Cashing In

Why would the state of Ohio cut an Indian tribe from Oklahoma in on the potential millions of dollars to be made from gambling? We took a thousand-mile trip to find out the surprisingly short answer: Ohio may not have a choice.

I'm barreling down the Oklahoma highway at 85 mph, despite blinding rain and winds so strong the woman next to me on the plane was praying to "sweet Jesus." It's just to keep pace with the car I'm following 100 miles from the airport in Tulsa to the man who wants to build a slew of American Indian casinos in Ohio, including one just 30 miles west of Cleveland in Lorain. He's Eastern Shawnee tribal leader Charles Enyart. But everyone calls him "Chief."

At this point, I don't know that the Pall Mall-smoking, self-described country boy driving the speeding car is dating his passenger. And I also don't know that if you trace the idea of American Indian casinos in Ohio all the way back to its roots, you'll arrive at that passenger. For now, I only know them as Marty and Betty.

Really, there's a lot I don't know -- yet. Dozens of articles have been written on the prospect of American Indian gaming in Ohio, but not a single reporter, politician or investor from Northeast Ohio has actually gone to Oklahoma to check it out.

I'm expecting to meet a full-blooded Indian chief who lives on a reservation.

I'm expecting to learn that the Eastern Shawnee are starting to give up on their idea a bit, what with every major Republican player in Ohio lining up against them and with Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell leading her own gaming drive that doesn't include the tribe.

I'm also expecting to win a few bucks on slots.

Let's just say I was naive.

When the Eastern Shawnee say, "We're coming home," they mean no matter whether Ohio wants them -- and their casino.

Their confidence confounds me. Every piece of evidence seems to indicate the Eastern Shawnee don't have a chance. What I'll find out is that the tribe has a back-pocket strategy. And it involves nearly 100,000 acres of land -- an area about twice the size of the city of Cleveland.

As Enyart says, "It's not if we're coming home. It's when."

This is how it started: In January 2003, Lorain Mayor Craig Foltin was on his yearly camping trip to Salamanca, N.Y., with his then-fiance-now-wife, Karen. She was browsing in the state park souvenir shop while he sat in a chair overlooking the lake. He picked up a vacation guide and saw that an American Indian casino was coming to town.

Foltin grabbed a stack of magazines and quickly drove to the site. "I could see it was going to be a major, major draw," he says. And then he thought of his ailing city.

A man with less drive might have let that germ of an idea rot. But Foltin ran -- and won twice -- for mayor in Lorain, a town so blue-collar union that its phonebook lists dozens of fraternal organizations and clubs, but not a single coffeehouse. (It did have one a few years back, but it burned down and the owner is doing time in prison.)

So Foltin began looking into possible tribes. While there are many American Indian casinos in the United States, they have -- so far -- all been opened by tribes in their home states. Tribes from Wisconsin and Oklahoma are trying to open casinos in the Catskills of New York -- a move, called "off-reservation gambling," that is now being criticized by U.S. Sen. John McCain -- but so far nothing has been approved.

To make his plan work, Foltin needed a tribe with a legitimate claim to Ohio land. He found it in the Eastern Shawnee, a tribe in Oklahoma that says it still has rights to its former homeland. "Tecumseh, the leader of all the tribes, he didn't sign any treaty to secede all land rights," explains Foltin.

A flurry of meetings ensued. Over the next six months, Foltin and the tribe worked out a detailed agreement whereby the city would sell lakefront land to the tribe for $10 million, in exchange for 1.5 percent to 2 percent of its gaming revenue. The tribe would then seek to have the land put in federal trust, which would establish it as sovereign Indian land -- just like a reservation.

But, even after all that wrangling, the tribe would still need state approval to open a real casino, the kind with blackjack and craps.

Foltin has a spider web of strategies in his mind to accomplish that. The simplest would be for the legislature and governor to approve casinos exclusively for the Shawnee -- which would not require a vote of the people. This is extremely unlikely to happen in conservative Ohio -- and Foltin admits it.

A second option is to wait for casino gambling to go to a statewide vote, which Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell and others are already pushing for.

It's the back-up plan that scares people.

If nothing else works, the Eastern Shawnee could file an aggressive claim for far more land than they actually need for casinos, threatening the state with millions of dollars in reparations. Then, the tribe could drop the claim in exchange for approval to open casinos.

"So the Indian gaming just gives us a few other options," says Foltin as casually as if he were discussing dinner plans.

You could almost call that blackmail. And you'd think Foltin would worry about losing his Republican allies. He's not. "The sense that I've gotten is that they aren't mad at me," he says. "They understand why I have to do this."

