When Building the Casino – Think Canoe


Recently there was a short article from Eureka, California about the promotion of a tribal member to the position of general manager at the Bear River Casino. In the grand scheme of things, it is not a very big story, except that it is one of the biggest storylines in Indian gaming.

John McGinnis, a member of the Bear River Band and an elected member of the Tribal Council, will be the new General Manager for the Bear River Casino Hotel…Current General Manager John O’Neill will be departing on Jan. 31, 2015, to retire in Arizona…McGinnis has been employed at the hotel in a variety of different roles since its opening over nine years ago and has over 13 years of gaming experience. The hotel is one of the largest employers in Humboldt County, employing over 400 people. Eureka Times-Standard, 12-18-14

It has been twenty-six years since Congress approved the National Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and much has changed. The first tribal casinos operating under the act began opening in 1990. In the following years many states signed tribal-state gaming compacts with local tribes enabling those tribes to open casinos. It took California ten years to sign compacts, but now there are nearly 70 casinos in the state, generating $7 billion a year in gaming revenue.

In the beginning, tribes needed outside help to finance, build and operate their casinos. In those twenty-six years, tribes have become more self-sustaining, independent and quite capable of operating their own casinos. Today, most tribes are like the Bear Creek Band, able to dispense with outsiders and manage the casinos themselves. For many tribes the long-term plan for Indian gaming was independence and self-sufficiency. In the beginning they hired the expertise they needed; but always with the intent of replacing the consultants with tribal members as soon as they could.

In 1990, I had the opportunity to be one of those paid advisers. The Tulalip Tribe in Washington was negotiating the first compact in the state and on the West Coast. When I went on my first visit to Tulalip in March of 1990, I brought with me nearly twenty years experience working in a casino in Reno. It seemed to me that my experience was enough – all I had to do was to show Tulalip how to build and operate something resembling a Reno casino. I had a lot to learn. The Tulalip Tribe, like most tribes, does not operate or think like a conventional business owner. The priorities are very different; the tribal political structure, tribal culture and tribal history are on the top of the list. I was used to putting profit, efficiency and slick marketing techniques on the top of the list.

Fortunately for me, Wayne Williams, took me under his wing. Wayne was a tribal member and a very compassionate man. He taught me about the tribe’s, politics, culture and history. “Canoe” was one of the early lessons; to be Tulalip is to honor the canoe and its place in tribal culture. Nothing was possible at Tulalip without considering the canoe. Canoe was a concept that all of the people who worked on the casino project used in planning. It became the metaphor. Whenever we thought about a process or a product, someone would remind the others to “think canoe”; the canoe dictated colors, materials and even the use of space. For example, when designing the entrance, I was accustomed to thinking about getting the customers inside the casino as quickly as possible; nothing should impede that process. Not so at Tulalip. The entrance was designed to be large, spacious and a place to linger. It had to be large enough to house a full size canoe. For the tribe, the canoe display was the most important element of casino’s entrance. Today, the Tulalip casino even has a cabaret named Canoes.

In those early years of Indian gaming, major gaming companies were interested in signing deals with tribes. At different times, Tulalip was courted by Steven Wynn, Terry Lanni of MGM and Donald Trump. The Donald did manage to sign a contract to build a second casino that would carry his grand name. He advanced the tribe about two million dollars to begin the project. After a year, he called and asked how the construction of his casino was progressing. The tribe replied that if he would send another couple of million they would break ground. “Break ground!” “What have you done with the money?” Poor Trump, he had not been told to think canoe; the tribe used the Donald’s money to build a museum to house the canoe.

Not all tribes have canoes, but all tribes have a history and a culture that is more important than short-term profit. Non-Indian casino managers usually learn that lesson their first winter in Indian Country. In the winter, or during any slow season, managers are trained to cut the hours of employees and if things get worse to lay off as many as necessary; payroll is the largest controllable expense in a casino. In Indian Country, when employees are tribal members, they are not just employees, they are tribal members, a category that often carries with it a sacred responsibility for tribal leadership. Giving jobs and security to as many tribal members as possible is the goal, not efficiency or profit. Cutting back on the income of tribal members is a last resort and happens only is dire situations.

All tribes also hope in time to replace non-tribal members with tribal members. Training tribal members to be managers is a top priority for most tribes. They want every tribal member to have access to housing, to education and the best possible job the tribe can provide. That is why the story of the promotion of John McGinnis is a big story. It is the story of the success of Indian gaming. Actually, I should say it is a story of the success of tribes using Indian gaming. Through Indian gaming, tribes are becoming self-sufficient. They are able to protect their identity and culture, to honor their history and to remain true to a sacred trust. Indian gaming has given tribes a way to fulfill their promise to the seventh generation.

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