On some Indian reservations, small businesses were booming in the early twenty-first century, and there were indications that the typically poor reservation infrastructure was improving. Economic improvement is notable, especially on reservations where gambling has incubated other business activities. Reservations close to urban areas with large gambling clienteles have benefited the most, while those in rural areas, for the most part, have experienced little improvement. Even in rural areas, however, business activity has improved where activities such as Native-owned banks have been initiated. An example is provided by the Montana Blackfeet, in and near Browning, with banking activity founded by Eloise Cobell (who also initiated a class action lawsuit seeking an accounting for the federal government's mishandling of Indian royalty accounts). In general, however, Native Americans living on reservations, especially in the Great Plains, continue to be among the poorest people in the United States.
Poverty on the PlainsIn the 2000 Census, Buffalo County, South Dakota, home of the Lower Brule Indian Reservation, had the lowest per capita income in the United States. The second-lowest ranking was Shannon County, South Dakota, home of the Pine Ridge Reservation. In Buffalo County, 61.8 percent of the children lived in poverty, the highest rate in the United States, followed by Zieback County (61.2 percent) and Shannon County (61 percent). These rates were much higher than those in any urban area.
The 2000 Census also indicated that South Dakota as a whole had the largest percentage increase in the United States for household median income between 1990 and 2000. At the same time, Buffalo County, home of the 3,500-member Crow Creek Sioux, and Shannon County remained as the two poorest counties in the United States. In Buffalo County, the largest and most successful business during the 1990s was the Lode Star Casino. Shannon County has benefited somewhat from federal empowerment zone status that brought the county millions in federal dollars for economic development and a visit from President Bill Clinton.
Crime Rates Rise
According to Jeffrey Wollock, writing in Native Americas, crime rates on reservations have been rising. Indians twelve to twenty years old are 58 percent more likely to be crime victims than whites and blacks. Indians under age fifteen are murdered at twice the rate of whites. Census figures for 2000 support this trend.
The contemporary murder rate on Indian reservations is five times the average in the United States as a whole: twenty-nine per 100,000 people, compared to 5.6. The average in U.S. urban areas is seven per 100,000 (Crime Rate, 2003, 11). An Indian Country Crime Report, compiled from 1,072 cases prosecuted in U.S. district courts, did not include felonies committed by non-Indians on reservations. Some small reservations have very high murder rates, according to this report. The Salt River Pima Maricopa community in Arizona, for example, had six murders among 6,405 people, a murder rate seventeen times the national average. The Gila River reservation, with 11,257 enrolled members, suffered eleven murders, for a similar rate (Crime Rate, 2003, 11). According to Mac Rominger, an FBI agent on the Hopi and Navajo reservations, chronic problems such as alcoholism and poverty were compounded by isolation. "Ninety-five per cent of the violent crime out there is directed towards family and friends," he said (Crime Rate, 2003, 11).
Youth suicide among Native Americans is twice the rate of non-Indians. The American Medical Association reports that one in five Indian girls attempt suicide before leaving high school. The alcoholism death rate is four times the national average (Wollock, 2003, 30). Additionally, about 40 percent of Native Americans in the United States live in sub-standard housing, compared with an average of 6 percent for the rest of the population. The crisis for Native American young people is closely tied to the loss of culture, with youth "stuck between two worlds" (Wollock, 2003, 30). Many more Native youth than in earlier times cannot speak their own languages and have little grasp of their traditional culture and history.
Pikangikum's Continuing Desolation
Statistics can assume a terrifying profile when they are described in the context of one small village. Take, for example, the Ojibwa-Cree village of Pikangikum, about 200 miles northeast of Winnipeg. Pikangikum has the highest documented suicide rate in the world. It is a place where the main recreational pastime for young people is glue sniffing. The reserve's only school was closed for more than a year because of a fuel leak. Pikangikum's water treatment plant closed nearly as long, also because of an accidental fuel leak.
Eighty to 90 percent of the adults in Pikangikum were unemployed in 2003. The village is so overcrowded (with 400 homes for 2,100 people) that some people sleep in shifts to make beds available for others. All food is flown in, so prices are about five times the average for the rest of Canada.
Forty young people killed themselves in Pikangikum during the ten years ending in 2004. The same rate would have yielded 70,500 suicides in a city of 3 million people. Most of the suicides involved women who hung themselves (Elliott, 2001a, A-15). In 2000 alone, nine Ojibwa girls, aged five to thirteen, killed themselves in Pikangikum. Those suicides sent the year's suicide rate up to 470 deaths per 100,000, thirty-six times the Canadian national average. Three more young women killed themselves between midMay and mid-June 2001. "When young women who are the bearers of life start to kill themselves, it's a real reflection on the health of the community," said Arnold Devlin of Dilico Child and Family Services in Thunder Bay (Elliott, 2000).
