Rich Indian Racism: The Uses of Indian Imagery
in the Political Process

By Katherine A. Spilde, Ph.D.
Presented at the 11th International Conference
on Gambling and Risk Taking,
Las Vegas, NV, June 20, 2000

Good morning, my name is Katherine Spilde and I am the Director of Research for the National Indian Gaming Association, or NIGA. NIGA is an association of 168 Indian Nations who operate various forms of gaming facilities in the United States. As the representative of these Indian Nations, NIGA’s mission is to protect and preserve the general welfare of the tribes striving for self-sufficiency through gaming enterprises in Indian Country.

My research at NIGA allows me to travel to reservations throughout the United States to study the impacts of Indian gaming on Indian and non-Indian communities. I am here to tell you that gaming in Indian country is a great success story. Today I plan to share with you two different aspects of that story because, like many stories of success, it is also a story of jealousy and conflict. And in this case, the jealousy and conflict threaten the success.

As an introduction, I would like to give you a sense of the current political landscape in order to provide some context for my remarks. Indian gaming has become a major economic development strategy for many tribal governments in the United States. Since the early 1980s, 198 tribes have established 326 gaming facilities in 24 states. Tribal gaming revenues are having a profound impact on the lives of many Native Americans. Tribal governments are revitalizing their communities by investing in housing, health care, education programs, language and cultural revitalization programs and numerous other community projects.

Because of the unprecedented social and economic success of Indian gaming in some parts of the country a political backlash has emerged at all levels of government. While this backlash takes many forms, it almost always relies upon misrepresentations of Indians and Indian gaming. By far the most popular misrepresentation is the idea that all Indians in the United States are now wealthy.

As the Director of Research at NIGA, I field hundreds of questions a month about Indian gaming’s history, legal status, and impacts from researchers, students, media and the curious American public. While many people call with specific research questions, a vast majority want to know how much money Indians now have. Specifically, they want to know how to get some of it, whether through joint ventures or donations for their cause. And they want to know why Indians continue to receive Federal money in spite of some tribes’ success with casinos.

So today I am going to share my insights about the uses of what I have come to call "the Rich Indian image." The title of my paper, Rich Indian Racism, captures what I have come to understand as the process through which this stereotype of Indians has consistently been used to justify political positions. Specifically, I am going to explore the current uses by policy makers of the American fascination with the idea that all Indians are now wealthy.

My presentation today will do three things.

  • First, I will describe Rich Indian Racism by sharing my personal experience with its use to justify policies that are blatantly anti-Indian.
  • Second, I will contextualize the image of the Rich Indian in the history of Federal Indian policy, showing how the process of creating images of Indians is not new, but an on-going process with changing stakes.
  • Third, I will tell you how and why Rich Indian Racism resonates with so many non-Indians, especially today.

My intent today is to give you information that will allow you to see beyond the simplistic images and stereotypes that clutter the debate about Indian gaming and tribal sovereignty and give you a more balanced view of the effects of gaming on the lives of those who benefit from it. So I will conclude with a few basic facts that capture a richer sense of the experience of tribal gaming in the lives of real people---people who are always more interesting and more complicated than the stereotypes created about them.

A Bit of Background

Before I start, I want to tell you where I am coming from and how I formulated the "Rich Indian" argument in the first place. My interest in Indian Gaming started long before my job with the National Indian Gaming Association. I grew up on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota, where my parents were teachers. Because of my background, I know what things were like for many Native people before gaming. During the 1970’s and 80’s, when I was growing up, the unemployment rate at White Earth was over 80%. It is difficult to describe what 80% unemployment looks like, especially in today’s economy. I know that statistics do not generally move people, so that number may have little meaning to someone studying Indian gaming today, someone that never went to an Indian reservation before gaming. But conditions were bleak and many White Earth tribal members lived off the reservation because of the difficulty of making a living on the reservation.

The White Earth nation started building a casino in my hometown of Mahnomen, MN while I was away at college. After it was built, I moved back home to study the impact of the casino while working on my Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of California. Basically, Anthropological research can be described in four words, "go talk to people." So I did. And I was surprised at the consistency of people’s opinions and remarks about the casino’s impact at White Earth. In a nutshell, many non-Indians in the area thought all the Indians were rich. Meanwhile, the Indians consistently talked about how good it felt to finally be working, to be able to live back home. They were not rich, they were employed. That is a crucial distinction. The striking thing about the opinion of the non-Indians was that there was no evidence that the tribal members were wealthy…few people drove new cars or built new homes...typical signs of wealth. So the idea that Indians were rich simply did not match the facts. I began to wonder what the non-Indians were really saying by insisting tribal members were rich. What was behind their remarks about Indian wealth? What kind of code was this?

