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Luck Be Self-Reliance

by Linda Thomas

The Barona Band of Mission Indians in southern California are descendants of the lipay-Tipay, a social group within a larger culture once known as the Kumeyaay, and for identification purposes, we can say that they are the first San Diegans. Natives of the coast and inland foothill regions, the Kumeyaay lived for five thousand years by moving seasonally among eighty villages in the region. They collected, prepared, and ate acorns; they hunted rabbit and deer; they traded salt and abalone shells for mesquite beans with the tribes of Arizona. The people's lives were shaped by the need for food; hence, each band of the Kumeyaay shared rights to fish the sea and rivers, hunt the mountain game, and gather in the valleys and foothills. In this way, each band of Native Americans was self-reliant.

In the summer of 1769, Gaspar de Portolá arrived in the Kumeyaay territory with an expedition of soldiers, colonists, and a Franciscan priest named Junipero Serra. Thus began more than two hundred years of struggle for the native people, and of losses--not the least of which was the loss of self-reliance. By 1846, southern California was the site of battles among the Spanish, Mexicans, and Yankees for land, gold, and water, and the people's land was overrun. Thousands of Kumeyaay died of disease, starvation, or--one can assume--grief.

Then, in 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant designated the valleys of Pala and San Pasqual in San Diego County for the Native Americans there, and the Barona Band of the Kumeyaay moved to a small inland allotment of the vast land that was once freely theirs. Forty years later, however, the city of San Diego purchased this reservation and created the El Capitan Reservoir. Once again, the Barona Band was homeless.

The story of Native Americans is long, sad, and familiar. But what is more important today is that the story is not over. In the late thirties, determined to restore their self-reliance, the Barona Band worked with the local Bureau of Indian Affairs to purchase a valley near the town of Lakeside. Despite the acquisition of land, however, the impoverished struggle continued for another forty years. The bases for a viable economy are limited for Native Americans who retain their reservation rights: Make and sell trinkets to tourists? Lease portions of their lands for nuclear waste dumps? Battle the government in costly litigation to retain centuries-old subsistence traditions like whale hunting? Commit suicide by economics? The options are humiliating and supremely consequential.

So, in 1984, the Barona people, in an effort to empower themselves with a self-reliant economy, opened a bingo hall on their reservation. By 1994, they had expanded the hall into a major casino, incorporated video and table games, marketed their enterprise to southern California residents, and created eleven hundred jobs. As a result, the number of Barona people unemployed or dependent on state and federal aid dropped from seventy percent to zero.

Yesterday, a Tuesday in June, I visited the Barona Casino, accompanied by my mother, a seventy-nine-year-old Irish American who thinks of fun as a free buffet lunch and several hours playing quarter poker video machines. She's right. We had fun. The Barona Casino is more than one hundred thousand square feet of big top circus with one thousand gaming machines, twenty-nine card tables, and a fifteen hundred seat bingo hall. Compared to the Nevada casinos where flashing lights, clanking coins, blaring sirens and whistles announce winners and deafen losers, the Barona Casino is subdued. Lights are lowered so that players can more easily read the video screens, and the games are played with inserted bills and credit receipts. Instead of gallons of liquor, players are served free soft drinks and spring water. There is constant entertainment by a band of musicians and a vocalist--whose music I could actually hear while I played. Throughout the afternoon, every machine is occupied, and there are cash prize drawings and special games in which players stand in a Plexiglas enclosure to catch as many flying playing cards--blown wildly from air vents at the bottom of the enclosure--as possible in one minute. For every diamond, there is a fifty dollar prize. Everyone I saw caught at least one diamond card.

There is food. Ninety-nine cent quarter-pound hot dogs, pizza, submarine sandwiches, hand-dipped ice cream bars. At the free buffet, I couldn't resist snapping a photo of the whimsical fruit and vegetable garnishes that, I imagined, marked the tendency of Barona people still to love the natural landscapes best. At the cashier's cage, a pretty, dark young woman called me "honey" and took time to ask what I did to my hair to make it shine. In the gift shop, an Indian woman laughed with me when I bought a mesh bag of gold-wrapped chocolate "coins" to take to my father. Just outside the back door, a line of employees stood chatting and laughing to receive their paychecks.

Sounds like an happy ending, or at least an ironic one: games of chance for an unlucky people? No such luck. Self-reliance, it seems, is hard won and eternally defended not only by the Barona Band but also by tribes and bands all over the state. Gaming on tribal lands in the state of California is under attack from the state government, who would like not only to remove or to regulate the types of games offered but also to collect revenues. These efforts to control gaming on the part of Governor Pete Wilson and others have nothing to do with protecting Native Americans from the kinds of crime and degradation that accompany gambling: prostitution, alcohol, drugs, money laundering, and fraud. It is unwise to entertain the notion that government is in the business of protecting humanistic values. Instead, the profiteers here are the Nevada casino syndicates who stand to maintain their monopoly on the gambling business in the western U.S. by killing off Indian gaming.

Good News from the Front: On April 27, a committee called Californians for Indian Self-Reliance announced that they had collected more than one million signatures from California voters to place on the November ballot an initiative that will allow Native Americans to keep gaming on their sovereign tribal lands. Daniel Tucker, Self-Reliance chairman and a member of Sycuan Tribe, says, "The measure will keep tribal members and our employees off welfare and unemployment and continue the flow of gaming revenues tribal governments need to provide decent housing, education and health care for our people."

The Barona Band and its two hundred and forty tribal members hope so. A list of the improvements that the Barona people have been able to make so far with their gaming revenues includes the following:

  • Expansion of the Barona School from a one-room school to a facility that now includes a tutoring/computer center, library, Head Start, and high school classrooms.
  • Four hundred thousand dollars a year for emergency services, including a fire station and paramedic services.
  • Installation of an eight hundred and fifty thousand gallon water storage tank and fire hydrants throughout the reservation.
  • Over two million dollars on road construction and maintenance throughout the reservation.
  • One hundred percent medical, dental, and vision insurance coverage for all tribal members.

    In addition the Barona Casino paid nearly two million dollars in federal and state payroll taxes. Self-reliance? My mother thinks so, as she feeds a twenty into the poker slot. I think so, as I look across the casino parking lot, past the row of players' buses to the low, rocky, inland mountains. And the Barona people think so, too. They are comfortable, safe, and self-reliant within the economy they themselves have made of gambling. I signed the petition to protect the rights of Native Americans. In November, I will vote "yes" on the Indian Self-Reliance Initiative. And for good luck, I'm crossing my fingers, too.

    Return to the Rambles Archive.

    Linda Thomas was a judge in the Tapestry Fiction and Poetry Contest. A native of southern California, she has been writing poems, stories, and essays for 25 years, and her work has appeared in numerous print journals, including American Poetry Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, and the University of New Mexico's Blue Mesa Review. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and is a community college professor of writing and literature.

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