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The Wind River Casino is doing well, but some tribal members expect more

The Northern Arapaho Tribe opened the doors to its full-scale casino in 2005. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports that eight years into the venture, the casino is making money but some wonder where it’s going. 

IRINA ZHOROV: The Wind River Casino has been open for almost a decade but it’s still a novelty to walk into; whirring slot machines, dimmed lights, card tables, all on the edge of Riverton on a piece of prairie.

[sound of machines]

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act – which established a regulatory structure for Native American gaming – was enacted in 1988 but a decade after that Wyoming law makers still thought that gambling had no place in the state. The Northern Arapaho tribe thought different and fought the state in court for the right to build a casino with the full gamut of gaming. It took ten years, but when they won, they won big. Andrew Baldwin represented the tribe in court:

ANDREW BALDWIN: The Northern Arapaho tribe is the only tribe to be operating Class III gaming without a tribal state compact. One of the things that’s different about that is that there is no funding or no payment going from the tribe to the state. Most tribal state compacts have a provision where the tribe is paying the state some percentage of their revenues every year. So the Arapaho tribe is not making that payment.

ZHOROV: With no compact in place and business booming, the tribe should have more money to use as it deems necessary. But there is a broad set of rules about what casino money can be used for.

BALDWIN: The federal statute, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and regulation and tribes own gaming code requires that net gaming revenues be spent to fund tribal government operations or programs or to provide for the general welfare of the tribe or to promote to the tribe’s economic development.  

ZHOROV: That was the whole point of Indian-run casinos, to create a revenue stream for tribes. So has the casino accomplished that goal for the Arapahos?

That depends on who you ask. The casino’s CEO, Jim Conrad, says the casino has been an emphatic success.

JIM CONRAD: I think the biggest thing is jobs that are available for tribal members and for others, but mostly for the tribal members. Because they really haven’t had opportunities, and so right now we’re around 700 and just short of 600 of all of our employees are Native American.

ZHOROV: For several years after the casino’s opening the unemployment rates in Fremont County were notably lower that they had been for the five years before its opening…But it’s not clear how much of that was the casino. That lasted until the recession hit in 2009.

According to Conrad, the starting wage is around $8.50 per hour, and the average wage is around $11 per hour. But Conrad says that in addition to the wages, these jobs provide opportunities that did not exist before: jobs for tribal members who have had trouble finding work, job training, and experience and confidence so that people can go on to find even better, higher-paying jobs.   

But other tribal members say the casino should be delivering more. Cindy Washakie, who used to run the Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, program, says low wage jobs don’t exactly fix anything.

CINDY WASHAKIE: The casino jobs, their wages are below income guidelines because the young families they would be eligible for WIC, which goes on the poverty level income guidelines. So that would mean that if they are eligible for WIC they would be eligible for food stamps. So they’re working but they’re hardly making any money to qualify for that.

ZHOROV: Another tribal program employee, Zola Killsontop, says she hasn’t seen much good stemming from the casino, either.

ZOLA KILLSONTOP: I have children that are enrolled in different tribes, and they’re getting dividends, and their casino has started how many years later than ours did. They’re already seeing, they’re already reaping the benefits from their casino that we, the Arapaho people, should have seen way before.

ZHOROV: But Conrad, the CEO, says that’s an unfair analysis. He says the naysayers are comparing the Wind River Casino to much bigger operation in much more populated places like California. According to Conrad those casinos make in two or three days what the Wind River makes in a month. 

What’s more, since the casino revenues are supposed to be used for the betterment of the tribe, the casino profits are used to balance the books for some of the struggling businesses the tribe runs. 

CONRAD: A lot of the reason they’re struggling is because we’re providing a service. Some of the elders tell me that they remember the days when you couldn’t even get a cup of coffee on the reservation. There was nothing for them. And now they have a Laundromat, so they don’t have to travel to Riverton or Lander, a grocery store….So there’s a lot of things we do on the rez where we know going in that we’re not going to be able to make money.

ZHOROV: While Conrad may be correct Washakie says it’s hard to know when tribal members are kept in the dark about the finances. She says the tribal government – known as the Business Council – who handle the casino’s money are not transparent enough.

Irina Zhorov is a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She earned her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA from the University of Wyoming. In between, she worked as a photographer and writer for Philadelphia-area and national publications. Her professional interests revolve around environmental and energy reporting and she's reported on mining issues from Wyoming, Mexico, and Bolivia. She's been supported by the Dick and Lynn Cheney Grant for International Study, the Eleanor K. Kambouris Grant, and the Social Justice Research Center Research Grant for her work on Bolivian mining and Uzbek alpinism. Her work has appeared on Voice of America, National Native News, and in Indian Country Today, among other publications.
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