Since 1995, the Pikangikum Youth Patrol, a team of young volunteers, has scoured Pikangikum almost every night looking for huddles of gas sniffers, whose spine-chilling howls permeate the community at night, but the young addicts often scatter into the darkness before patrollers can reach them. At peak suicide times like summer and fall, there's an attempt or two every night (Elliott, 2000).
Alcoholism: The Continuing Toll
Second only to the ravages of smallpox and other diseases, alcoholism has been the major cause of early death and other forms of misery for Native Americans since the "discovery" of the Americas by Columbus. Scarrooyady, an Iroquois sachem, told Pennsylvania treaty commissioners in 1750: "Your traders now bring us scarce anything but rum and flour. The rum ruins us. Those wicked whiskey sellers, when they have got the Indians in liquor, make them sell the very clothes from their backs!" (Johansen, 1982, 68). In 1832, the sale of alcoholic beverages to Indians was made illegal, an act that was not repealed until the early 1950s, when it became evident that prohibition produced a bootlegging industry little different from that which flourished nationwide during the 1920s and early 1930s.
Alcoholism continues to be a major problem today. The disease of alcoholism is the single leading cause of death in many Native American communities. Today, the sharpest increases in alcoholism exist in remote places such as Alaska and the Canadian North, where Native peoples have only recently been deprived of their traditional ways of life. In Manitoba, for example, several hundred Native people whose lands were flooded have been moved to settlements where they are no longer allowed (or able) to wrest a living from the land. Alcoholism and other forms of social disorientation have followed suit.
Even today, among Plains Indians, a large majority of Native American men drink alcohol, as does a smaller majority of Native women. By age seventeen, a majority of Indian boys and a large minority of Indian girls are steady drinkers. Drinking among Indian young people has been related directly to the highest suicide rate in the United States for any age group. Alcohol abuse also correlates to low educational achievement, poor health, and high rates of unemployment and crime among Indian youth.
Nationwide, American Indians have, for several years, averaged twelve times the number of arrests, per capita, as the general population. Three-quarters of these arrests are alcohol-related, almost twice the national average. About half of the Indian Health Service's caseload has been directly or indirectly attributed to alcohol use. Cirrhosis of the liver was a frequent cause of hospitalization and eventually death. According to the Indian Health Service (IHS), cirrhosis of the liver occurs in American Indians at five times the rate of the general population. The IHS also reports that many child-battering cases are alcohol related.
For a number of reasons, most of them cultural, traditional non-Indian treatments, from hospitalization to non-Indian chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous, have had very little success dealing with Indian alcoholism. Indian self-determination has prompted Native treatment programs with mixed results. Although the idea of Indians treating Indians was hailed as revolutionary in some quarters, it is not really new. Since at least the days of the Iroquois spiritual leader Handsome Lake in the early nineteenth century, Indian religious figures have opposed the use of alcohol and achieved moderate success.
Gambling: The New Buffalo?
In the late twentieth century, commercial gambling became a major source of income on some Indian reservations across the United States. While many Native American cultures traditionally practiced forms of gambling as a form of sport (such as the Iroquois Peachstone game), no Native American historical precedent exists for large-scale experience with gambling as a commercial enterprise. The arrival of gaming has brought dividends to some Native American peoples and controversy culminating in firefights and death for others.
The history of reservation-based commercial gambling began in 1979, when the Seminoles became the first Native nation to enter the bingo industry. By early 1985, seventy-five to eighty of the 300 recognized Indian tribes in the United States were conducting some sort of commercial game of chance. By the fall of 1988, the Congressional Research Service estimated that about 100 Indian nations and tribes participated in some form of gambling, which grossed about $255 million a year. By 1991, 150 of 278 Native reservations recognized by non-Indian governmental bodies had some form of gambling. According to the Interior Department, gross revenue from such operations passed $1 billion that year.
