San Diego If you like time travel but don't own a working time machine, try an automobile ride to the Viejas Casino and Turf Club. Travel east on I-8, past El Cajon, climb the grade to Alpine, a little further, exit on Willows Road, turn north over the freeway, and carry on.
Soon, very soon, the worn two-lane road widens into a newly paved, blacktop, four-lane boulevard. To the left is Viejas Casino, on the right is 172,000 square feet of shopping mall. Surrounding all like a giant tar lake are parking lots. Behold, time traveler! You have come upon a living fragment of Las Vegas, circa 1975, the last good year before that town entered into its elephantine era.
From Home Depot baseball cap tip to New Balance tennis shoe toe the Viejas Casino replicates that gentler age. Regard the enormous canopy covering the Viejas Casino entrance; move your eye down to the flock of yellow-vested valets serving a double line of cars. Note that each vehicle is filled with impatient customers-to-be. Continue into the casino and watch the cartoon-colored numbers and festive fruits spinning round 'n' round. Listen to the continual noise as garish electronic machines burp, slurp, and ring-a-ding-ding. Take a deep breath of cigarette smoke. Attempt to count how many security guards can stand in one large hall. Walk past green-felted blackjack tables manned by dealers in white shirts and red aprons slipping cards from a shoe box. Study, most of all, the patrons. Casinos sell glamour but attract people usually seen in the Laundromat of a bad neighborhood.
These observations might be considered insulting to participants, but I lived in Las Vegas in 1975. Coming here tonight is coming home. There are only two things lacking: (1) Waylon Jennings playing in the lounge for no cover; (2) Heineken and a shot of tequila for $1.25 at the long bar.
Tonight is Tuesday; specifically, Tuesday, November 3. Within the hour we'll know if California voters have passed Proposition 5, the Indian gaming initiative. In anticipation of victory, the casino, Viejas tribe, and initiative volunteers are throwing a party in the DreamCatcher Showroom.
Inside, a hundred celebrants slowly mill about the hall. This is a political victory party so attendees assume the position, to wit: two men and a woman, each holding a drink, form a half circle. They chat but make little eye contact. Instead, six orbs search the room for no particular reason or person. I am reminded of a lion languishing in the shade after finishing a fresh kill. At the moment the lion is not hungry but continues to watch the herd because that's what lions do.
Hung above and on either end of the stage are large television monitors; between them, an enormous TV screen. Right now a blonde news anchor is busy hyping the returns. On the south side of the hall are tables holding a half dozen computers set to various Internet election sites. Everywhere are banners that read, "Yes on 5. Indian Self-Reliance." There's a band, full bar, and four tables of thumb food.
First impression: A lot of white men wearing suits in here. Easily a 10-to-1 ratio of whites to Indians, maybe 15 to 1. I've been told there are 281 members of the Viejas Band, and it looks as if 271 stayed home. I am impressed.
It's 8:00 p.m., the polls have closed. I ask a Caucasian female in her 40s how she got involved with the campaign.
The plump, cheerful woman replies, "Through my neighbor. I've lived next door to her for 12 years. She works for the tribe. I used to whine about how the tribe was being screwed. She told me, 'Put your time where your mouth is, come on out.' So I did." The woman smiles to herself. "It's like one giant family, everyone is treated the same." Her face glows. "It's just a marvelous, marvelous place."
I try that sentiment on for a moment. "You know, I drove around the reservation yesterday," I say. "They have a new tribal center, but it's not oversized. They have a new fire station, but it's small -- same for the health center. The houses are typical backcountry houses. Nobody seems to be living large."
The woman agrees. "No. They share the money. They share it with other tribes, and they give a lot to charities." Two blue eyes sweep the room. "I want these tribes to win so badly. I wrote letters to the editor." She is proud.
I decide not to go into how much the sharing with other Indians will be, or that the sharing stops if anyone other than Indians can figure a way into this mother lode of money. Instead, I watch the blonde news anchor on the giant television. She is announcing election decisions. Computers and exit polls have made elections much like heavyweight championship fights: both events generate enormous anticipation followed by six minutes of action.
Intrigue, a not-bad rock 'n' roll band, begins a Stevie Nicks tune but is cut off before the first chorus by a diminutive white male wearing a speckled blue suit. Russ T. Nailz is this evening's master of ceremonies. He carries a cordless microphone and appears to exist within an intense, chalky-colored stage light. "Here are the Prop 5 absentee ballots." The crowd whistles and applauds. "Forty-one percent of the people of San Diego are stupid, while 59 percent are incredibly smart." Cha-ching. "What else we got?" Nailz looks over to the vote board. "The no-horse-eating thing is winning. 'Hey, Martha, no horse meat tonight!'" Cha-ching. "And Proposition O in Coronado, the tunnel prop, is winning by 80 percent. What is that? IT'S ALL SAND IN CORONADO!" Cha-ching.
I turn away and case the hall again. Standing before a semicircle of five people is a tall man; I make him for 6´2´´. His silky black hair is tied in a ponytail and falls below his waist. The man wears an off-white suit and wire-rimmed glasses. In this hall -- and my guess is, in any hall -- this is the one person your eyes would find.
