Monday, January 26, 2015

The People of Few Alternatives

If there was ever a "Marie Antoinette moment" in the history of the United States, it was probably when the Federal Government said to our American Indian tribes "Let them have gambling".  It was a deseperate and short-sighted response to the problem of abject poverty and a lack of any economic development prospects on nearly all reservations.  And since there likely wouldn't be much support in "White America" for more taxes to support Government programs, why not let the tribes take that money through bingo halls and slot machines instead?

But the tribes were quick to learn that gamblers--as desperate and degenerate as they can be--didn't really want to visit such "exotic locales" like Keshena, Lac du Flambeau, Wabeno and Odanah.  So some wise nations came up with the idea of buying land in or near large metropolitan areas and applying to open casinos "off-reservation".  Political leaders--tempted by the Sirens' song of "new jobs" and "economic development corridors"--went along with the plans.  But there just weren't enough metropolitan areas to support casinos for all of the tribes--creating a group of "haves" and "have nots"--with the have nots coveting the revenues brought in by those fortunate enough to jump into markets like Milwaukee and Madison and the "haves" jealously guarding their "territory" and their cash flow.

In most businesses, Government doesn't get to decide how much competition you have to face.  But when it comes to gambling in Wisconsin, one man in government does get to decide.  And last week, Governor Scott Walker decided that the Forest County Potowatomi will get to protect their "territory" in Southeast Wisconsin by rejecting the Menominee Nation's plan to build another casino in Kenosha.  Whenever you look at poverty or lack of education or poor health rankings in Wisconsin, Menominee County always is at or near the top in the "bad" categories.  And that is unlikely to change anytime soon following the Governor's decision.

As much as I oppose increased casino gaming in Wisconsin, it is the only alternative we have given the Native Peoples to better their situation.  I don't see Amazon opening a new distribution center or Johnson Controls building a 50-story headquarters on a reservation anytime soon.  So to deny the Menominee their one and only viable economic development option is inherently unfair.  One option I might suggest for the tribes to "branch out" a little bit is "alternative" energy.  Perhaps they would consider turning their reservations into large windfarms or solar fields. They could become the "People of the Wind and the Sun"--instead of the "People of the Slots".

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