American Indian gaming revenue grew to $10.6 billion in 2000, representing 16 percent of the $64.9 billion generated by gaming in the United States as a whole (Wanamaker, 2002). By 2002, Indian gaming revenue had grown to $14.5 billion, but, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission, 65 percent of the cash was flowing into only 7 percent of the gaming tribes (Fialka, 2004, A-4). Also according to the National Indian Gaming Association, Indian gaming by 2002 contributed approximately $120 million in state and local tax receipts annually, and gaming patrons spent an estimated $237 million in local communities around Indian casinos (Marquez, 2002). Of the 562 federally recognized Native American governmental entities in the United States at that time, 201 participated in Class II or Class III gaming. Class II makes such games as bingo, pull tabs, lotto, punchboards, and certain card games permissible under individual state laws. Class III includes everything else, such as casino-style table games, like roulette and craps, and card games such as poker and blackjack. Indian casinos operated in twenty-nine states under a total of 249 separate gaming compacts (Wanamaker, April 5, 2002).
Individual prizes in some reservation bingo games were reported to be as high as $100,000, while bingo stakes in surrounding areas under state jurisdiction were sometimes limited to $100. The reasons for growth in gambling on Indian land were readily apparent. Native governments sensed an opportunity for income that could make a substantial improvement in their economic conditions. A lack of state or federal regulation provided them with a competitive advantage over off-reservation gambling. These advantages included a lack of state-imposed limits on the size of pots or prizes, no restrictions by the states on days or hours of operations, no costs for licenses or compliance with state regulations, and (unless they were negotiated) no state taxes on gambling operations.
Gambling now provides a small galaxy of material benefits for some formerly impoverished Native peoples. A half hour's drive from the Twin Cities, for example, blackjack players crowd forty-one tables, while 450 other players stare into video slot machines inside the teepee-shaped Little Six Casino, operated by the 103 members of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux tribe. Each member of the tribe receives a monthly dividend check that can amount to several thousand dollars as a shareholder in the casino. In addition to dividends, members became eligible for homes (if they lacked them), guaranteed jobs (if they were unemployed), and full college scholarships. The tribal government took out health insurance policies for everyone on the reservation and established day care for the children of working parents.
Gambling, Politics, and the New York OneidasIn 1970, the New York Oneidas' landholdings were down to thirty-two acres east of Syracuse. The tribe had almost no economic infrastructure. Three and a half decades later, the New York Oneidas own a large casino, the Turning Stone, which has incubated a number of other business ventures, making them one of the largest employers in the Syracuse area. Many of the roughly 1,000 Oneidas who reside in the area receive substantial material benefits.
By 2005, the Turning Stone was earning an estimated net profit of at least $70 million a year on about $250 million in gross income. Roughly 5 million visitors pass through the casino's doors per year (many of them repeat visitors). The casino's influence on the tax base of nearby small towns is enormous. James Chapell, mayor of the town of Oneida, for example, said that the Oneidas had taken so much land off the tax rolls that the town's tax revenues fell from $700,000 to $139,000 in one year (Randolph, 2003). The town of Oneida has resisted requesting financial help from the Oneida Indian Nation, but nearby Verona, which faced similar declines in tax revenue, negotiated funding for a water project as well as $800,000 for local services (Randolph, 2003).
Meanwhile, a substantial dissident movement has grown among Oneidas who assert that Raymond Halbritter, the "nation representative" of the New York Oneidas, was never voted into such an office. This group is centered in the Shenandoah family, which includes the notable singer Joanne Shenandoah and her husband, activist Doug George-Kanentiio. They believe that the New York Oneidas under Halbritter established a business, called it a nation, and acquired the requisite approvals from New York State and the United States federal government to use this status to open the Turning Stone. The dissidents' benefits as Oneidas were discontinued after they took part, during 1995, in a march for democracy to make these points (Johansen, 2002, 25–43).
The New York Oneidas under Halbritter's aegis appointed a men's council (a body unheard of in traditional matrilineal Iroquois law or tradition), which issued a zoning code to beautify the Oneida Indian Nation. This code enabled Halbritter's fifty-four-member police force (patrolling a thirty-two-acre reservation) to "legally" evict from their homes Oneidas who opposed his role as tribal leader. Halbritter's control also was buttressed by the acquisition of a number of other businesses, a phalanx of public relations spin doctors, several lawyers, and ownership of Indian Country Today, a national Native American newspaper.
The story of the New York Oneidas is a particularly raw example of conflicts that beset many Native American nations that have attempted to address problems of persistent poverty and economic marginalization by opening casinos. Supporters of the casinos see them as the new buffalo, while opponents look at them as a form of internal colonization, an imposition of European-descended economic institutions and values on Native American peoples.
