Thursday, August 9, 2012

Casino: Where There's Smoke There's Smoke

The Shooting Star Casino and hotel is located in Mahomen, MN located 36 miles north of Detroit Lakes, MN (population 8600), the nearest significant town, 65 miles from the Fargo-Morehead area on the Minnesota-North Dakota border, 80 miles from St.Cloud, MN, 200 miles from Winnipeg and 240 miles from Minneapolis-St.Paul, MN.  In other words, the Shooting Star Casino is on the White Earth Indian Reservation a long way from any population center, in an isolated area of the state.

We arrived about 3pm on a Monday afternoon for a conference being held in an adjacent conference building and staying in a hotel attached to the casino. Lots of conferences are held in casinos because they offer cheap sleeping room rates and meeting rooms at low or in some cases, no charges as long as a minimum number of sleeping rooms are booked. 

The parking lot in front of the hotel and casino was almost full when we arrived. We wonder where in the world all these people come from, arriving at the White Earth Indian Reservation in the middle of an unpopulated forested and farming area of Northwest Minnesota? Astounding!  Most of the license plates are from Minnesota, but some are from North and South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Manitoba.  A large charter bus was parked near the entrance of the hotel when we arrived which had recently unloaded its passengers.

The town of Mahomen, with a population of 1,200 and is about 6 by 12 blocks on Minnesota highway 59.  It has few shops and nearly no entertainment other than the gambling casino. There is a bar in town for every 5 by 5 block area. Mahomen has a small coffee shop called the Red Apple, the Wild Rice Lounge, a Subway restaurant, Supervalue grocery store, and the Lucky 7 liquor store, a hardware store, a bank, the Maytag Laundromat, the Lean To bar, a small community hospital and clinic and a small community college.  Mahomen, MN is a difficult place to live six months out of the year, with average low temperature in January of -8 degrees F and more than one inch of snow falls on half of the days in January.  Winter low temperatures of -18 to -24 are not uncommon.  The reservation is sparsely populated (8.4 people per square mile) and includes some farms and scattered individual homes. That compares with 571 people per square mile in Hennepin County where Minneapolis is located). Many people who work at the casino live in Detroit lakes or nearby towns from 35-50 miles away.

There is not much to do in Mahomen but gamble or drink, though in good weather fishing and hunting is possible.  This isn’t Las Vegas with swanky restuarants and glittery non-stop shows with dancers and bands.  The casino offers entertainment Friday or Saturday evening, such as Bill Engvall (a country-western comedian), Creedance Clearwater Revival or Williams & Ree (who describe themselves as “The Indian and the White Guy", a singing comedy team).  Show tickets are from $20 to $60 so obviously few local people are able to attend.

After checking into our hotel room, we wandered around to check out the place.  The casino is connected by a short hallway to another building where the conference we were attending was being held.  As soon as we reached the hallway leading to the casino we are met by the strong smell of cigarette smoke.  The casino has colorful neon lights on nearly every vertical surface.  By mid-afternoon, around half of the gambling machines were occupied with people intently staring at the displays and punching buttons as the symbols “spun,” emulating old-fashioned slot machines making synthesized whirring sounds and occasional electronic “dings.”  The machines are set up shoulder to shoulder across several large rooms the size of a small auditorium in a typical conference center. As far as I could tell, most people gambling are Anglos.  

 Gamblers appear to be mostly older people, 40 years old and older.  Most people appear to be heavy smokers, alternately inhaling their cigarettes or flicking ashes in their ashtrays next to each machine, and punching the keys on the gambling machines.  The air is very dense with cigarette smoke. For a non-smoker the smoke level is very noxious.  The three restaurants in the complex are only accessible by walking through the casino.  One offers “fine dining,” the second informal table service and the third a buffet.  There is no effort to separate the smoking area of the casino from the restaurants.  A study by an independent group in California reported that smoke-filled Indian casinos have up to 50 times more cancer causing particles in the air than highways and city streets clogged with diesel trucks in rush hour traffic. Indian Casinos are exempt from state and federal laws regarding policies regulating smoking in public places, because they are a sovereign nation and regulate their own health and environmental policies.  Among Native American plains tribes, about 50% of adults are smokers who have a very high rate of health problems associated with smoking.

Almost no talking occurs among casino patrons.  It seems eerie to see a couple hundred people seated nearly shoulder-to-shoulder staring at screens, with no one interacting.  On one side of the casino is a long curved bar down a few steps below the level of the gambling machines.  Though it’s still early in the day, a half dozen people are sipping their beers or drinks and watching the gamblers.  Others are seated at nearby tables chatting, drinking and smoking. Most amazingly, some people were already gambling by 8am when we came down for breakfast the next morning,   and by 6 or 7pm all of the machines are occupied, with their lights blinking  and machines producing pinball-like sounds beeping and ringing sounds. 

For some reason this activity is called gaming, I suppose for the same reasons AK-47s assault rifles are euphemistically called fire-arms instead of guns or weapons.  Gaming used to refer to playing games, like rummy or Monopoly or croquet.  Now “gaming” is only used to refer to gambling, and most commonly gambling in Indian casinos. 

As we left the casino another long distance chartered bus was unloading its passengers in front of the hotel entrance, mostly middle aged and older people with white hair, some with canes with difficulty walking being helped down the steps, including a couple with oxygen tubes inserted in their nostrils.  They were all heading for the casino. Several police and uniformed security officers are visible in the lobby and walking through the casino.  A security guard walks the hotel hallways with a drug dog sniffing at guest room doors, apparently smelling for marihuana or other volatile drugs.   Who would come all the way to this incredibly isolated place to use drugs?  I guess some people must, at least one of the officers said some people do.

Many of the people employed by the casino, from the front desk, to buffet dining room,  house cleaning staff and maintenance people, appear to be Native American.  This is the largest employer in this region, which is one of the poorest counties in the state.  No one here seems to know what portion of the gambling proceeds are returned to the White Earth Reservation for health, education and other human services, though local people seem to believe it is most of the net profits. There is little evidence of such facilities in Mahomen other than the Community College, though the village of White Earth some miles away has a child development center supported by gambling money which provides services for young children. There is a history of scandals in some Indian casinos, in which the tribal leadership had skimmed off a substantial percentage of the proceeds for their own use.

Because Indian casinos, which exist in 28 states in the US, are on the property of sovereign nations, as a visitor you lose your rights as a US citizen once on the reservation property.  If you have any grievance against the casino (e.g. think you were cheated) or if your property is stolen from your room or you slip and fall on slippery floor and break a leg, you have no recourse through US law enforcement or courts; You must seek redress through the tribal criminal justice or court system, which may not be very helpful.

The word Mahomen is Ojibwe for Wild Rice, which continues to be another source of income in the area. When one considers the understandable pride of the Objibwe Anishinaabe community in their traditions and values (honesty, humility, truth, wisdom, love, respect and bravery), and their ties to the land, it is difficult to reconcile those traditions with gambling as the primary income source.   Some people sardonically believe gambling casinos are Native American retribution for the abuses and crimes of White people against their ancestors. Perhaps so, but it is a high price to pay. 

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