Stan McGarr, tribal secretary for the Pala Band of Mission Indians, won't say how much revenue his tribe generates annually from their 2-year-old casino. "People see numbers," he said, "and if they don't have a background into it... if they don't have an understanding of what those numbers actually mean, the numbers are insignificant. They serve no purpose."
Tribal gaming revenue isn't public information and McGarr's reticence signals the much larger concern among other tribal governments-the public perception that members of Indian tribes are raking in big bucks from their casinos and living large.
The Pala, who have control over slightly more than 12,000 acres of land in East County, and at 893 members are one of the largest tribes in Southern California, had an annual operating budget of about $1 million before it opened its casino in April 2001, according to the tribe's website.
But with the introduction of the 60,500-square-foot, 2,000-slot Pala casino, the tribe is more than self-sufficient-enough so that they are one of only three tribes countywide that distribute monthly checks, also known as per-capita payments, to their enrolled members. A member is anyone who is at least one-sixteenth Pala and who is registered with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. The other nine tribes that choose not to distribute casino revenue to their members instead invest the money in economic and community development and tribal government services. According to the National Indian Gaming Association, a tribe must prove that it has sufficiently provided all of the above for its members before it can distribute per-capita checks; anyone receiving per-capita income must pay federal income tax.
The before-casino and after-casino picture of the Pala is something McGarr prefers to look at in terms of quality of life. Before the casino, the tribe's main source of revenue was aggregate mining and avocado farming-neither very profitable.
Now, he said, "the majority of the people are very satisfied with what's going on on the reservation. We've worked very hard to get this. It wasn't something that one day somebody came to us and said, 'Here take this.' We had to fight for this. We had to work for this."
Casino money has provided a fresh layer of asphalt on the few roads that run through the reservation. There's a kid's dream of a playground newly built at the reservation's core, and McGarr says a pool, tennis courts and baseball and basketball facilities are in the works. The Pala sends its seniors on bus trips, has purchased health insurance for all its members and is putting together full-ride college scholarships for its young adults.
But with that latter benefit-the college scholarships-comes a rub: Why would kids want to move on in life if everything they need, including adequate monthly income, is provided by the tribe? Monthly checks don't come until a person turns 18 and have earned their high school diploma, or a GED. Until that happens, money is kept in a trust.
"Tantee," as he's known on the reservation (he prefers not to use his legal name), has lived there all of his 60 years. He lives in a modest, single-story home a mile or so east of the casino with an elaborate garden inhabited by two cats, a cadre of colorful birds and a donkey named Jack. The only openly gay member of the Pala tribe (and most Native American tribes, for that matter), he's equally as open about how life has changed for his people over the past couple years. He gave CityBeat the info that McGarr didn't want to reveal-all enrolled Pala members currently receive checks for $2,500 a month. Elders receive $2,700. Once the new 500-room hotel goes up next to the casino, and the loans that built the hotel are paid off, that monthly check will rise.
"To me," said Tantee, "the people now, they just go and spend, spend, spend. By the end of the month, they don't have any money."
Tantee said financial planners have come to the reservation to hold seminars on investing, but few people attended. McGarr confirmed this fact. "I don't go to the outside world and... tell people how to spend [their money]. I don't see why anyone else would have that right to tell us how to spend our money."
Many people have purchased new cars and refurbished their homes, Tantee noted, though most homes are pre-fabricated and improvements aren't evident until you look inside. During a walk through the reservation, he noted who's remodeled, who's bought a new car and who just got back from where. Tantee says he's taken trips to New York and Hawaii and gets a kick out of buying gifts for his grand nephew, whose mother is not a Pala member.
He said he's against the monthly distribution of revenue, specifically because of what he sees it doing to the tribe's young people. "They should get out in the world to see how others live," he said, "but they'll just stay on the reservation now. They'll never get off because they've got their [high school diploma], they've got their money and they don't have to work."
Doretta Musick, who oversees the reservation's immaculate library and learning center-paid for mostly by grant money-and runs its home-schooling program, is far less critical. Musick lives on the La Jolla reservation but has worked at the Pala library for 10 years. The La Jolla tribe has a small slot-machine arcade and from its take tribal members receive around $300 quarterly. The Pala's good fortune pushes her to encourage young people to take advantage of educational opportunities available to them. She said parents are doing the same.
"Some of them," Tantee chimed in, a playful devil's advocate to Musick's take on things.
"A few tribal members," Musick continued, "are happy the way things are and others want to advance." Musick said her goal is to set up a liberal-arts college on the reservation to make it that much easier for people to further their education.
Seventeen-year-old Natasha Griffith, interviewed three days before her 18th birthday, seemed nonplussed about the money that would be coming to her shortly. Griffith works at the reservation's housing office and finished high school a year early, attending school at the library. She's taking classes a Palomar College and plans to go on to a four-year college to study computer science or business administration. She doesn't want to stay on the reservation, she said. But a lot of her friends don't work and prefer to get by on the monthly check. "Seems like I'm the only one who's going to go on to school," she said.
The way Tantee describes it, the money, for some, seems still a novelty-a lifestyle change that might need some adjusting to. The amount is by no means a windfall-$2,500 a month comes out to $30,000 per year, but for people living on the reservation, it's more than enough to get by.
As he was talking, a truck pulled up. It was his nephew, Tantee explained, who is a member of the Agua Caliente tribe that owns a casino in Palm Springs. Tantee stepped outside to have a conversation with the man and came back shaking his head.
His nephew, he explained, had recently received a sizable per-capita check for $1 million. That money's gone now, along with a new home, which was foreclosed upon because his nephew forgot to pay property taxes. The nephew lives out of his truck now; a new one, at least. And, as he told Tantee, he expects another check will be on the way soon.