The recent experience of the Oneidas of New York raised several significant questions for Indian Country as a whole. Is the Oneida model of an economic powerhouse key to defining the future of Native American sovereignty in the opening years of the twenty-first century, as many of its supporters believe? Materially, the New York Oneidas have gained a great deal in a quarter century, including the repurchase of 14,000 acres of land. Have these gains been offset by an atmosphere of stifling totalitarianism and a devastating loss of traditional bearings, as many Oneida dissidents attest?
The Foxwoods Money MachineMashantucket means "the much-wooded land." The word "Foxwoods" is a combination of the notion of forest and the Pequots' reputation as "the fox people." Foxwoods started as a very small bingo parlor after roughly forty banks refused to loan money to the Pequots. The bingo parlor began operating in 1986 and became wildly successful, drawing its clientele mainly from the urban corridor that stretches from Boston to New York City. Having obtained backing from outside the United States, the Pequots opened their full-scale casino in 1992. At the time, Foxwoods was the only gaming establishment on the East Coast offering poker, which was banned at the time in Atlantic City.
The first day Foxwoods opened, February 14, 1992, its 1,700-car parking lot was full by 10:30 a.m. Roughly 75,000 people passed through the casino's doors there during that first day, and 2,000 of them were still present at the casino's 4 a.m. closing time. During the ensuing decade, Foxwoods expanded, and became one of the most notable examples anywhere of Native American economic development.
By 2005, the Foxwoods complex was drawing an average of about 55,000 people most days. The Foxwoods Resort Casino complex includes five casinos housing 300,000 square feet of gaming space, 5,842 slot machines, 370 gaming tables, a 3,000-seat high-stakes bingo parlor with $1 million jackpots, a 200-seat Sportsbook, and a keno lounge. Table games included baccarat, mini-baccarat, big six wheels, blackjack, Caribbean stud poker, craps, Pai Gow, Pai Gow tiles, red dog, roulette, and a number of other games. The Foxwoods complex also includes four hotels ranging in size from 280 to 800 rooms each. In addition to gaming space and its four hotels, Foxwoods also offered twenty-three shopping areas, twenty-four food and beverage outlets, and a movie theater complex, as well as the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center and a Fox Grand Theater featuring Las Vegas-style entertainment.
Foxwoods quickly became a very large financial success for its sponsors, as well as for the government of Connecticut, to which the casino's management pledged a quarter of its profits. Foxwoods' gross revenues on its slot and video machines alone total about $9 billion a year. By 2004, the Foxwoods casino complex was paying the state of Connecticut $220 million a year in taxes. Foxwoods and a second casino, Mohegan Sun, paid the state of Connecticut $300 million to $350 million most years after 2000. The Mashantucket Pequots have become the state of Connecticut's largest single taxpayer and, with about 13,000 jobs, one of its larger employers. Fox-woods today is an integral pillar of Connecticut's economy and a multimillion-dollar contributor to the state's charities. The Pequots' casino even put up cash one year to help the state balance its budget. The casino complex employs a staff of lawyers and maintains its own permanent lobbying office in Washington, DC.
At the same time, the Pequots also became a significant contributor ($10 million) to the Smithsonian's new National Museum of the American Indian. That amount was soon matched by the New York Oneidas, drawing from its own casino profits. The Mashantucket Pequots also gave $2 million to the Special Olympics and $500,000 to the Hartford Ballet, as well as $5 million to the aquarium at Mystic, Connecticut. In June of 2001, the Mohegans, owners of the neighboring Mohegan Sun Casino, made an equal pledge.
Death at Akwesasne
While gambling has brought benefits to some Native American communities, it brought violence to the Akwesasne Mohawks of St. Regis in upstate New York. The violence erupted in part over the issue of gambling. After as many as seven casinos opened illegally along the reservation's main highway in the late 1900s, the area became a crossroads for the illicit smuggling of drugs, including cocaine, and tax-free liquor and cigarettes. Tensions escalated after early protests of gambling included the trashing of one casino and the burning of another and after gambling supporters attempted to repress this resistance with brutal force. When in April 1990 residents blockaded the reservation to keep the casino's customers out, gambling supporters responded by destroying the blockades. By then, violence had spiraled into brutal beatings of antigambling activists, drive-by shootings, and firefights. On May 1, 1990, two Mohawks were killed in related violence. The intervention of several police agencies from the United States and Canada followed the two deaths; outside police presence continued for years afterward (Johansen, 1993).
