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It all started with a single bingo hall in Florida in early 1980's. That was the beginning of a virtual explosion of the "gambling bug" among many Native American communities. The Native American gambling circuit now includes more than 89 casinos and 170 high-stakes bingo games in 24 states, with more opening all the time. In addition, the tempting allure of casino gambling is currently attracting 50% of America's 318 federally recognized tribes, which is about 1.9 million native people.

Some tribes are using their casino profits to establish college scholarships, to build health facilities, new schools and day-care centers, and open a variety of more "constructive" retail businesses. But that is not the case for all Native Americans who frequent reservation casinos. Many are simply squandering their money for entertainment purposes, or the hopes of instant riches, while others are left wondering where all of the "profits" are going. Statistically speaking, only a small percentage of American Indians derive any substantial financial benefit from operating their casinos.

While it is true that Native Americans constitute only about 5% of all gamblers in America, approximately one third of Indian tribes in our nation operate on-reservation gambling facilities. Some of these tribes have "hit the big time", but most have not seen any real revenues. That is unfortunate considering that the unemployment rate for Native Americans continues to hover at around 45% and conditions of poverty remain rampant.

Some sociologists claim that the sudden increase in Native Americans' affection for the one armed bandit and other popular casino games stem from ambiguities involving the complex relationship between American Indians as well as the state and federal governments. At the heart of this argument is the Indian Regulatory and Gaming Act, implemented in 1988, which has been subject to a variety of interpretations. Questions have been raised as to whether the independent status Indian tribes have enjoyed for generations is valid, what right does the government have to step in and regulate anything that takes place on their private reservations. But then again, if these reservations and their inhabitants are considered separate, ungovernable entities, then why are these tribes permitted to vote in political elections? None of these questions have been sufficiently answered to date, although not for lack of trying.

According to an article in Midwest Today magazine, at a hearing held by the U.S. House Native American Affairs Subcommittee, officials from four of South Dakota's nine Sioux tribes accused state officials of "economic racism", referring to the unwelcome negotiation agreements imposed on tribal casinos. One complaint was that they were only allowed up to 250 slot machines per tribe, no matter what the size of location of that tribe. But their biggest issue was whether the government had any right to control their casino operations at all. Tribal officials called their dealings with South Dakota officials "so repellent that it convinced them that states should have no input in decisions on tribal facilities."

On "the other side of the coin", so to speak, many Federal regulators fear that they have been too lax with their regulations, claiming that complete chaos has erupted in Native American communities due to their fixation on gambling. Then there's also the problem of illegal casinos popping up in Western states, which aren't regulated at all. There is, however, a proposal on the table that would allow states to refuse to let Indian gaming within their borders.

From a spiritual, rather than an economic perspective it is easy to make the correlation between gambling and the reassurance of a spiritual presence. Native Americans have long believed in the interfering hand of God and subsequently, they often intertwine their winning or losing streaks with their God's desire to punish or reward them. This attitude is the cause of great frustration for the "losers", and great inspiration and self-congratulation for the winners. Okay, on the surface, it appears that most of them are out to make a quick buck, but could it be that they are also seeking a personal, spiritual message as to how they are waging in the game of sin?

This is in direct contradiction with what organizations such as Gambler's Anonymous preach, their view being that gambling addiction is a sickness, not an act of immoral behavior that should be judged or labeled as evil. Most gambling addicts use gaming much the way alcoholics and drug addicts do; to escape their pain through the instant gratification of a perceived "rush".

As to where all of this is headed, there's no safe bet. Gambling abuse is a major social and economic problem plaguing Native Americans with consequences that could go either way. Casinos could eventually end up economically replenishing Indian reservations, but odds are they will be the cause of more misfortune than fortune.