Theory of Images in my Dissertation

At the same time I was doing my ethnographic research, in other words, while I was out talking to people at White Earth, I was also analyzing the history of Federal Indian policy. The basic argument in my dissertation was that popular images of Indians have historically worked in two ways: first, popular images of Indians silence real Indian people. And second, popular images are used to justify harmful, anti-Indian Federal policies. My research took me back to the Federal Indian policies of the 1820’s and I found a connection between these policies and the popular Indian stereotypes of their day. For example, in the 1820’s when Indians were portrayed as savages, Supreme Court Justice Marshall ruled that Indian people could not rightfully care for or own their own land. And in the 1830’s, when Indians were stereotyped as childlike, that image justified the creation of a so-called ward/guardian relationship between tribal governments and the Federal government. When Indian nations were portrayed as uncivilized, the Federal government imposed constitution-style governments onto Indian nations. I think you can see a pattern emerging here…

When I got to Washington, D.C. and began doing political work, first as a staffer for the National Gambling Impact Study Commission and later at NIGA, I realized I was a witness to a contemporary piece of this long-running project of creating images of Indians for political purposes. In some ways, both of my political jobs are simply an extension of the fieldwork I started in my hometown. At times, I feel like I am doing anthropological research on Capitol Hill that can strengthen the theories already developed in my dissertation. In Congressional hearings, newspaper articles, and the many research calls I referenced earlier, I continue to hear people speak about the "Rich Indians" in spite of the horrific conditions that exist in many parts of Indian country and the incredible unmet need among tribal nations, a need that Congress is keenly aware of. In many ways, the opinions of many policy makers mirror those of the non-Indians in my hometown. What I mean by that is that many policy makers continues to embrace one reality (that Indians are rich) in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Why and how do they do this, why is the rich Indian image dangerous?

How the Image Works/Why it is Dangerous

Obviously, the stakes are much higher in Washington, D.C. than they were in my hometown in Minnesota because policy makers can codify these false stereotypes in policy that is harmful to Indian people. The Federal government has an enormous amount of power over Indian affairs and each year more and more anti-Indian legislation is justified on the idea that Indian nations are now rich. I fear that "Rich Indian racism" is ultimately targeting the very foundation of tribal governments…their tribal sovereignty. The question is how the Rich Indian Image works today to justify anti-Indian policies. I will argue today that the image of the ‘Rich Indian’ works in two complementary ways: first, it is to call into question the economic need of tribal governments and second, it is used to question their authenticity as ‘real’ Indians.

The first way that "rich Indian racism" can be used to undermine tribal sovereignty is by insisting that Indian nations do not deserve sovereign rights because they are not really Indian anymore. In this argument, non-Indians equate authentic "Indianness" with poverty and create a distinction between so-called rich Indians and some romantic real Indians. By this logic, once a tribal nation acquires wealth, they cannot be real Indians. Perhaps the most egregious example of this notion is the recent book by Jeff Benedict about the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation of Connecticut. In his book, the author argues that the Mashantucket Pequots fooled Congress into recognizing them as an Indian nation and he goes as far as to recommend that Congress consider rescinding the Pequot Nation’s Federally recognized status. Clearly, the author and his supporters believe that the Pequots cannot possibly have the most successful casino in North America and still be authentically Indian. When asked if he would have written the book if the Mashantucket Pequots were not running a successful casino, the author answered "no." This use of the Rich Indian image is the epitome of Rich Indian racism, wherein supposedly rich tribal nations are no longer sufficiently different from other Americans, or not suffering enough, to deserve sovereign political rights.

As an anthropologist, I find there is also a subtle corollary to this use of the rich Indian image that focuses on the so-called "real" Indians. That is, "Rich Indian racism" is often combined with quasi-concern about the threat that Indian gaming presents to "traditional tribal values"---the paternalistic argument that tribes should resist offering gaming "for their own good" because it somehow threatens traditional culture. This is nothing short of ironic considering that in the 1800’s the justification for Federal management of Indian resources was because they were "too Indian" and not ‘civilized’ enough. It is a fact that very few people are concerned about the impact of poverty, or diabetes, or unemployment on "traditional tribal cultures" and there are very few Federal policies targeting these conditions, which are ultimately a real threat to Indian naitons. Now, it seems, having money diminishes a claim to Indian cultural authenticity. As a non-Indian and an anthropologist, I would suggest that questions regarding tribal culture be left to Indian nations.