He is Anthony Pico, 53, the chairman of the Viejas Band of the Kumeyaay Indians. I introduce myself and ask, "This initiative, if passed, is only a statutory law. Tomorrow, somebody is going to sue. This is the kind of a case that would make it to the California Supreme Court. The odds are high the court will look at the California Constitution, which says you can't have casino gambling in California, they'll look at the statutory law that has been passed by voters, and rule that since there is a conflict, the Constitution overrides a statutory law. Then what do you do?"
Pico is smooth. "Well, before then, we'll go to whoever the new governor is -- which appears to be Gray Davis -- sit down, and say, 'Hey, let's pound out a fair and equitable compact that respects Native American governments.' "
Pico is led off by a young woman to do a television interview. I meander, stage right, toward three tables that have been roped off. This area is reserved for tribal dignitaries, their wives, and guests. I talk to the vice chairman and a councilmember. I return to center-of-hall base camp. I chit. I chat. I pace. I mingle. I am bored. My feet hurt. The shiny blue-suited MC returns and rips, "You know him and you love him, it's my pleasure to introduce..."
Anthony Pico is at the podium. Prop 5 has passed by an enormous margin -- 20-plus points -- and this will be the official victory statement. "I don't mean to sound boastful, but there are some of us who knew from day one that we would prevail. We're on the verge of making history, and for everyone who says that voting doesn't make a difference or that you can't make changes to politics, we have to point to Proposition 5.
"Proposition 5 is more than a referendum on self-sufficiency for Native Americans. It's more than an initiative on gaming in California. We are on the verge of making history, not because the tribe ran a good campaign and spent a great deal of money doing so. Even if those are true statements, we are upon the verge of making history tonight because it will be the first time, not only California, but in the whole United States, that wealthy economic interests were not allowed to sacrifice the lives and the future generations of Indians to satisfy their greed."
When Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, he had no thought that a generation later I-8 would lie adjacent to the Viejas Indian Reservation. Nor could he predict that 18 years after his death, the Seminole tribe of Florida would open a bingo hall on its reservation, and, further, would offer prizes higher in value than other bingo emporiums within the state of Florida were permitted to offer.
Bring in the lawyers. U.S. Public Law 280 states that certain criminal state laws are applicable on Indian reservations. Seminoles were paying higher bingo prizes than allowed by state law. That was a criminal offense in Florida. Round up all the lawyers.
Eventually, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that high-stakes Indian bingo did not conflict with the public policy of Florida, since bingo was permitted in that state. Florida laws regulating bingo, even those laws carrying criminal penalties, were simply a part of a larger scheme meant to manage the activity and therefore did not fall within the scope of PL 280.
Seminoles 10. State of Florida 0. Indian gaming begins.
Fast forward 19 years and beam into the tribal office of chairman Anthony Pico. It's been three days since Prop 5 passed.
"Do you read a lot?" I begin.
Pico: I do read a lot. I'm a student.
Reader: What topics do you like?
Pico: Whatever is most current in business. I know when something is three years old, it's usually obsolete. So I try to keep as current as I can. We are in business and we're entrepreneurs and we're on the forefront of what we're doing. Reading helps me to know what I don't know, and that helps me make some decisions.
Reader: Anything else?
Pico: I like to read about leadership.
Reader: How do you lead?
Pico: Surrounding myself with the best people I can find and then taking their advice. It's about communication, morality, and actually stepping out and going forth.
Reader:The tribe has no debt service; the casino is paid for. I've read that every member of the band receives somewhere between $4000 to $6000 a month, free health care, and free education through Ph.D. How are you going to keep a tribe of less than 300 together when any member can go anywhere and do pretty much anything he wishes?
Pico: First of all, you're not going to be able to keep everybody here. We know that. But there are some things of commonality that will keep people together and, I believe, will keep them here. One is our history, our customs, and tradition. And the other is the practice of our customs, traditions, and culture, which we are working with now. This is the biggest challenge we have.
Most of us don't speak our language. I don't speak our language. But we do have language classes. We do have cultural classes. We have singing, dancing, history, and government classes. I'm hoping these kinds of things will be enough to pull our people together. The red man has always had great challenges.
Reader: Were you surprised by the size of your victory?
Pico: We may have won Proposition 5 at the ballot box, but that still hasn't settled the issue and the legitimacy of what we're doing. It was hard enough creating something and now it's hard enough keeping it. We have a legal department and all they do is process claims.
But the hardest challenge we have is to solve the disintegration that has gone on for years because of poverty. That's probably going to take a couple of generations. But whatever we decide, whatever we do, it is our culture that will hold the people together. I think that the culture will evolve into something -- it may not be new in its concept or its purpose, but it will be new in its delivery.
For example, holding on to what we have. We can only hold on to what we have if we raise young people who will use their education to marshal defenses or do whatever they need to do to keep it. They will need to be caring and compassionate adult people who understand where we are in our history and understand the profound responsibilities that we have -- not only to ourselves but to outside communities off the Indian reservation.
Reader: A contradiction, isn't it? I've always thought Malcolm X solved it late and Muhammad Ali figured it pretty early on. Both men fought for their people, risked everything in their service, and both men wound up caring for all people. That jump-shift-back-flip is what made them universal and, in the end, enduring. Do you see that kind of intent here?
Pico: Yes. That's where it leads because you can't isolate yourself. You can't just care for your own, but that's where our people are right now. They're thinking about just caring for their own. But eventually, the next generation, or maybe in this generation, we will evolve to where we realize we're not the only ones.