restricted access The Noble Savage as Entrepreneur: Indian Gaming Success
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| 33 The Noble Savage as Entrepreneur Indian Gaming Success Julie Pelletier A s a researcher who has studied American Indian casinos and gaming since 1994, I have encountered a narrow range of reactions to my work. Depending on the context, I may be asked about gaming and gambling as sin—this comes up primarily in the United States and, yes, in academic settings. The fijirst time I encountered that question was during a job talk—I was so startled that I answered the question awkwardly, efffectively eliminating the department’s interest in hiring me. Or I’m asked for a pragmatic, cost-benefijit analysis—“does gaming help tribes/bands/Indian people?”That question is easier for me to answer with some quick sound bites that, hopefully, counteract the pervasive misinformation on the subject. Sound bites are not going to convey the complexity of how or whether gaming is or can be positive, but when one is speaking against an overwhelmingly negative, under/misinformed backdrop of representation of Indigenous gaming, you do what you can! The other common response to my research is from academics, especially cultural anthropologists, and nonacademics alike—the fear, concern, or conviction that Indians are “losing their culture” by participating in gaming and running casinos. I refer to this as the Noble Savage dilemma, bringing to the forefront tensions over identity and authenticity. 34 | Julie Pelletier This chapter will not focus on the concept of gaming and gambling as sin, because I see that question or concern as intertwined in the colonial and Christian worldviewfromwhichtheNobleSavagemythisdrawn.Variousstudiesdemonstrate the ubiquity of games of chance and betting activities in many North American Indigenous cultures precontact, thereby positioning moral evaluations of gaming activities in the postcontact context, and in the dynamic of assimilation. Early anthropologists, such as Lewis Henry Morgan, tended to interpret Indian gaming through the lens of ceremony or as a reflection of the laziness and inferiority of Indian peoples. Yale Belanger argues that focusing on Indigenous gaming’s ceremonial and religious importance “obscures insights into the nature of historic North American Indigenous gaming, specifijically the centrality of gaming to Indigenouspoliticaleconomy.Relianceuponnarrowcategorieshampersourability to appreciate how gaming informed complex political and economic ideologies and practices.”1 I carry forward Belanger’s argument by addressing the latter two reactions I’ve encountered—the interest in a cost-benefijit analysis, and the Noble Savage versus Rich Indian dynamic. In this chapter I examine contradictions between perceptions of Indians as successful entrepreneurs and as Noble Savages—contradictions that can reflect tension over nation-building effforts by tribes—through a study of how municipalities are putting revenue-sharing monies to use.2 During fijieldwork among the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe in the mid-1990s, I examined tribal identity, focusing on the strategic use of ritual by various age and interest groups in the tribe.3 While my primary focus was not on Indian gaming, I was aware that its impact on identity was considerable and has only become more so in the ensuing years. With this in mind, I returned to the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan in 2008 to interview public offfijicials regarding the impact of Indian gaming on local municipalities, particularly as it relates to revenue-sharing.4 I am also interested in contributing to research on Indian gaming and casinos that is based on fijieldwork and other types of quantitative and qualitative research. Much of what is presented and published on the topic is not supported by research.5 My chapter begins with an introduction to the image of the Noble Savage. I provide an examination of the economic success of tribes in the UP, particularly theSooTribe(thetribe’scommonlyusednickname),andIprovideabrief historical context of the Soo Tribe and an overview of its economic development. I then considertheimplicationsof thissuccessinalargercontext:essentialistassumptions about American Indians that conflict with perceptions of them as entrepreneurs The Noble Savage as Entrepreneur | 35 with capitalist goals and values. Also of interest are the ways in which mandated revenue-sharingisputtousebymunicipalities.Myresearchdetailsforwhatprojects andpurposesmunicipalitiesarerequestingfundingaswellaswhatapplicationsare approvedbytribes.Thiscasestudy,whichincludescomparativeanalysisof changes in attitudes and perceptions toward Indian entrepreneurship from the 1990s to the present among public offfijicials whose municipalities are afffected by Indian gaming and other economic development, reveals both changing and persistent perceptions of Indian peoples. The Tenacity of the Noble Savage Image The image of the Noble Savage is tenacious and pervasive, influencing media and scholarly analyses and representations of Indigenous peoples, particularly in relationtoeconomicactivities.IarguethattheSooTribe’sIndigenousidentity(and that of other economically successful tribes) has...