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June 2, 2005

Exploring Indian gaming: Pilot class breaks stereotypes, myths

News and Information

When Mary Wright created a pilot class to study the world of Indian gaming and casinos, she knew lectures and readings would only go so far.

So Wright, a senior lecturer in the American Indian Studies Program (who also has an appointment in the History Department) also arranged field trips to local Indian-owned casinos. She and her students did not gamble, to be sure, but the class still came out ahead — with a greater understanding of a controversial issue and blueprint for similar classes to follow in the curriculum.

Wright said she tracks news stories of importance to Native Americans and became interested in the area of Indian gaming largely through questions of sovereignty, since tribal governments answer to both state and federal regulating authorities.

Early on in “Casinos and Indian Gaming,” her special topics class, Wright introduced her students to historical gaming traditions among tribes and provided an overview of how tribes interact with the U.S. government. She brought in speakers from tribal councils as well as the Washington State Gaming Commission. The class also read and discussed such related topics as the the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the economic impact of casinos and gambling addiction and treatment.

“We looked at the history, how it first started out with traditional games, and how bingo started,” Wright said. “And the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act passed in 1988 — we looked at what happened here in Washington state.”

Along the way, the class also visited the Muckleshoot Casino in Auburn and the Tulalip Casino outside of Marysville.

After the quarter’s study was done, Wright said she had come away with a new understanding of Indian gaming and its regulation. “I was quite impressed with the level of management exerted (at the casinos),” she said. “The people I met are very smart, they’re top administrators, and they really have the system under control.” Wright also praised tribes in the gaming business for using the revenue for good causes such as tribal social services, economic expansion and education. “In terms of what I’ve learned, it sure looked like they are using (the money) well,” she said.

Tom Colonnese, director of the American Indian Studies Program, praised Wright for shining light on an important topic. “Casinos are an important element of contemporary life within many reservation communities. Yet there’s such a misunderstanding and myth around Indian casinos, that having a course that explores the realities of American Indian gaming — both its histories and in contemporary life — is a wonderful sort of class to have.”

Colonnese also said, “The class has created some of the best outreach efforts we’ve had with Washington State nations. The tribal people who volunteered to come to class, who gave up their time and explained things about gambling — they create some of the very best connections we have with Washington State nations.”

Wright said the class also studied the range of emotions expressed about Indian gaming. “There’s a real backlash in the nonnative community, people who don’t want to see the Indians with money or influence,” she said, especially if that translates into political lobbying power. “People are ignorant in our culture about Indian nations,” she said.

Wright said she might revise the class next time she holds it, to make it a little more palatable to undergraduates. But Colonnese said most first-time courses are like “shake-down cruises,” tending to highlight problems to be smoothed out later.

Student Brandon Blodgett, himself a member of the Yakama tribe, said he appreciated the approach of the class to Indian issues. “It was really interesting,” he said. “I’m an American Indian Studies major and it just seems like most of the classes I take kind of situate Indians in the past — so it was nice to take a class about a current issue.”

Wright said, “This was a real learning experience for all of us.”