If such a plan sounds far-fetched, consider Colorado. The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma filed a claim last year for 27 million acres, about 40 percent of the state. They're willing to drop the suit, however, if the state simply grants them 500 acres in suburban Denver and the right to build what they say would be one of the world's biggest casinos. Colorado Governor Bill Owens has rejected the deal, stalling the proposal -- for now.

"This would be more than a casino for us," Clara Bushyhead, a spokeswoman for the tribes, told The New York Times in April. "It is the dream of our elders to complete our life cycle, to come back to our homeland in Colorado from which we were driven. Oklahoma was never our home."

It's the same kind of talk I'm about to hear from the Eastern Shawnee.

'm still on the road with Marty and Betty. Just as Marty makes a few quick lane changes and I'm struggling to follow, my cell phone rings. It's Betty, telling me to keep an eye out on the left-hand side of the road for a new casino.

In a few minutes, Marty rolls down his window, pointing emphatically at a gleaming white tower on the side of the highway.

Built by the Cherokee tribe, the gaming/hotel complex is one of 39 American Indian casinos in Oklahoma. They've all popped up since 1988, the year President Ronald Reagan signed a law permitting American Indian gaming in the United States. The purpose was to make tribes more self-sufficient by allowing them to make money on gaming.

There are 411 gaming facilities operated by tribes in America, according to the National Indian Gaming Association. The revenue from those reached $18.5 billion last year -- about twice as much as all the casinos in Nevada, according to the association.

"It should have made a difference for Native Americans," says William Thompson, a professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who's studied gambling for 25 years. "It didn't."

In 1990, American Indians were the poorest ethnic group in America, according to Thompson. In 2000, that statistic was unchanged.

That's proof to the professor that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act hasn't achieved its goal. "It's a total fraud," he says flatly.

"It had a nice objective," he continues, but it ends up being the tribes located near cities that open casinos -- and those tend to be the smaller tribes. As an example, he cites the Mdewakanton Indians in Minnesota. Since opening their Mystic Lakes casino, each member is said to receive an annual payment of $1 million. Meanwhile, in Wounded Knee, S.D., a branch of the Sioux tribe scrapes by in the poorest county in America. Gambling doesn't help them.

As for the Eastern Shawnee, his response is quick: "Poor Oklahoma, they have 40 casinos. There's no money to be made down there."

The Eastern Shawnee, he continues, "have assimilated in America, but now they're thinking about it again, because there's money to be made if you're an Indian. Everything that's happening is because of money. It has absolutely nothing to do with spiritual values or heritage. Absolutely nothing. It's money."

he Eastern Shawnee have proposed four sites in Ohio, including Botkins, Lordstown and Monroe, but everybody knows by now that they aren't the only players at the table.

Campbell favors a statewide vote on casinos that would allow cities with more than 50,000 residents (as well as county seats and counties with major entertainment districts) to vote on casinos themselves. And, though she hasn't officially ruled out teaming up with the Eastern Shawnee, they aren't in her plans. "My goal is to get this done in a way that is most efficient," she says.

The year 2006, she says, is the earliest she could see a casino in Cleveland. She would not speculate as to how many casinos she envisions.

In March, the state's gaming interests -- including racetracks, government officials, a representative from the Eastern Shawnee and private developers -- met in Columbus. About 60 to 75 people attended, according to its organizer, state Rep. Bill Seitz, including representatives from Jacobs Investments and Forest City Enterprises. Developer Alan Spitzer, who twice lost statewide referendums on gambling in Lorain, was also represented.

The goal, says Seitz, was to reach a consensus on exactly what to put on the ballot -- and when to do it. That could mean as early as this November or as late as the next presidential election. Seitz's preference would be for ballot language specifying anywhere from 10 to 15 casino sites.

A recent poll conducted by The Plain Dealer indicates that Ohio might be ready for casinos. Of the 1,500 Ohioans surveyed, 52 percent said they would cast their vote in favor of such a measure.

As for the Eastern Shawnee's chances, Seitz says it's extremely unlikely that the legislature would simply grant the tribe a casino, but that it could be included in the mix if a statewide vote on gaming is won. "I'm not going to be racist about this," he says. "I'm not going to say we won't even consider you because you're Native Americans from Oklahoma. I would want to see what their program is and what kind of benefits they're prepared to confer back."

Seitz says that, even though the Eastern Shawnee are threatening to file a huge land claim as leverage to get a casino, he doesn't think an actual claim will be filed any time soon. "They're reluctant to play that card because that would commit them to years of litigation," he explains.

But what happens if the Eastern Shawnee exhaust their other options and go forward with a land claim that could cost the state millions? What does gaming expert Thompson suggest Ohio do then?

