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Friday, December 09, 2005 | A few days ago, Erica Pinto turned her car into Jamul Indian Village, and the sight, she said, was sad.

The land where the houses of her father, brother and cousin had stood was now vacant. In preparation for construction of a controversial casino, most of the 53 residents of the Indian reservation have moved to other communities, and their houses have been moved; only three residents remain.

After a groundbreaking ceremony tomorrow morning, the Jamuls plan to begin construction on the casino in July, Tribal Chairman Leon Acebedo said in a recent interview.

A decade ago, the Jamuls proposed to build a casino on their federally recognized trust land along with a hotel, tribal offices and housing on 81 adjacent acres it would acquire.

Tired of delays and the objections of white neighbors, the Jamuls earlier this year unveiled a new plan for a 30-story building for a casino, parking and hotel to be built only on its trust land; the Jamul people would move out.

“This has not been our plan. Our plan was to build a low-rise that was architecturally, environmentally and aesthetically pleasing. We wanted to blend in,” Acebedo said.

District 2 Supervisor Dianne Jacob said that the casino violates the state gaming compact Jamul signed in 1999, and she summed up the objections to the casino: “This is a rural community. To put a 30-story facility which is larger than any building in San Diego county, right smack up against a national wildlife refuge – that would create increased traffic on a two-lane road that is already congested. Fire and emergency services cannot be provided and you have law enforcement impacts.”

The proposed Jamul casino would have everything I hate about Indian gaming. From Foxwood looming out of the lovely hills outside Mystic, Conn., to Quinault stuck into a broad beach on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the Indian casinos dominate beautiful countryside (after all, most reservations are away from the rest of us).

Buses and vans disgorge elderly players at the curb of hellish corporate architecture; the cheap food is almost universally foul; slots produce a nearly unbearable din; gamblers, many puffing on cigarettes, hunch over the slots with eyes full of misplaced hope; the entertainment is loud and bad.

In the casinos, Indians are not selling us their culture but our own toxic desires. Gaming adds up to nothing of value, and it can set family and tribal members and neighbors against each other.

But I love what casinos can do. They allow tribes to stand on their own two feet, without the killing legacy of dependence on the federal government. Through nearly 400 treaties, Indians turned over millions of acres of their lands to the federal government, which distributed them to white settlers and business interests. In exchange, the tribes got health care, farming implements, education, some land, and occasionally, protection from white intruders.

Thefts and trade left the Indian homeland – which had once been half of North America – reduced to an area about the size of Minnesota. Consider just a few pieces of productive California real estate that passed from Indian hands into white hands: San Diego (Kumeyaay), Marin County (Miwok) and Los Angeles (Chumash).

The federal government consistently failed to deliver its side of the trade, and as they lost their lands, tribes lost their livelihoods. People who had governed themselves, sustained their communities and carried on brisk trade across a continent became what were called “dependent nations” – and poor.

Well into the 20th century, the aims of federal Indian policies were at best, to get Indians out of the way through forced relocation (Cherokees) and at worst, to wipe out them and their cultures (Sioux).

By 1900 – not too long after the small band of Jamul Kumeyaays had settled on the speck of land that would become their permanent home – disease, colonization and loss of lands had reduced the number of California Indians to about 16,000 from an estimated population of 300,000 in 1779.

Many Americans shrug off our sad history with Indians, saying it happened far away and long ago. The termination policy of the 1950s, however, was your father’s, grandfather’s and, if you’re old enough, your history.

Through gaming, Indians are regaining self-confidence in Indian ways. Yes, casino revenues are buying scholarships, schools and clinics. But there’s more: physicians and Indian healers work together to treat heart problems, diabetes and substance abuse in their Indian patients; native nerds are wiring Indian Country; tribal museums tell the Indian story in Indian voices. Through revenue-sharing, non-gaming tribes receive casino money; Jamul, for instance, gets $1.1 million annually.

With economic betterment has come a population boom; Indians are the fastest growing group in the United States. Nearly 30 percent of the Jamul band is under the age of 18, and California’s Indian population is back up to 300,000. Casino revenue also supports fire departments, symphony orchestras and parks for communities outside of the reservations.

No doubt, gaming has also brought corruption but nothing on the scale of, say, the Enron debacle. As for organized crime, so far the worst has come from Jack Abramoff, a conservative lobbyist with strong ties to the Bush Administration.

Most observers and Indian leaders know that casinos have a short shelf life. The Wall Street Journal reported in September 2005 that revenues are slowing as casinos proliferate. In addition, the IRS is now questioning how gaming revenues are used. Smart tribes have quietly been leveraging gaming revenues into diversified enterprises – real estate, retailing and investing.

Tribes without casinos see their risks rising if they wait too long to build. The Minnesota-based Lakes Entertainment, which is Jamul’s bank and backer, is in trouble for failing to file quarterly reports with the SEC; NASDAQ has delisted its stock. Jacob said that tomorrow’s ceremony is “a phony groundbreaking that sends a phony message to investors that this project has a green light.”

Sadness aside, Pinto’s feelings are mixed. She’s excited because the long-awaited casino will probably be a reality and scared because something could threaten a decade-long dream. Pinto, 30, is a member of Jamul’s tribal council, and she coordinates Jamul’s youth program. Because they are now scattered, the Jamul kids miss each other. As the holidays approach, Pinto will bring them back to the reservation to make and decorate cookies.

Pinto is clearly concerned about her community’s integrity. She believes that the cemetery that the Jamuls have tended for more than a century will keep them together, however. In November, they light candles at the cemetery, and in May, they clean the graveyard.

“Our tradition will still be here as long as the cemetery is here. We’ll always come back to clean it, to take care of it,” Pinto said.

Cathy Robbins is a freelance journalist whose articles about Indians have appeared in High Country News and The New York Times. She is writing a book, “All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos).”

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