"The men are thriftless, proud, extravagant, and very much given to gaming; and the women have but little education, and a good deal of beauty, and their morality, of course, is none of the best.... In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be!"
-Richard Dana, California missionary and author, 1840
Pocahontas. Crazy Horse. Tonto. Geronimo.
For white Americans, images of Indians have been conflicted for centuries. They have been seen as primitive heathens and noble savages, proud warriors and defeated chiefs, wise matriarchs and subservient squaws, through the distorted prism of history and the fantasy of silver screens.
Today, once again, the prevailing notion of what Indians represent is turning around, especially in San Diego, which has the highest concentration of Native Americans in the country. The popular notion of a poverty-stricken, permanently dependant, alcoholic underclass has given way to a new stereotype: the casino Indian.
Newly rich, yet still on government stipends; tax-exempt, yet still cashing in on white guilt by refusing to abandon "the Rez" and assimilate. Admittedly, this newest Indian caricature doesn't look like any from our past.
Of course, it doesn't look very much like the reality of local Indians, either.
"One of the most common misperceptions of Indians," said Louis Guassac, a Kumeyaay Indian from the Mesa Grande Band in North County, "one that kind of makes me laugh a little bit, is people thinking we can do whatever we want on the reservations. As if we do whatever we please, whenever and wherever and no one can tell us what to do. Frankly, we can do only, first, what our community desires us to do; and then there are certain federal laws that are in effect that we have to abide by."
Federal law does, in fact, view Indians in a far different legal light than any other Americans. But the notion of sovereignty-as a federally recognized Indian nation, able to make and enforce its own laws, govern its own affairs, while guaranteed the protection of the United States constitution-makes Indian realities confusing to anyone unfamiliar with local tribal culture and history.
The story of how San Diego's tribes got to where they are today is both tragic and inspiring. Once a culture with thousands of distinctly different societies-which bore little resemblance to the tribal groups of today-the first Southern Californians were a diverse population of hunters, gatherers, farmers, fisherman and traders. By the late 1800s, however, the genocidal tide of European missionaries, miners and other immigrants had reduced the regional native population to a few thousand.
"In the 1850s, California lobbied hard to get passage of the treaties that were signed by the chiefs of this area," said Guassac, during a telephone interview from Washington D.C., where he was attending the National Congress of American Indians Conference. "There were 18 treaties in California. But soon after that, they passed a law in California encouraging settlers to kill Indian people, you know, they'd reimburse you for the shells, etc. And it didn't matter if it was Indian women and children, as long as it was Indian people."
"Now that was the tragedy of California. In fact, the first governor of California, in his inauguration speech, said he was going to rid California of Indians."
As a result, most of the special privileges our government set aside solely for Indians seemed less like benefits than burdens.
"The land bases that we occupy today are probably the most inhospitable imaginable from an economic development standpoint," said Guassac. "If you were to fly over San Diego County alone, you would find that most of the reservations are either on top of some hill or very tucked in to the corner of a valley, there's very limited access to water and things that are necessary to be self-sustaining.
"Ours is a unique relationship," Guassac explained. "Tribal governments are uniquely interwoven with the federal government because... when we lost our land, the government agreed to certain obligations-not welfare considerations, obligations-pertaining to housing, education, health care and acknowledgment of our sovereign status within the reservations."
Considering the crippled culture and meager resources our government left them, said Eric Riggs, a professor of Geoscience Education at San Diego State University, the special benefits being reaped by at least some Indian tribes in the gaming era are more than justified.
"There's a long, somewhat ugly history of discoveries by scientists-scientists like me-of gas, water, oil, natural resources," said Eric Riggs, "Followed by the prompt removal of those resources from tribal possession by the federal government, then going to non-Indians for the benefit of non-Indians."
Riggs often feels both misunderstood and privileged himself, in that he is one of the few scientists who has gained the trust of local Indian tribes-despite his profession's legacy. He says part of the misunderstanding between the popular culture at large and the traditionally insular tribal groups is rooted in the mere definition of who is "Indian" and who is not.
"Most of the tribal bands here are rooted in family groups or extended families," as opposed to a European definition of race or nationality, said Riggs. "The whole notion of a tribe we've imposed upon them is sort of a Western creation."
Critics point to the fact that not all tribes can have a gaming compact, and therefore the economic boon of Indian gaming will be unfairly afforded to select tribes. Like a recent, high-profile Time magazine cover story ("Guess who's profiting from Indian Gaming? It's not who you think"), such arguments are missing the point.
""Unfair' is a really dubious word for us to be using," Riggs laughed. "You know, how dare we? After practically wiping them from the Earth, we have the nerve to impose our notions of what is fair or unfair on them?"
The truth is, tribal governments are well aware that not all of them can be Viejas, Sycuan or Barona. But the Mesa Grande Band is one reservation where tribal members are using the newfound Indian influence to lobby for-you guessed it, more land. The tribe wants to raise a full-fledged bison herd on their newly acquired 800-plus acres. They plan to use all of the buffalo, as both a low-fat diet and as products to sell other tribes, in a suddenly hopeful move toward economic self-sufficiency.
"Self-determination is the key to our future. And that means viable economic development opportunities," said Guassac. "In order to preserve this rich and diverse lifestyle that is who we are-really, that is all we are. Our special relationship to each other, the government, the people and this country-this great country-and our survival means that this is the only country that acknowledges, within its borders, its native people-and holds them up as proud to have them as a self-determining nation. I think that's a special, unique relationship. I'm very proud of that. And I'd like our kids to have it as well."