PAWHUSKA, Oklahoma (Reuters Life!) - Some time in the future, David Conrad says the Osage American Indian tribal government would like its revenue to come from business activities other than gambling.
"For some years to come, however, we will be dependent on gaming revenue to support our programs," said the Osage nation's director of government affairs.
The tribe, whose reservation is just north west of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has five casinos that are expected to bring the Osage government $30 million in revenue this year.
Conrad said the tribal government hopes to use that money to develop a "real economy" through promoting entrepreneurship and trade.
Casinos and other gaming operations on American Indian reservations have grown rapidly since the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1988.
Gaming includes activities ranging from bingo halls to beeping slot machines or poker tables at casinos like the Osage Million Dollar Elm Casino in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
More are expected to come as tribes seek to boost local economies where unemployment rates can run up to 70 percent.
These operations are expected to keep growing despite opposition from some groups, notably Christian conservatives, with new tribes set to join the club.
The Navajo Nation, which is the largest American Indian tribe, has no casinos yet, but the tribe's president Joe Shirley said there are plans to open up to six in the near future in New Mexico and Arizona to raise up to $100 million annually for projects for the nearly 300,000 Navajos.
"We want to put these casinos at strategic locations and use them to create jobs plus raise revenue for social projects and infrastructure," Shirley said.
"Many of our people live in Third World conditions without running water or power and we have social issues such as alcoholism that we could help tackle with money from casinos."
Hepsi Barnett, the Osage government chief of staff, said the casinos have boosted the economy of the reservations.
"For a long time after the reservations were set up there was no local economy, just federal government handouts," she said. "The casinos have brought jobs and the basis for a real economy."
Even without the six potential Navajo casinos, according to the U.S. National Indian Gaming Commission there are 415 gaming operations run by American Indian tribes in 28 U.S. states. The revenue they generate nearly doubled to $25.1 billion in 2006 from $12.8 billion in 2001.
But the casinos have also drawn criticism. Anthony Jordan, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, said his church considered gambling not only morally wrong but a contributing factor to social problems.
"People come to us for help with gambling addictions or have tried to gamble their way out of debt," he said. "There are many reasons why we would like to see gambling halted."
The Osage's David Conrad said that while gambling addiction is a problem, any state that closes down gaming operations would likely see their gamblers visit neighboring states instead - meaning a loss of tax revenue.
The National Indian Gaming Commission believes the American Indian tribes will open more casinos as the U.S. demand for gaming remains strong.
"In some areas of the country we're seeing a push to expand casino operations and we expect this will continue for some time to come," said commission spokesman Sean Pensoneau.
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