent Travel
TO GET there, you head south from Los Angeles for mile after concrete mile along the milky-blue Pacific's edge until the freeway forks and arcs out towards the desert. Then, after a few more twists and turns, you enter a range of low dark hills east of San Diego.

Several hundred years ago, this was the middle of nowhere, a patch of hillside occupied only by impoverished Indians, coyotes and snakes, a full day's hike from the palm trees and gentle plains by the sea. Today it is still owned and occupied by American Indians, but their fortunes are vastly improved. This year their land generated dollars 100m ( pounds 66m). Next year it is sure to make even more.

No, they have not struck Californian gold, or sold out to international golf course developers; nor have they spotted Elvis Presley working as a local ranchhand, or found Jimmy Hoffa serving six-packs of Bud in the local store. Instead, they owe their fortune to one of the main vices of the pioneers who conquered them: gambling.

Under US law, Indian tribes are generally allowed to run gaming operations on their own tribal lands as they are, technically, 'sovereign dependants', separate nations defeated in war with the United States (at least one tribe has yet to sign a peace treaty). They can only offer types of betting that are already legal within their state, but with one crucial difference: the Indians are not subject to governmental restrictions. If Californian law allows the Catholic Church to hold a weekly bingo night for its congregation in which the victors are rewarded with a cuddly toy, then the Indians can lay on 24-hour bingo for dollars 500,000 cash prizes or more.

And that is what the tiny band of Sycuan Indians have done on their meagre 'reservation', about 30 miles from San Diego. Like the City of London, it is a single square mile. Ten years ago it was an island of poverty surrounded by the increasingly prosperous landscape of southern California. It had abysmal roads, poor health services and substandard housing.

So in 1983 the Sycuans built a bingo hall. Four years later they added a card room, and two years after that - when a new law strengthened their gaming rights - they went big time with a 60,000sq ft casino, with poker and satellite links for off-track racing. Suddenly, a band in danger of extinction no longer needed any support from the federal agencies, and was buying up businesses and investing on the stock market.

It is one of history's nicer ironies. When the US government parcelled out land to the Indians in the last century, it was scarcely generous; the reservations were usually too infertile and remote to be of much value. Mightily oppressed, the US's 1.5 million Indians suffer from levels of unemployment, illness and alcoholism well above the national average. But now, through a legal quirk, at least some are beginning to reap unimaginable rewards.

The Sycuan casino is a surprising place. It squats in a dip between the hills, a vast windowless building that might be taken for a supermarket depot were it not for its concrete portico and the thousands of cars surrounding it. It is separated from the main road by a rutted lane, a cattle grid and a tree-lined stream. On the far side lie two large parking lots, abrupt intrusions on the countryside. All motorised life is here: brand-new Toyotas, mud-caked Jeeps with ludicrously fat wheels, ancient, impeccably groomed Cadillacs, camper vans nearly the size of army trucks. Gambling does not choose its disciples.

There is a strange hush about the place, which becomes stranger still when you walk past the gleaming red Chevrolet in the doorway - prize of the night - past the potted plants and Poker Beginners' class, into the main casino. In a large, neon-lit room like an airport departure lounge are hundreds of people. Some are sitting at card tables while others stand behind them, a weird array of gambling ghouls who never seem to do anything but watch. Waiters in parrot-green waistcoats cruise among the groups, bringing Coca-Cola in polystyrene cups, or plates of Kung Pao chicken.

There is little conversation, no moans of despair or shouts of joy. They are not playing for high stakes, usually a few hundred dollars at a time (the high rollers go to Las Vegas, three hours away). Only the small crowd of Vietnamese, Chinese and Koreans at the Pai Gow tables show any signs of enjoyment, chattering in low, intent voices as each hand commences. The rest appear to be in a trance, like air travellers, liverish-looking under the green and peach-coloured lighting, who have long ago abandoned any hope of flying home.

The casino and high-stakes bingo room next door are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Some people end up staying for several sleepless days. No clocks are to be seen.

There are 95 Sycuans in the band, about a third of whom work for the casino, including the 20-strong tribal police, who patrol the gaming tables with guns at their hips watching the profits flow in. The punters come mostly from the San Diego area - Latinos in the service industry, Chinese small businessmen, retired Anglo-Americans.

The profits are sizeable. The tribe is run by a seven-member council headed by an elected chairman, the modern-day chief. In the past 10 years it has ensured that tribe members receive a tax-free annual income (they won't say how much), housing and scholarships for their children.

Around the corner from the casino there is further evidence of some of the millions frittered away by punters: two sparkling fire engines belonging to the tribal fire brigade, a medical clinic, several small ambulances and a fleet of Sycuan coaches.

The Sycuans are by no means the only Indians to have hit the jackpot. Tribes in at least 17 states operate more than 100 casinos, and many more are negotiating agreements. Casino gambling on reservations has become a dollars 6bn industry - small beer compared with Las Vegas, but it is pumping life back into a dying culture as never before, and growing fast.

For example, the Oneida tribe of Wisconsin has used gaming revenues to develop a dollars 10.5m luxury hotel. In Connecticut, the Mashantucket Pequot tribe has a huge casino that, with 3,600 staff, has emerged as the second largest local employer. The tribe is funding welfare programmes and planning to build a museum.

With such high stakes, Indians are returning to reservations they left years ago; some bands find themselves carefully scrutinising applications for tribal membership from alleged descendants keen to get in on the act. As one expert observed, suddenly everyone wants to be a Mashantucket.

One can understand why this is happening. If current trends continue, the Sycuans will make dollars 1m in sales per head for many years to come. To qualify as a member you must show that you have a significant amount of tribal blood - enough to persuade the tribal council that you deserve an income for life, paid for by the punters of San Diego. All at once, American Indians have the key to power: money. It remains to be seen how they will use it. In the meantime, the only sound louder than the rattle of chips is the sound of frantic hands searching through boxes in the attic for the family tree.

(Photograph omitted)