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THE NEW BUFFALO:
Today's Tribal Casino Culture: An online exclusive

An online exclusive

The Foxwood Casino in Ledyard, Connecticut

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

By Ross Simonini


From the interstate, the Emerald Queen casino looks a little like a church without a cross. It’s run by the Puyallup tribe and is one of the bigger Indian-run casinos in Washington state, but there’s actually nothing to suggest tribal-ness from the visage, including the imperial-sounding name. Inside, it’s the same: There isn’t a splinter of Native American culture to be found, and yet gobs of Cambodian décor cover the walls, with Buddhist statues tucked into corners, signs advertising a weekly “Cambodian Night,” and an “Asian Garden Café,” all of which is geared not toward the owners, but the heavily Chinese clientele.

The only thing that might be confused for Native American decor is a totem-pole-like bird head, crammed into the display case at the foot of the “guest services” desk with a mini-fan. But this, in fact, is an effigy of the logo for the local football team, the Seattle Seahawks.

If prodded, the extremely non-Native-looking people behind the desk will spend a few minutes flipping through a three-ring binder for a page-long history of the tribe, and then waltz over to the photocopier to run off a copy. The pamphlet refers to “our people,” and concludes by revealing that “one of the [culture’s] more exciting events is the tribe’s introduction [sic] into Class III gaming with the Emerald Queen Casino.”

Within two blocks of the casino is the tribal courthouse, the “elder care” center and the police station, all stuffed into some modular homes (i.e., trailers) amid a desolate field and condemned-looking buildings. The casino isn’t the prettiest thing in the world, but it’s clear where the money is going.

People have started calling casinos the “new buffalo” of Native American culture, which is to say that they are the modern symbol, sustenance, and the center around which most Indian economies orbit. Where US federal policy has increasingly failed, the casinos stepped in, 30 years ago, and became tribal treasuries.

At the same time, gambling is the singular public limb of tribal life. To the non-natives of the world (i.e., the people who have little to no contact with tribal lifestyles), bad buffets, gaudy carpeting and craps tables are their only chance to interact with any outlet of modern Native American culture. All of this means that from the outsider’s perspective, tribal culture is being swapped out for casino culture.

 

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