This column appeared Friday, January 12, 2018, in The Manhattan Mercury.
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. When compared to the Kansas which surrounded the reservation, it felt a bit like despair.
It was 1991 and the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribe was in a race with the Kickapoo tribe to be the first Native American tribe within the borders of Kansas to open a casino. As a journalist covering government, I got the story.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 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.
They saw hope.
There are four Native American reservations within the borders of our state, all north and east of Topeka: The Prairie Band Potawatomi, the Kickapoo, the Sac & Fox and the Iowa.
In my reporting, I made many visits to these reservations and got to know the tribal council leaders. Didn’t take long to catch on to the notion that tribal councils are just like any governance structure. They’re as effective as the individual and collective capacity of the human beings who serve.
I built a reporter-source 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 opportunities a casino might bring to his people.
At first, George was reluctant to go on camera. I had to bring him around. Explained the power television could have to shape public opinion. Shared that most viewers would feel sympathy for their plight. Eventually, he agreed. The first time we put him on TV, I stressed to our technicians in charge of on-screen graphics, the importance of spelling George's name correctly. They got it half right. When George’s head-and-shoulders shot appeared on screen, the graphic read:
PRAIRIE BAND POTAWATOMI TRIBAL COUNCIL CHAIR
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.
It’s hard to say what motivated Congress to pass IGRA. Even though casinos were never going to give the tribes what was taken from them in the 19th century, one can imagine at the core was pure, unvarnished guilt. Not sure there’s a greater example of white privilege than manifest destiny.
The Kickapoo tribe beat the others to the finish line, opening their Golden Eagle casino near Horton in the spring of ’96. Eventually, all four tribes in Kansas opened casinos. I don’t know enough to pass judgment on whether the tribal casinos have been a success in the state where I live and whether they have achieved any of the goals the tribal councils dreamed of in the planning stages. You can count the number of times I’ve visited them on one hand. Not really much of a gambler.
I guess it may depend on who's defining the word, “success.” Sometimes I wonder if the tribes just traded headaches.
Last year, when I served on the task force created to make recommendations to the Manhattan school board on the mascot controversy, I thought a lot about my time with the tribes whose reservations lie within the borders of Kansas.
I’m grateful for both experiences. My knowledge about how the tribes navigated the path to casinos and my experiences with the tribal leaders who did the work helped inform my thinking in the MHS mascot conversation. Absent each involvement, my knowledge about the broader Native American experience would have been limited to John Wayne movies.
I’ve noticed that when I expand the boundaries of my own knowledge, insight nearly always follows.