By Perry Diaz
Last week, I met a gentleman who was planning to relocate to the Oneida Indian Nation’s reservation in Wisconsin. He has an Anglo-sounding name and did not seem like a Native American to me, so I asked him why he is relocating to an Indian reservation. He explained that his father was a German-American and his mother was a member of the Oneida Indian Nation. He said that he is retiring from his job and that he wants to move to the reservation where the tribe will provide him with a piece of land — free — where he can build his retirement house. In addition, he will be receiving a stipend from the tribe. Curiously, I asked him to explain all the benefits he will be receiving from the tribe.
As it turned out, the Oneida Indian Nation has become prosperous because of the gambling casino that they operate inside the reservation. Each member of the tribe is entitled to a stipend, thanks to the revenues generated from the casino operation. He stated that anyone who can prove that he or she has at least one quarter of Oneida Indian blood is entitled to all the benefits given to members of the tribe.
“Oneida West,” as his friends called him when he was in the U.S. Air Force, claimed that he was the first Indian to fly a plane for the Air Force. Proudly displayed on his living room wall was a framed Eagle feather. He explained that because of his exemplary accomplishment as an Air Force pilot, the Oneida Nation gave him the highest honor bestowed upon a member of the tribe — an Eagle feather. He recounted how Indians were treated unfairly for a long time. “Now,” he said, “because of the revenues from the gambling casinos, Indians have a political voice.”
Prior to becoming self-sufficient and progressive, the Indian reservations were administered and managed by the Federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The BIA provides education for about 50,000 Indian students. However, it does not have enough funds to maintain the basic infrastructure in the Indian reservations. Indians lived in poverty.
In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the “inherent sovereignty” of the Indian tribes in the landmark case, United States vs. Wheeler. The Supreme Court’s decision stated: “Although physically within the territory of the U.S. and subject to ultimate federal control, they nonetheless remain a separate people, with the power of regulating their internal and social relations. The powers of the Indian tribes are, in general, ‘inherent powers of a limited sovereignty which has never been extinguished.’ ”
Since then, the Indian tribes began operating casinos which were then called “Indian Gaming” because they were mainly bingo games. Bingo was not considered gambling and was therefore legal in almost all the states. Because of the high jackpot prizes offered by “Indian Gaming,” lots of urban people would take a charter bus to the Indian reservation to try their luck at winning the mega jackpots. I remember in the early 1980′s when Filipino-Americans in the Sacramento area would travel in groups to the three Indian Bingos in Northern California. Word-of-mouth stories of people winning $20,000 jackpots were not uncommon. However, to this date, I still have to meet a Filipino-American who won the big jackpot.
Over the years, “Indian Gaming” evolved into Las Vegas-style casinos. They were no longer just places for Indian Bingo. Slot machines, blackjack and other forms of gambling were introduced. To date, there are 48 Indian casinos in California alone. It is estimated that the Indian casinos in California generate as much as 100 billion dollars a year in revenues.
When I parted with “Oneida West,” I cannot forget what he said, “You know, one of our biggest groups of gamblers are Filipinos.” To which I replied, “Perhaps we deserve an Eagle feather from your tribe,” and we both laughed. He had a happy laughter. I had mixed feelings. I started doing a mental calculation. There are about 1.5 million Filipinos in California. I assumed one-half — 750,000 — are adult and therefore would be allowed to gamble. Say, 10% are habitual gamblers and each would loose at least $1,000 a year. That’s a hefty $75 million a year that Filipinos lose at the Indian casinos.
If only Filipino-Americans can redirect their gambling losses to empower the Filipino-American community, we too could have a “political voice.” We are one of the largest minorities in the United States. Our family income level is one of the highest. Our poverty level is less than 1%, lower than the Jewish-Americans. We have a high number of professionals. And yet, we still have to be seen on the political radar screen. We still have to elect a Filipino-American to the California Legislature, a state where one-half of all Filipino-Americans in the United States reside.
In politics, two things count — money and votes. While the Filipino-American community has the financial means to build a political base and the votes to make a difference, particularly in a close contest, the community has yet to discover its latent political power. However, as more Filipino-Americans engage themselves in politics as candidates and activists, there is a noticeable increase in political activities of Filipino-Americans. There is now a healthy competition between the Filipino-American Democrats and Filipino-American Republicans; thus, increasing the political awareness in the Filipino-American community. In California, the Filipino-American Republicans are not too far behind the Democrats, who, until a few years ago, had a virtual dominance in the Filipino-American community.
The reason why the Filipino-American Republicans were invisible in the 1990′s in California was that those few Filipino-American Republicans at that time blended with the Asian-American Republicans; therefore, losing their distinct identity. Today, it is a different story. There are Filipino-American candidates from both the Democratic and Republican parties running for partisan as well as non-partisan offices. To my knowledge, there are at least three Filipino-Americans running for California state assembly districts. Fortunately, nobody is running against each other.
If only the 75,000 Filipino-American habitual gamblers in California could funnel their gambling money to the political war chests of Filipino-American candidates and other candidates who are committed to champion for Filipino-American issues such as the Equity bills for Filipino War Veterans, they could make a big impact that would eventually give the Filipino-American community a political voice.
And if the Filipino-American candidates in California break the political glass ceiling in 2004, it would then be appropriate to honor each of them with a feather from the largest specie of eagles, the pithecophaga jefferyi or the monkey-eating Philippine National Eagle.