Ticket to Wherewithal

Soon after you crossed the boundary onto the reservation, it felt somehow different. Ramshackle homes in need of repair. Minimal to non-existent commerce. Dilapidated infrastructure. It felt like failure.

It felt like despair.

It was 1991 and the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribe was in a race with the Kickapoos to be the first Native American tribe in Kansas to open a casino. As a journalist covering government, I got the story.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act gave tribes with established reservations the green light to develop casinos and for the first time ever, really, the tribes saw a light at the end of a desperate tunnel. I'll resist the temptation to use a hackneyed "jackpot" analogy, but they saw jobs and a consistent revenue stream for the tribe.

They saw hope.

The tribes wanted what they've always wanted. What the white man took from them.


Their tribes recognized as their own government, cultural and societal structure. 

But they lacked the necessary savvy and wherewithal. Casinos were their ticket to wherewithal.

Hard to say what motivated Congress to pass IGRA in the late '80s, but its not a stretch to assume that at the core was pure, unvarnished guilt.

Opportunity, like nature, it seems, abhors a vacuum and into this milieu swooped all manner of "consultants," "experts" and operators from the gaming industry. Some legit, some charlatans. 

All slick. You lack savvy? Don't you worry about it. I got your savvy.

There are four Native American reservations within the borders of Kansas, all north and east of Topeka: The Prairie Band Potawatomi, the Kickapoo, the Sac & Fox and the Iowa.

I made many visits to these reservations and got to know the tribal council leaders. Built a relationship with the then-Chair of the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribal council. Soft-spoken and unassuming, George Wahquahboshkuk was proud of his heritage and excited about the future.

George was reluctant to go on camera. I had to work him. Explained the power television could have to shape public opinion. Shared that most viewers would feel sympathy for their plight. Eventually, he came around. The first time we put him on TV, I stressed to our techs in charge on on-screen graphics, the importance of spelling George's name correctly.

"We owe it to these guys to do right by them."

They got it half right. When George's mug appeared on screen, the graphic read:

Gerge Wahquahboshkuk

Gerge? Really?

An honest mistake, if not incredibly ironic. But the damage was done. When you don't have anything, pride is everything. I called George and apologized.

Eventually, all four tribes in Kansas got casinos. I don't know enough to pass judgment on whether the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act has been a success where I live. Since leaving journalism 15 years ago, you can count the number of times I've been to the tribal casinos on one hand.

I guess it depends on who's defining the word, "success." Sometimes I wonder if the tribes just traded headaches.

There are times when I miss the story-telling aspects of journalism. Guess that's one of the reasons I have a blog.