Peter Pringle's America: Who's doing the scalping now?

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The Independent Online
I AM privileged to be here so early in the morning on the Santa Ana Pueblo reservation in New Mexico: outsiders are welcome to come and play golf on a patch of unnatural, lush green grass amid the sagebrush, and to gamble at the new casino - but not to stay the night.

My hostess is LaDonna Harris, a Comanche by birth and a long- time Indian rights activist who has recently moved her organisation, Americans for Indian Opportunity, from Washington DC. When I first met her more than 10 years ago, she was badgering and cajoling presidents, congressmen and government officials into giving the tribes what they are entitled to under the Constitution and trying to prevent them from being ripped off by latter-day carpetbaggers and unscrupulous local politicians.

Once a Democratic candidate for vice-president, LaDonna voted for Bill Clinton and admires the vice-president, Al Gore, but she grew weary of Washington politics and came West to be nearer her people and the peace of the New Mexican countryside. In an age of information highways and the INDIANnet communications service she launched this year, it was impossible, of course, to leave the problems behind in Washington, and she's working as hard as ever. As the sun rose in the sky over the Santa Ana mountains, I listened to her stories of the raw deals of the past and the equally rough ones of the present and I wondered how American Indians refrain from going on the warpath again.

During the great treaty-signing era that began in the 1800s, the federal government acknowledged Indian nations as sovereign entities. Since then, Washington has negotiated treaties of commerce or conflict with the tribes as though they were foreign nations. A wisely run tribal council uses federal laws to its own advantage and ignores local or state laws. The tribes can sell tax-free cigarettes, for example, and many such as Santa Ana Pueblo do. They can also open Las Vegas-style casinos that are illegal outside the reservation boundaries and make money unheard of in tribal history.

Some states are friendly and attentive to the needs of Indians. New Mexico's state government is not one of them. Take gambling. Across America Indian gambling is a dollars 6bn a year industry involving more than 200 of America's 500 tribes. The 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act encouraged tribes to enter into friendly compacts with state governments over the building and regulation of casinos. In states such as New Mexico, where gambling is limited to the race track and charity nights at clubs or churches, the compacts have been difficult to negotiate because of local jealousies.

The New Mexico governor, a burly ranch-owner named Bruce King, has refused to sign a compact with Santa Ana Pueblo because the lobbyists of the white- run race tracks are more powerful than the Indians, and don't want competition from the reservations. That refusal is costing the Indians dearly. When they opened their casino almost a year ago, Santa Ana Pueblo did not have enough money to buy its slot machines, so it rented them from established gambling operations. Some tribes also hire established gambling firms to manage their casinos.

Because there was no tribe-state compact, the gaming companies imposed an additional 'risk charge', saying the Indian enterprises were not properly regulated and were susceptible to law suits and to random closures.

A recent federal study found the 'risk fees' unjustified. In 37 management contracts the gaming companies were charging dollars 60m in excess fees. Santa Ana Pueblo has a relatively small enterprise - 140 machines - and runs its own business, but it is paying far more than it would if it were not operated by Indians.

LaDonna took me to see Roy Montoya, the Santa Ana casino manager, who, when asked why the governor is refusing to sign the compact, replied, 'Money'. He added sadly: 'Most people still think Indians should stay being who they were, making jewellery and holding tribal dances for the tourists. They don't want us making money.'

LaDonna had another story, about the Santa Ana golf course. Last year Nike, the sportswear company, awarded Santa Ana Pueblo a much-coveted contract for its local golf tournament. The loser was the local state-run university. The event was a great success with much attendant jollification, including the consumption of a large quantity of alcohol provided to the spectators by Santa Ana Pueblo. This was illegal, according to the state's liquor licence granted to the Indians, which allows drinking only on the premises of the bar. People were drinking all over the course.

Several weeks later, a state liquor inspector apprehended a golfer, beer can in hand, at the first tee and threatened Santa Ana Pueblo with withdrawal of the liquor licence. Nike dropped its plans to hold this year's tournament on the reservation. It will will be played at the university, which has recently obtained an off-premises liquor licence.

LaDonna took me to a reception for Al Gore, in town for a Democratic fund-raising event. He made a fine speech about the wonders of information highways and how the people of Albuquerque had grasped the technological age by attracting electronic industries and helping to make theirs one of America's boom towns.

With its casino, Santa Ana Pueblo is playing its part. So is LaDonna with her INDIANnet. But the vice-president didn't mention them. Indians, after all, make up 7 per cent of the state's population. Not many votes there, cowhands.