The Truth, Mainly - 12/13/1999

State has too much gambling ground to stand on
by Leon Satterfield

There's a wonderfully timely passage in Louise Erdrich's 1984 novel, Love Medicine, where Lyman Lamartine, a Chippewa in North Dakota, comes up with an idea to make lots of money for himself and the Chippewa community.

It grows out of his meditation on the treatment of Native Americans by whites: "They gave you worthless land to start with and then they chopped it out from under your feet. They took your kids away and stuffed the English language in their mouth. They sent your brother to hell [Vietnam], they shipped him back fried. They sold you booze for furs and then told you not to drink."

And so on.

It's time, Lyman decides, to turn the tables. It's time to open a casino.

"He'd start his own training program, get his staff right out of high school, teach Chippewas the right ways, the proper ways, the polite ways, to take money from retired white people who had farmed Indian hunting grounds…lived high while their neighbors lived low, looked down or never noticed who was starving, who was lost."

The key to assimilation, Lyman figures, is money, so "Why not make a money business out of money itself? Appeal to frenzy…appeal to the Gods of Chance….He saw the revenue trickling and then rolling and flooding into the tribal bank accounts. He saw the future, and it was based on greed and luck."

The novel ends before we know whether Lyman's scheme works, whether the Chippewas do in fact exploit white greed and maybe begin to recoup something of what they lost in a couple of centuries of white exploitation.

But I hope he succeeds.

I think of Lyman and his plan every time I read about the State of Nebraska trying to shut down the Ohiya casino on the Santee reservation. And I get morally indignant. If you don't like moral indignation, you probably should stop reading now.

I think the State should stop trying to shut down the casino. I think the State should say to the Santees: "Here's a long overdue Christmas present from us. Make as much money as you can with your casino."

Yes, some of you might say, there'd be some rough justice in letting Native Americans rip off the rest of us for a change, but the state constitution says casino gambling is illegal.

Then let's do what this newspaper editorially suggested last month. Let's amend the state constitution to say that casino gambling is illegal except on Native American reservations where the suckers are rich white people.

Well, some of you might say, that would make the state a participant in immorality, and we can't do that.

Aha! You just fell into my trap. That's just what I wanted you to say. This is where my moral indignation really kicks in.

If we can't allow the state to participate in immorality, then why in the pluperfect hell do we allow the state to pick up an easy $24.3 million a year from state-sanctioned lotteries and scratch tickets?

There was an Associated Press story this fall telling us that "one-quarter of Americans believe their best chance to build wealth for retirement is by playing the lottery….Those living paycheck to paycheck are even more likely to feel that way." So there's a pretty good chance that those living paycheck to paycheck are more likely than the rest of us to play the lottery. And that means that they provide a disproportionate share of that $24.3 million the state takes in.

That's a working definition of the most immoral of state revenues, a regressive tax whereby the poor contribute more than the rich.

Why do you suppose the lottery billboard is on North 27th St., just down the road from the pawn shop and the check-cashing emporium, instead of on Sheridan Boulevard? The really scary thing about a fourth of our population believing the lottery is their best chance at building retirement funds is that they're probably right. They've probably got lousy jobs with no retirement plans at all, and they probably buy lottery tickets out of economic despair.

And then the lottery folks have the chutzpah to run those TV ads where someone wearing a "Fate" tee-shirt assures us that a regular lottery player would have won the big one had he not decided to forgo his ticket this week.

And here's my moral indignation at full throttle:

A state that buys into a system like that-in order to lighten the tax load on the higher brackets yet!-has no moral ground to stand on when it refuses to allow casino gambling on reservations.

So let's hear it for the Lyman Lamartines out there. Let's allow them to set up reservation casinos in a right, proper, and polite attempt to get back a fraction of what's been unrightly, improperly, and impolitely taken from them.

They could even put nicely ironic signs in the casino windows saying "Whites Only."


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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