How tribal gaming has changed in the 35 years since this landmark Supreme Court decision – San Bernardino Sun

Driving along the 10 Freeway through Cabazon, Morongo Casino Resort & Spa appears almost like a mirage, its massive hotel tower the tallest building in Riverside County. Along the route, billboards line either side of the freeway advertising upcoming appearances by famous musicians and comedians appearing at the region’s tribal casinos.

Today, Southern California’s lucrative tribal gaming industry is a sharp contrast to a time only 35 years ago, when the region’s Native American tribes not only didn’t boast resorts to rival Las Vegas, but some struggled to provide essential services on reservations such as indoor plumbing.

Things changed after Feb. 25, 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case of California V. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians that would ultimately give the tribes sovereignty and allow them to thrive economically by limiting the state’s ability to regulate gambling on the reservations.

The landmark decision paved the way for reservations to have the resources municipalities use tax dollars for, such as sewer systems, housing and infrastructure needs that were sparse for reservations at the time, Deron Marquez, who is part of the Tribal Administration Certificate Program at Claremont Graduate University, said in a telephone interview.

“It provided things that were intangible to Indian Country,” Marquez said. “It allowed tribes to start walking down the path of modernization.”

Life before gaming

Before the Supreme Court decision, Marquez said, each tribe had different ways of raising revenue.

“Some tribes had some type of economic engine via natural resources, the ability to lease land to business, but most tribes relied heavily upon federal assistance and programs,” he said. “That was never going to be enough to fortify reservations.”

Chairman Doug Welmas of the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians said in a phone interview that the tribe used to sell cigarettes out of a trailer on the Indio-area land that is now Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, which the tribe owns and operates.

The Morongo Band of Mission Indians provided land leases for Southern California Edison and Southern California Gas, Charles Martin, the tribe’s chairman, said in a telephone interview. They also tried to generate income with cattle and agriculture but said neither venture was enough.

“Even then, we found ourselves in a situation where we weren’t getting a fair deal, and there was a pretty high unemployment rate,” Martin said.

Building a foundation

The Cabazon and Morongo tribes started experimenting with bingo halls and card rooms as revenue opportunities. By 1983, the Morongo tribe had opened a modest bingo hall on its property.

After attempts by the state and Riverside County to shut down the bingo halls and card room, the case ended up inside the Supreme Court as with the Cabazon and Morongo Band of Mission Indians and their lawyers Glenn Feldman and George Forman fighting against the state of California in December 1986.

As word traveled that the dispute was reaching the highest court, there was some hesitation and fear in tribal communities that a decision could cause harm if the tribes lost the case.

“Some folks in Indian Country told us to quit because they thought we were risking too much,” Martin said. “But we continued to push, and it was important that we didn’t give up. We felt that this fight needed to be waged.”

The tribes argued that the laws on gambling were civil regulatory laws, not criminal, and therefore tribal laws would not fall under the lawful jurisdiction of the state. California argued that the state had a right to regulate the tribes’ gaming citing Public Law 280, which granted six states, Alaska, California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon and Wisconsin, jurisdiction over criminal offenses committed on Indian reservations.

In a phone interview, Forman, the outside general counsel for the Morongo Band of Mission Indians for the trial, said the state worried that organized crime would enter the gambling operations on the reservations.

“The Justice Department was very concerned about organized crime infiltration, but during the public hearings, nobody had any significant evidence of crime infiltration,” Forman said.

In February 1987, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in the tribes’ favor, which led to the passing of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGNA). The act created the National Indian Gaming Commission and gave tribes a regulatory and operational mandate over their gaming, allowing them to generate revenue on their terms. The United States Department of the Interior used Morongo’s management contract for its bingo operations as model for IGNA.

Although the subject of the case was gaming, the Supreme Court ruling also redefined the relationship between the tribes and the states by clearing the basis for how tribes exercise authority over their lands without state and county restrictions. The court decision led to the rapid expansion of gaming operations on tribal lands, morphing into economic opportunities.

Martin and Welmas both benefitted directly from the decision. Martin said he graduated college and moved back to work at Morongo’s casino and Welmas was able to buy additional clothes, which he said had been difficult to do, and was able to attend a private high school.

“As gaming has built tribal governments and their capacity to provide services to their constituents that the counties and states aren’t providing, it has also enabled the tribes to become major players in the economies of the surrounding communities,” Forman said.

Tribal casinos now are among the top employers in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, employing thousands of residents.

The luxury experience

David G. Schwartz, a gaming historian and professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said in a phone interview that the resort experience was the next logical step for tribal casinos.

“Gambling was a novelty but offering people other stuff gives people other reasons to go there, and we see this in Las Vegas and other places as well,” Schwartz said.

In Southern California, the growth came via the boom of casino hotel construction in recent years, with tribes large and small, most recently with the December opening of Yaamava’ Resort & Casino in the Highland area.

“The beauty of that is those who live close to the resorts can experience them without taking a large part of their income to travel to some far-off land or Vegas,” Marquez said. “They can do that in their own backyard.”

The gaming experience is also evolving. Bingo halls have since faded away except for a few, while the largest casinos boast thousands of slot machines, rivaling Las Vegas.

The experience has morphed from a bingo hall with folding chairs and tables into “something quite remarkable,” Marquez said.

A number of Southern California casinos have built showrooms that attract popular entertainment, including comedians such as Carol Burnett and Bill Burr and musicians as varied as Tony Bennett, J. Balvin, Pitbull, ZZ Top and Snoop Dogg.

“It’s evolving into more of a resort-style where people can getaway and come and relax,” Welmas said. “We’re able to offer concerts, bowling, golf so we have other avenues of entertainment for people to enjoy besides the casino.”

Southern California’s tribes are also starting to dabble in high-profile restaurants. Harrah’s Resort Southern California is working with Gordon Ramsay and Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa has tapped Fabio Viviani for dining concepts set to open this year.

“As we grow the business, it means more jobs not just for the tribal community but for the local communities each tribe exists in,” Martin said.

And some tribes are starting to look beyond Southern California.

The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, which currently operates Yaamava’, acquired the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas last year, with plans to reopen the off-Strip property this spring. San Manuel will be the first tribe to own and operate a property in Las Vegas. However, the Connecticut-based Mohegan tribe, which owns and operates its own casino in Connecticut, runs the casino at the newly opened Virgin Hotels Las Vegas.

The next frontier

Meanwhile, in California, 35 years after the Supreme Court’s decision, another fight over gaming in the state is on the horizon.

There are currently 30 states where sports betting is legal, and California may become the next state to legalize it.

A measure backed by tribes to allow sports betting at casinos and racetracks will be on the ballot in November. Two other ballot initiatives may rival that measure if they can successfully get 1 million signatures by April 18.

Two tribal coalitions, whose members include the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Morongo Band of Mission Indians, Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians and San Manuel Band of Mission Indians — all have casinos in Riverside County or San Bernardino County — issued a statement opposing the two measures currently gathering signatures ahead of the April deadline

In 2021, people bet more than $57 billion with commercial sportsbooks in the U.S., more than double the previous year, according to the American Gaming Association’s Commercial Gaming Revenue Tracker.

“This is the natural evolution of the gaming experience,” Marquez said. “It’s just a natural progression of what this country is wanting, and this country wants the ability to bet on sports.”

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