Think sleepy farming community, flat fields of cotton and soybeans, patches of woodlands swamped by the Mississippi. Not so much John Grisham as O Brother Where Art Thou?: the poorest town in the poorest state in the Union. In Tunica, Mississippi, everybody is poor: white folks, black folks and Choc-taws, the descendants of that brave tribe who fought at the side of President Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans. He rewarded them in 1830 with the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which took away their land and forced them onto the Indian Territory in Oklahoma.
Only about 1,000 Choctaw sharecroppers stayed behind on their sprawling 30,000-acre reservation. By the mid-1960s, unemployment among Tunica’s Choctaws was 80%, education for most ended at age 12, and the main medication for despair was alcohol.
Roll forward to 1994. A quirk of the Indian Land Claim cases a decade earlier means that casinos are legal in Nevada and New Jersey, but only Indians, on their ‘sovereign’ land, can open casinos in most other states. The Choctaws in Tunica decide to build a casino, complete with a 100-room resort hotel and three restaurants, with 400 more rooms, a golf course and a theme park on the drawing boards. Built under a management contract with a Las Vegas gaming company and its activities stringently supervised by a tribal gaming commission, the casino thrives. Ten years later, the Choctaw’s resort in Tunica is the ‘third largest gaming destination’ in the United States. Only Las Vegas and Atlantic City are bigger.
It’s mind-boggling. Now there are seven casinos, creating a total of more than 15,000 jobs. And they’ve used the casino economy to invest in projects that will last: 1,000 new homes on the reservation, a major hospital, a nursing home, day-care centres. Google ‘Tunica, Mississippi’ and you’ll find a cameo of Dubai rising out of cotton fields.
This isn’t just a Choctaw success. Tribes in New Mexico and Connecticut have used their sovereign status to set up casinos where other developers could not. But what if progressive, morally fit tax payers don’t want casinos in their backyard, citizens like those in the state of Maine? Because of concessions in the 1980s, Maine’s Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Indians lack the sovereignty of other tribes. This meant the state’s voters got to decide in a referendum. ‘Do you want a massive $650 million casino in Sanford, Maine?’ ‘No, we don’t,’ said the voters, by a resounding two to one.
Although I believe that gambling is a sucker’s game, I try to avoid words like ‘warped’, ‘sleazy’, ‘wastelands of crime’. But the Indian casinos are instructive. The money made in Tunica, Mississippi, goes to the Choctaw Indians, who invest it back into their community. The money made in Manchester (after Mr Kerzner’s whack) should stay in Manchester. Ditto Great Yarmouth, Hull, etc. These profits should be seen as a kind of local tax, not a gift to the Chancellor, but a gesture towards much-needed local sovereignty. When Manchester starts to look like Vegas, its citizens can say ‘but now we’ve got super schools, super hospitals, even super treatment programmes’.
What the Mancunians really deserve is a referendum, a chance to say if they really want the prize they have just won. Here’s betting a silver dollar that won’t happen.