Everyone who is familiar with the Akwesasne Mohawk territory knows it has been the scene of considerable smuggling between the United States and Canada, but no one knew the extent of the traffic until its volume drew the attention of prosecutors and police in both countries. By 2000, with several convicted smugglers awaiting sentencing, the size of the smuggling industry outlined in court records astounded even veteran observers. The evidence presented by prosecutors outlined the largest smuggling operation since the U.S.–Canada border was established.
Akwesasne is the only Native American reservation that straddles the U.S.–Canadian border and, as such, has long provided a smuggling route for anything illegal that may be in demand across either border. This cargo has included cigarettes and hard liquor (which are taxed much more heavily in Canada than in the United States), several varieties of illegal narcotics, automatic weapons, and even human beings. Immigration authorities at one point broke a smuggling ring that was ferrying people (most of them illegal immigrants from Asia) across the border at a cost of $45,000 to $50,000 each. The cigarette smuggling trade is called "buttlegging," wordplay on bootlegging.
The right of Mohawks to cross the border unimpeded is recognized by the Jay Treaty (1794), which Canadian authorities have occasionally contested. Various enterprising Akwesasne residents have become adept at selling their connections as border middlemen, the central link in the smuggling chain. A few years ago, a story floated around the reservation that a local kingpin was negotiating to buy a small island in the Saint Lawrence River for about $225,000 for use as a smuggling base. After the two parties agreed on the price, the new owner walked to a closet in his home, which was stacked floor to ceiling with cash in large denominations. He peeled an inch or two off the top of the stack to pay for the island.
The Canadian federal government has asserted that taxing authorities in that country lost $750 million in potential revenue because of smuggling through Akwesasne between 1991 and 1997, when the big smuggling ring was busted. Nearly as much money was laundered through an armored-car business in Massena, New York. Prosecutors requested that U.S. District Court Judge Thomas McAvoy sentence John "Chick" Fountain of Massena to seven years in prison and forfeiture of an unspecified amount worth of personal property for his role in laundering $557 million through his armored car and currency exchange business. Before starting this business, Fountain had previously lived much more modestly as a New York State trooper.
Fountain, convicted on November 3, 1998, was one of twenty-seven people who prosecutors alleged had important roles in a smuggling ring that at its height operated large warehouses and squads of motorboats, which were used to ferry goods and people across the Saint Lawrence River. When the river was frozen, smuggling often took place in automobiles. The smuggling ring drew some well-known names at Akwesasne into its ambit, including longtime gambling developer Tony Laughing and former St. Regis Tribal Chief Leo David Jacobs, who was convicted of taking $32,000 in kickbacks paid to link Miller with a number of Akwesasne businessmen. One of these businessmen was Loran Thompson, owner of a marina, a restaurant, and what New York radio reporter Neil Drew of Malone, New York, called a very busy cigarette warehouse along the Saint Lawrence River, where millions of cartons were purchased for smuggling into Canada (Drew, 2001).
The alleged kingpin of the smuggling cartel was Larry Miller of Massena, who traveled the world in a Lear Jet and owned five houses in Las Vegas, as well as an estate not far from the source of his income: the porous international border through Akwesasne. According to court records, Miller made as much as $35 million a year at the height of the operation. Prosecutors suggested that Judge McAvoy fine Miller $160 million in cash and personal assets and sentence him to to seventeen to twenty-two years in prison. He was sentenced to 17.5 years in prison.
Small Businesses Boom at Akwesasne
While the smuggling at Akwesasne continues, today the main cross-reservation arterial (State Highway 37) is lined with businesses that did not exist two decades ago—not just the usual cheap gas and cigarettes, but the everyday goods that sustain people who live there. Mohawk-owned businesses secured government-backed loans and grants, resulting in the building of a small strip mall and enterprises ranging from lacrosse stick manufacturing to large-scale construction companies.
The local newspaper, Indian Time, in 2005 was flush with advertising from Akwesasne businesses, including A First Americans Food Store, The Village Currency Exchange, EScentULee (manicures, pedicures, facials, and the like), Little Bear Design (embroidery and design), Burning Sky Office Products, Four Seasons Lawn Care & Snow Removal, Grace & Allan's Discount Tobacco Products, St. Regis Mohawk Senior Center, CKON Radio, Broken Arrow Truck Stop/Gift Shop, Physical Limits Fitness Club, Clyde N Performance Plus (boats and motors), Akwesasne Mohawk Casino, Trade Zone Gasoline Station, Oakes Heating and Cooling, and Bear's Den Restaurant and Motel.
Bruce E. Johansen
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