Tribes using gaming cash to aid needy
Arizona's Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community knows something about the need for charity.
Before the rise of casinos in the 1990s, nearly half of its residents lived in poverty, and the median household income was just $15,000.
Now, the poverty level have dropped to 30 percent, household income is up to $25,000 and the tribe's two casinos are so flush with cash that they are donating tens of thousands of dollars annually to charities across the Valley. advertisement
Salt River is not the only one. Nationwide, gaming tribes once mired in poverty say that as their casino fortunes rise, so does their charitable giving, above and beyond the revenue sharing that many government compacts require.
The National Indian Gaming Association recently released its annual report, spotlighting charitable gifts by tribes from California to Connecticut. While tribes are extremely secretive about their finances, the group estimates that Native American communities gave more than $150 million to non-profits and public programs last year in addition to the $8.3 billion they were required to give.
The association is a non-profit group representing 168 gaming tribes nationwide.
Charity in Arizona
Arizona's 15 gaming tribes earned $1.8 billion in gross gaming revenue and were required to hand over $91.7 million to cities, counties and state agencies in the past fiscal year. Voter-approved state compacts require that they share 1 to 8 percent of their net winnings, based on how profitable their casinos are. Most of the funds are then divvied up to organizations throughout the state.
The tribes say they dole out millions more each year in hopes of giving back what they once received, though they wouldn't disclose specifically how much.
"We've struggled over the years. Native Americans have always struggled," said Ramon Martinez, spokesman for Casino Arizona on the Salt River Reservation, east of Scottsdale. "It was a great opportunity for us when we were allowed to have gambling. It's just our way of giving back."
In December, casino employees rented out the Arizona Science Center and hosted a Christmas dinner for homeless families. They showed the movie Polar Express, served hot chocolate and cookies and gave the children gift certificates in conjunction with Central Arizona Shelter Services.
CARE Partnership, a resource center in Mesa for the working poor, said it would shut down without the Salt River Community's help. The casino raised more than $40,000 for the center last year, and its goal is $100,000 this year.
The center offers a free pediatric clinic, family planning services, clothes, food, after-school tutoring and allowance money for kids.
The tribe's generosity has included fund-raisers, cash, toys and volunteers, said Bev Tittle-Baker, CEO of the non-profit. "If we did not have (help from) the casino, we just wouldn't be able to do it," Tittle-Baker said.
Most Native American communities say that giving is woven into the fabric of their culture. And unlike most corporations, tribes are reluctant to draw attention to their community involvement and publicize their giving.
At Fort McDowell
Members of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, northeast of metropolitan Phoenix, pooled funds for the Red Cross and victims of Hurricane Katrina. Tribal officers matched the funds, and they will welcome members of the Red Cross in a ceremony this month.
It also has given $10,000 to Extended Hands Food Bank in Fountain Hills in the past two years, and elementary school children collected 1,550 cans over the holidays. The town of Fountain Hills, by comparison, donated $1,650 to the food bank last year.
Debra Krol, a spokeswoman for the Fort McDowell Nation, is a member of a California tribe. She said the Yavapai, her distant cousins, are raised with the notion of helping their neighbors
"Before they had gaming, before they had anything, if they saw someone in need, they tried to help them out," she said. "Because gaming has brought a lot of economic prosperity to tribal communities, communities are reaching in deeper.
"The more we have, the more we have to share."
Statistically speaking, Fort McDowell is Arizona's greatest tribal success story. In the decade between the 1990 and 2000 censuses, the reservation's median household income nearly tripled, to $50,313 from $18,182. That made them the top earners of any Arizona reservation.
While the community still struggles with poverty, the rate declined from 28 percent of the community to 17 percent. Maricopa County's poverty rate is about 12 percent, according to U.S. census data.
Oftentimes, tribes will aid organizations that help reservation residents.
David Iverson, executive director of the Fountain Hills food bank, serves many Fort McDowell residents who don't share in gaming money. Some of them have criminal records, others are married into the tribe but are not members themselves, both reasons for not qualifying for shared tribal funds.
"It was just a natural to ask them to help support us," he said. "I met with President (Rafael) Bear and he opened the door for me to request funds."
While the public may not hear about tribes' charitable giving, non-profits know and make many requests. That means the tribes must target their donations
Gila River Casinos, run by the Gila River Indian Community on its reservation south of Phoenix, employs a public relations manager who works with charities. Jayme Majzel helps choose causes that are worthy of the tribe's attention.
Health is a big priority. Gila River's three casinos are digging into their pockets for the American Diabetes Association, the Muscular Dystrophy Association and St. Mary's Food Bank. The casinos also paid for employees to walk in the Komen Race for the Cure.
Majzel said that instead of handing over cash, the casinos like to partner with non-profits in their fund-raising efforts. That way, Gila River tribal members become more involved, and more aware.
"We actually partner with non-profit organizations so it's not just a donation, not just writing a check to them," she said. "Since the casino opened, we've had a non-profit focus. It's increased more since we have more people and resources."
Eighty-seven percent of the tribe's members will be diagnosed with diabetes by the time they are 55 years old. With that staggering statistic in mind, the casino enterprise hosted a diabetes walk last year at its Western town, Rawhide at Wild Horse Pass. It helped the association raise $300,000.
It hosts a celebrity poker tournament for muscular dystrophy and contributes $25,000 a year to that cause.
"They truly go above and beyond, which is great," said Lori Stevens, senior executive director of the American Diabetes Association in Arizona. "They pick issues that impact the community."
Giving by tribes is up, and it's a good move on two levels, said Kenneth G. Poocha, executive director of the Arizona Commission of Indian Affairs.
First, it dispels the notion that reservations are islands unto themselves. Second, it is great public relations.
"I think there is a perception sometimes it's an 'us vs. them' mentality, and it's really not," he said. "I see it in some essence as part of their marketing campaign. Wal-Mart would do the same . . . putting money back in the community is part of their business plan."
New misconceptions have sprouted with the relatively rapid success of Indian casinos, said Sheila Morago, executive director of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association.
Although they are helping themselves and others, she said, successful tribes still struggle with poverty, and non-gaming tribes are being left behind.
"I don't want anyone to get the idea that we've had gaming for 15 years and everything is fine," she said. "That is so not the case at this point, yet."
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