WASHINGTON — After buying a new chunk of land 50 miles north of San Francisco, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria just broke ground on a Las Vegas-style casino. It would be the largest in the Bay Area, with 3,000 slot machines, 200 hotel rooms, a spa, bars, restaurants, and parking for more than 5,000 cars.
In New York, the Shinnecock Indian Nation is considering Long Island as a site on which to build the Big Apple’s first tribal casino.
And in Washington state, the Spokane Tribe of Indians wants a new 13-story casino and hotel next to the Fairchild Air Force Base, prompting fears that the city will become “Spo Vegas.”
The plans are extraordinary for one reason: In all three cases, the tribes want to build their palaces on new land that’s not part of their original reservations.
The expansions are the latest twist in the nation’s Indian casino wars, and they mark a major shift for the tribes, which already run 385 casinos and bingo halls in 29 states.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for large-scale Indian gambling 25 years ago, tribes have been forced to keep the majority of their casinos on reservation land held in trust by the federal government, usually in remote regions.
But now, thanks in part to the Obama administration, many tribes across the country are ready to bust out, bringing gambling to the same land that was taken from them so long ago, when the U.S. government executed its bloody campaign to relocate Native Americans to a patchwork of lands across the country and eventually to reservations.
In Oklahoma, the Kialegee Tribal Town went so far as to propose a casino half a continent away, on the coast of Georgia, on land that it said it once occupied, raising the specter of tribes going across state lines to pursue gambling ventures.
Tribes are seeking to cash in on a loosening of the rules, announced in June 2011, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs junked a George W. Bush-era requirement that a casino had to at least be within easy driving distance from a tribe’s reservation.
NEW PUSH, NEW WORRIES
Casino opponents now fear that the tribes, with their sovereign status, will have far too much authority to do as they please on their new land, especially as they press for even less federal control. And from coast to coast, the tribes are finding plenty of resistance as they angle to get closer to big cities, busy freeways, military bases, and even popular national parks.
In the small desert town of Joshua Tree, Calif., Victoria Fuller said she worries what might happen if the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians is allowed to open an off-reservation casino near the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park.
“They could do anything they want,” said Fuller, the president of the Joshua Tree Community Association and a leading opponent of the plan. “They could put a 20-story building with spotlights on it, and we would have no say.”
The push by the tribes is aimed at reviving a $28 billion-a-year industry hit pretty hard by the recession. After growing at a brisk 14 percent annual rate from 1995 to 2007, gaming revenues have essentially stalled, increasing by only 1 percent a year.
And it comes as the 240 tribes that run casinos face an onslaught of new competition, from states eager to get a cut of the gaming business with casinos of their own, to poker players who want Congress to legalize online gambling.
The move already has ignited a debate over how quickly the U.S. will hit a saturation point with casinos — if it hasn’t already. Polls show broad public support for gambling, but some say the American Indians are pushing the envelope.
“The tribes are going to try to run the table, which means they’re going to try to move as many casinos off-reservation as quickly as possible,” said John Kindt, a gambling researcher and professor of business and legal policy at the University of Illinois. “... It’s to get as many slot machines as possible as close to maximum-population areas. They’re going to go everywhere.”
Art Reber, the co-author of “Gambling for Dummies,” says that the market will determine whether the tribes are overplaying their hands.
“When you start sticking neon signs and huge casinos at the Joshua Tree entrance, it starts to get a little ugly,” Reber said. “If you overbuild, you will hurt yourself, and I’m not sure the tribes are necessarily sensitive to these market issues.”
The epicenter of the battle is in California, which already has more than 60 Indian casinos, the most in the nation. When Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California introduced a bill last year that would make it harder for tribes to buy new land for gaming, she said the state could have another 50 casinos in coming years if Congress doesn’t stop them.
In many ways, the move marks the coming of age for Indian gaming, which started small with bingo halls in Florida in the late 1970s but then exploded in a way that few envisioned.
“Just like real estate, it’s all location, location, location,” said Barry Brandon, a New York-based consultant who works with tribes. He helped the Seneca Nation of Indians open an off-reservation casino in Buffalo, N.Y.
The 1988 law passed by Congress has always allowed off-reservation casinos, but they’re extremely rare, with only a handful approved by the federal government.
Backers say that dropping the “commutable distance” standard will lead to more off-reservation casinos and help tribes create more jobs. But even some tribal officials are leery, worried that off-reservation casinos stray far from the original intent of the law.
“We’ve been worried about off-reservation gaming,” said Chris Mercier, a tribal council member for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in Oregon. The tribe has gone to court to try to block its neighboring tribe, the formerly landless Cowlitz Indian Tribe of Washington state, from opening a casino on a 152-acre site it bought near La Center, Wash.
In California, casino opponents tracking tribes’ activities say that at least 137 applications from that state are pending with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which must sign off on the land transfers before casinos can be built. The bureau would not disclose how many applications it has received nationwide and has not responded to a formal request for the data, filed in May under the federal Freedom of Information Act.