Press "Enter" to skip to content

Carlson: Indian wars today

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

Those who think the days of Native American tribes fighting other Native American tribes are long gone, best think again. The advent of and phenomenal growth in Indian gaming has created a division of haves – the tribes with revenue producing and political powerful casinos – and the have nots.

Gaming tribes in Idaho, the Coeur d’Alenes, the Nez Perce, and the Shoshone/Bannock, appear to have natural markets where there is no real competition. They appear at peace with neighboring tribes.

You see the Coeur d’Alenes unveiling a new $100 million dollar upgrade in their hotel and casino in May, the Nez Perce moving into a lovely new wooden structure instead of operating out of the huge circus tent that was the prior base, and the ShoBans unveiling their new facility.

Where the warfare begins is when two tribes relatively near to each other decide to co-locate casinos. It becomes especially vicious if one tribe perceives the other as encroaching and there is a belief that the market cannot sustain two enterprises.

The best example of this is the not so subtle contest between the Kalispells and the Spokanes in eastern Washington. The Kalispells built and operate the fabulously successful Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights, just outside of Spokane. A small tribe with a land base of just a few square miles, the Kalispells petitioned the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and the Washington governor’s office for permission in the 1990’s to buy some off-reservation land and to have it declared Indian trust territory and part of their reservation.

Once that was completed, they found investors, struck up an arrangement with a Las Vegas gaming management outfit and built their casino which is now in the midst of a several hundred million dollar expansion.

From their much larger reservation, the Spokanes looked on with envy. They had earlier constructed a smaller casino at Two Rivers (where the Spokane flows into the Columbia at the reservoir behind the Grand Coulee Dam). Two Rivers was reportedly successful, but once Northern Quest was up and going, revenue rapidly diminished and eventually the casino operated on a reduced schedule.

Using the old principle of what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, the Spokanes decided to travel the same path as the Kalispells. The Spokanes, of course, were hoping the Kalispells would see competition as healthy and beneficial for both.

Wishful thinking.

The Spokanes quietly purchased land in Airway Heights and are seeking to declare it to be trust land also. As mentioned, the process requires the explicit approval of both a state’s governor and the Secretary of the Interior. Either can block this path.

Both tribes have hired their teams of consultants and lobbyists. The decision by both a governor and an Interior secretary will take time and involve public hearings with local and community sentiment having much to do with which way the decisions go.

It could be late 2012 or early 2013 before the matter is decided. Surprise, surprise, there is an election, both for governor and for the presidency in November of 2012. Candidates for governor of both parties are keenly aware that the gaming tribes of this nation are now a major source of campaign contributions.

The Spokanes appear to have retained a veteran local team of political consultants, former Mayor Jack Geraghty and his business partner, Kerry Lynch. They have the Spokanes already well along on a strategy of emphasizing the jobs that will be generated by the endeavor at a time when the economy is flat and few jobs are to be found.

The Kalispells have hired former House Speaker Joe King and former Spokane 3rd district legislator Jeff Gombosky to represent their interests and are banking on these well connected Democrats to exercise their swack with either outgoing Governor Chris Gregoire, if she makes the decision, or the presumed Democratic nominee to be the next governor, First District Congressman Jay Inslee.

The presumed Republican nominee for governor, Attorney General Rob McKenna is not about to tip his hand in advance, either.

Also square in the bull’s eye will be Assistant Interior Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echohawk, a former Idaho attorney general and candidate for governor in 1994, who lost narrowly to Phil Batt. Given the politics of that time, Echohawk opposed expansion of Indian gaming. If the decision is made during the present administration’s time in office, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar he will rely heavily on Echohawk’s advice.

A native of Kellogg, a former teacher at Kootenai, and a former journalist, Chris served as press secretary to former Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus for ten years. He is the founding partner of the Gallatin Group, is now retired and he and his wife, Marcia, reside at Medimont.

Share on Facebook