Peter Pringle's America: Trump heads off the Indian chiefs

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The Independent Online
THE flotsam and jetsam of the leveraged buyout age were in the American courts again last week. In New York, Ivan Boesky was trying to snatch back funds from his divorced wife. The suit was listed as Anonymous 1 v Anonymous 2, but it didn't take long to uncover the names of Ivan and Seema Boesky. At stake were the dollars 2.4m house in California, the dollars 750,000 flat in Hawaii and the half-a-million-dollar property in New York, to name but a few. Boesky's latest legal effort was best summed up by Mrs Boesky who declared: 'My husband was a rat'.

Next in view was Donald Trump, who has never done anything anonymously. He put his name to a novel claim in a New Jersey court that his gambling empire was in danger of collapse because of intense competition from American Indians. People were invited to believe that Trump, the king of glitz circa 1985, was being victimised in his Atlantic City gambling enterprises by one of the most disadvantaged and exploited groups in the United States.

Unless the government came to his aid, Trump charged in a suit against the US government, the entrepreneurial warriors of the Ramapough tribe of New Jersey would turn his gambling wagon train into a smouldering wreck. He wants the government to take away the greater power America's 1.8 million Indians gained over other casino operators through the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

Under the Act, Indians are granted the right to set up casinos, providing they sign agreements with the local state authorities, and without a popular vote, as is the normal practice. At least 60 tribes in 22 states have done so, and are making about dollars 6b a year according to their own reckoning. And this figure is growing at the rate of dollars 1b a year.

Eager to take part in the boom, Indians are abandoning low-paid jobs among the white settlers who once tried to wipe them out, and returning to reservations. One tribe, the Mashantucket Pequots of Connecticut, will soon have more slot machines on their reservation than exist in all the gambling dens of Las Vegas.

The tribe, which was once down to fewer than a dozen residents on the reservation, now has more than 200 who have either returned or rediscovered their lost home, and there is a list of people who claim to have Pequot blood applying to the federal authorities for tribal membership.

The Pequot reservation is making so much money that it has donated dollars 100m to the state social services budget, thus ensuring the help of the local authorities in warding off competitors. And they have mastered the gambling art so well that they are offering their services as casino management consultants. On other Indian reservations, where unemployment and drunkeness were the norm, the tribal chiefs are sending their youth to college at the tribe's expense, and providing sundowner trips around the country for the tribal elders.

For the first time since the white man robbed them of their land, Indians are in a position to buy some of it back with profits from gaming tables. Indians in Wisconsin and Minnesota have added acres to their reservations.

In an effort to protect his New Jersey casinos against the Indians, Trump has sued the Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, for allowing Indians special treatment. According to government officials, Babbitt is taking the Trump suit against the government lightheartedly - the ravings of yesterday's man.

Even so, Trump's case has to be examined. It is based on the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution that addresses dealings between federal and local authorities and reserves certain powers for the states. Trump claims that the amendment overrides the 1988 Act; the Department of the Interior thinks otherwise.

Officials there point out that the Act was passed by Congress specifically to uphold the sovereign rights of the Indians on their reservations, and on their protected lands they should, in principle, be allowed to continue life with minimal interference from local or federal government.

The Act itself came out of a legal battle waged in 1980 by the Cabazon tribe in California and the Seminole tribe in Florida over the right to run a bingo hall on their lands. They won, and the casinos followed. On

reservations across the country the gambling fever spread far and wide, from the Kickapoos in Kansas, to the Cocopas in Arizona and beyond.

Marvelling at the Indians' business acumen, white men on the Mississippi dreamt up their own scam - to resurrect gambling boats on the river. Fifteen boats of various shapes and sizes now ply the mighty waters, hauling in millions of dollars for once impoverished townships. The inspired citizens of Tunica, which is not quite on the river, dug a ditch from the Mississippi's banks to the town's boundary to provide an artificial berth for their good ship Splash.

So far, only Nevada and New Jersey allow full-scale casinos outside reservations, but dozens of states are now considering casinos in a competition against both tribe and riverboat. Although Indians control less than 1 per cent of the American gambling industry, and would seem to be an inspiration rather than a threat to others in the business, Trump's war against the Ramapoughs of New Jersey is not without a sympathetic ear among voters who see gambling's instant profits as the quickest way out of a depressed economy.

Even if his suit is rejected, it looks as though the Indian gambling Act that gives tribes special treatment will be forced back to Congress and changed to give the poor, disadvantaged white men the 'level playing field' they seek. Once again, the Indians would be the losers.