In addition to undermining Indian identity, the claim that Indians are rich has also been used politically to argue that "Indian nations no longer need what they used to need." Within weeks of the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, Legislation to tax Indian casino revenues was presented in Congress as a way to balance the Federal budget. State governments consistently pressure tribes into so-called "revenue sharing" agreements during their compact negotiations in order to benefit from Indian casinos that are technically not under state jurisdiction. And attempts by Congress to impose "means testing," whereby Indian nations would have had to prove they still need Federal monies, are all founded on the notion of tribal wealth and ultimately call into question the need and authenticity of tribal governments. These attempts to target Indian resources also reveal the bias held by legislators that tribal resources are plenty, and that they are there for non-Indians to share in. Many Americans seem to think that Indian nations now have too much money, that there is a surplus in Indian country that should rightfully be shared or relinquished.

In the 1880’s and ‘90’s many Americans thought the same thing about Indian land and natural resources. At that time, the same notion of surplus was used to justify the allotment of communally held Indian lands to Indian and non-Indian individuals. Under the 1887 Dawes Allotment Act, the Federal government charged itself with the task of dividing up the communal land holdings on reservations and allotting all Indians lands to individuals. The Federal Act was nothing more than a crafty system for alienating Indian people from their land base. After counting the number of Indians, the Government simply created more land allotments than there were Indians, declared the remaining allotments to be surplus land This surplus land, within the reservation, was then sold to non-Indians lands speculators. In most cases, the so-called surplus land also turned out to be the best land within the reservation in terms of natural resources. On the White Earth reservation in Minnesota, 93% of the initial reservation was sold to non-Indians within 10 years of the passage of the Dawes Act.

In the 1990’s, "Rich Indian" racism achieves the same ends when non-Indian policy makers decide what resources Indians need, declare that there is a surplus, and then target the rest. This strategy has been employed in attempt to deny Indian nations their treaty rights for hunting and fishing and also to deny land-into-trust acquisitions to tribal governments. For example, this notion of surplus was a key argument against Minnesota’s Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in their recent treaty rights case. Local fisherman argued that having a casino job negated the rights of tribal members to take fish from the lake before the state fishing season opened since they did not need to go first anymore. "Rich Indian Racism" was successfully employed by state and local authorities in Minnesota to deny a land-into-trust acquisition by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux. In that instance, the local community appealed to the Secretary of the Interior to deny the Sioux’s request based on the assertion that "they could afford to pay the taxes." The notion of surplus and need is also implied in proposed Federal legislation that would have required so-called "means testing," whereby tribes would have had to prove they still needed their Federal monies, which many Americans continue to think of as welfare, rather than as installments on an outstanding bill for most of America’s landbase.

A Distraction

Finally, in addition to using "Rich Indian racism" to challenge tribal sovereignty in the two ways I have just described, the Rich Indian image also provides a convenient distraction from the fact that 2/3 of America’s Indian nations do not have gaming. Among tribes that do have gaming, profits are not evenly distributed because they depend on access to markets and most Indian reservations are in remote locations. The fact is that 22 Indian facilities account for 56% of the total Indian gaming revenue and on some of the more rural, yet typical, reservations, gaming facilities act primarily as job centers, not revenue generators. In light of these facts, Member of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission as well as many policy makers (and even Andy Rooney) have suggested that the rich Indians should be doing more to help the real Indians that continue to suffer, again naturalizing that distinction and simultaneously distracting Americans from the Federal government’s miserable record on Indian affairs. Pretending Native Americans are rich does not make it so, no matter how sincerely we may want that to be the case.

In conclusion, the one thing I would like you to leave you with today is this: The belief that all Indians are rich is a political position, not a fact. This stereotype is dangerous and popular but it is not true! This widespread misperception about Indian gaming’s relative success is dangerous because it has fueled a political backlash in the forms I have just described. It is popular because it helps alleviate America’s collective guilt about the deplorable treatment of America’s first nations, and it is popular because it provides a distraction from the fact that contemporary Native people continue to suffer around the United States.

The truth is that the image can never capture the realities of contemporary Indian people or that fact of Indian gaming’s impacts. But images are never meant to capture the facts, are they? In the case of the Rich Indian Image, perhaps that is its biggest danger and our biggest loss.


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