Trying To Be “The Man”

The sporty supercharged Nissan 350Z I rented at LAX that the Hertz representative said was sure to make my wife smile—“She will smile. Show her the car. She will think you are the man.”—did not make her smile, and I was not “the man.” The car made her nervous. Or my driving did. But the 350Z gives me the opportunity to offer my first bit of advice as a travel writer: When in California, rent a piece of shit. You won’t be driving much faster than 10 miles per hour anyway. This was true for the first three hours we spent on the freeway, but then, as we neared Palm Springs, the road opened up, the traffic thinned, and I stepped on the gas. But when the 350Z topped 70 mph, it began to shake. At 72 mph, it felt like it was going to fall apart. Just when I was cursing Hertz, the Japanese, and my younger brother (who would have given anything to drive a 350Z), we saw the new Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa rise up from the foothills of the Coachella Valley north of Palm Springs. Like a monolith. Like the Colossus of Rhodes. It was visible from 15 miles away, a solid, angular, basalt-colored spire jutting from the valley scree, looking more like an artifact than a newly minted luxury destination. It’s not often that casinos can be described as beautiful or impressive, but the Morongo Tower was. I was filled with a little bit of awe.

A tribally owned gas station on the Morongo reservation

Historically, Indian reservations are a great place to be poor if you are Indian—and a fantastic place to get rich if you’re not. It is only recently that this pattern is being reversed. For centuries, privateers, government officials, railroad barons, timber magnates, prospectors, and mining companies have made a mint exploiting Native land and resources while the Indians for whom reservations were created have gotten poorer and poorer. But since I am Indian on my mother’s side (and come from one of the poorest reservations in the country) and white on my father’s side, I had mixed feelings as I eased the Nissan up to the front door of the casino and threw the keys to the valet. (“Take care of my baby,” I said, casually.) That is, since I am both Indian and white, I felt that it was quite possible that I might not be entirely screwed over. Or, to put it another way: I might just get rich. I felt the possibility that everything—our fortunes, our personalities, our prospects—might change at Morongo as soon as the doorman opened the door for us. This mad hope is what draws people to casinos and what has made a few Indians very wealthy. We stepped into the excited dim din of the gaming floor. It took us a few moments to adjust our eyes and ears before we could find the registration desk.

“Checking in?” (Eager, helpful.)

“Yeah.” (Hung-over, rockstar-ish.)

“Do you have a reservation?” (Helpful, expectant.)

I did have reservations. And, in fact, I have a reservation of my own, in the cold reaches of northern Minnesota—Leech Lake Reservation (where we have our own sad little casino)—and my wife is Seneca, from Tonawanda Reservation in upstate New York (where they have even less than we do at Leech Lake).

To understand how perfectly strange luxury Indian casino/resort/spas are, you have to understand what Indian reservations are.

This won’t take long.

One thing I often hear from even well-wishing liberals is how sad it is that my people were “forced onto the reservation.” This is a phrase that should be banned from civil speech. Indian reservations are much more complicated than that, and Indians sometimes played a much greater role in the formation of our reservations than the part of the sad victim. In some cases we were active agents in our destinies, such as they are. Although the first “reservations” were created in the 18th century in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, it wasn’t until the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 that the modern Indian reservation was born.

The U.S. government was in a quandary. It felt it needed room for the country to grow, but Indians were in the way. And it was too costly to engage in all-out war, the outcome of which—given the strength and position of many Indian tribes—was far from certain. So, beginning with the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851, the United States embarked on a treaty-making binge with tribes equaled only by the recent frenzy around buying and selling collateralized mortgage debt. From Texas to Minnesota and from Lake Michigan to the Pacific, tribes great and small found themselves at the negotiating table with the United States. The usual formula was quite simple: Indian tribes relinquished title to their lands, a portion of which was gifted back to them in perpetuity. These portions were called “reservations.” So, reservations are not “prisons” where we were forced to live, nor were they “pity payments” for poor treatment. Some tribes, like the Oglala Sioux, forced the United States to give up far more than it wanted to. Other tribes gave up more than they should have. One way to think of reservations is as a compromise between what the U.S. government really wanted to do, what it could do, and what we made it do.

In addition to the land, where Indians were supposed to be able to live unmolested and on their own terms, there were usually other provisions to the treaties involving what are known as “treaty rights.” These rights—to hunt, fish, gather, harvest timber—were many and usually extended to the territories that the tribe used to control outside the reservation; these territories are known as treaty areas.

Reservations sprang up from Oklahoma to Neah Bay in the far northwest corner of Washington state. To many of the tribes that signed the treaties that created their reservations, the agreement didn’t seem so bad. They could live on and control their own land and settlements, and still travel, hunt, fish, and so on within the boundaries of their former territory.

The approach to the Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa

Of course, some tribes didn’t like this arrangement at all and were coerced into it. But many were not—it was the best deal among a series of bad deals. But what seemed like a good deal at the time quickly soured—Indian agents (prized, like many bank presidents and corporate executives, for their greed, inadequacy, and insensitivity to human suffering) and homesteaders and businessmen quickly took advantage of little to no federal oversight. They robbed the Indians blind and punished them when they protested. As far as the U.S. government was concerned, reservations were supposed to be poor, the people supposed to be disenfranchised. Disease and death and, finally, dissolution were supposed to be the norm. And once and for all they would be rid of the Indian problem. But we (quite annoyingly) refused to die. Instead, we got stronger. We bred. We survived. And in many places, despite the crushing poverty and lack of opportunity, we’ve managed to thrive.

After we’d checked in, and with a weird kind of pride of ownership (the Morongo Band of Mission Indians who own and run the Morongo casino aren’t my tribe, after all, and I have about as much in common with them as Pakistanis have in common with Moroccans), I said to the valet as I would to a butler in my own mansion, “The bags, please.”

As the elevator gushed up toward the 17th floor, and the desert dwindled below us, I looked at my wife, who resembles a Native American Gwen Stefani with smoky eyes and a tongue ring and tattoos, and I marveled that we (Indians, that is) actually own all this—not my wife, of course, but this, this casino. We own it when we are really expected only to be two things, dead or poor. I thought to myself as I settled into our room (which was as beautiful as the tower that encased it): “I just might win after all.”