"Let them make their claim," he says, adding that he thinks it's unlikely they'd win.

But if they did, it would set a precedent. "Every tribe that used to be in Ohio would come back," he says.

follow Marty and Betty as they exit the highway, cross the Lost Creek, pass by the storefronts of the tiny town of Seneca and turn down a lonely street that leads to the tribe. To the left is a canned-milk processing plant. To the right is the tribe's headquarters, a one-story building that looks like it could be an office or bank.

Down the road a few hundred feet is the tribe's Bordertown Bingo & Casino, which, with its bright atrium, is nicer than many of the casinos in the state, some of which are nothing more than smoke-filled, one-room operations. But it's hardly Vegas. With so many casinos in the area, you know most of the people betting are locals -- and some of them are probably doing it with their paychecks.

In Vegas, you can win a Dodge Viper. Here, you can drive home on a new motorcycle.

Back at headquarters, the chief, a retired social worker wearing a plaid shirt, is waiting and leads me to a conference room. Marty, Betty and tribal secretary Glenna Wallace, who knows tribal history so well she gives presentations to local schoolchildren, join us.

The idea for a casino was first proposed to Enyart 3 1/2 years ago by Betty, who I just now learn is Betty Watson, a member of the tribe and chair of National Capital 1, a development company she formed to push for casinos in Ohio on behalf of the Eastern Shawnee. Marty Ellis, I will later learn, is her boyfriend.

The Eastern Shawnee's numbers ranged from 10,000 to 50,000 before the "genocide" began, explains Wallace. By the end of the 19th century, only 79 members remained. It was at this time, she adds, when more Indians were dying than being born, that grandmothers began to make cradleboards, their way of showing hope.

"We had to be survivors," says Enyart, referencing American Indians' past struggles with the government. "We had to be tough. We had to survive in order to keep going because they would have killed us all. We would have all been gone."

In the 1830s, the Shawnee were forced to give up their land claims in Ohio and moved to reservations. Tribal members made the journey on horseback, including two women who were more than 100 years old.

In 1887, the federal Dawes Act attempted to assimilate American Indians by making them citizens and giving every family 160 acres of land. In Oklahoma, that meant the end of reservations and communal life.

Enyart grew up on his grandmother's allotted land. "We were raised just like you were," he tells me. That is to say, like white people.

During his childhood -- the 1950s and '60s -- the tribe was at its lowest. It received only about $50 a year from the federal government (and was made to account for every penny, adds Wallace), had no headquarters and no full-time chief.

Assimilation had been achieved.

While Wallace says that may have made the white man happy, it resulted in the devastation of the tribe's culture and language.

It's strange hearing Wallace talk about the "white man." Of the five of us sitting at this table, Betty is the only one you'd be able to identify as American Indian. And that's because she's one of only about 200 tribal members who are four-fourths (or 100 percent) Eastern Shawnee. Most members are like the rest of us -- ethnic mutts. Enyart, for example, is only one-eighth Eastern Shawnee.

It's easy to understand why that is. The Eastern Shawnee has about 2,300 members. About 400 of those live in the area. Another 200 to 300 live elsewhere in Oklahoma. The rest are scattered across the country.

So what will a casino mean for these remaining tribal members?

"Better things for our people," says Enyart. The money would be used for social programs, such as college scholarships. It would also be used to battle diseases, such as diabetes, that run especially high among American Indians. It wouldn't just be given as lump-sum handouts to tribal members, he says.

Enyart says some money should be invested in businesses besides casinos to ensure the long-term health of the tribe. "Our federal money is slowly drying up," he says. "The Indian tribes that invest in businesses are going to be the ones that stay together."

In other words, gaming will enable the tribe to survive.

To those who would ask why Ohio should give money to American Indians from Oklahoma, Enyart would say that it is not a gift. It's a right. Tribe members were forced out of Ohio, but Ohio has never left their heart.

Every summer, the Eastern Shawnee host a pow-wow at which the following song is sung:

Ohio Ohio

Beautiful Ohio

Our homeland

One day we will go back to our home in Ohio.

Tecumseh, the great Shawnee leader, once prophesied, "The seventh generation shall bring my people home," says Wallace. "This is," she says, pausing for effect, "the seventh generation."

"And so it gives us an extra measure of strength," she continues, "an extra measure of resolve. An extra measure of pride. An extra measure of destiny is on our side."

During the entire interview, Enyart comes across as less prepared to win an argument, less confrontational than Betty, Marty or Wallace. If Ohio is only about money to him, he is a gifted liar.

"What I'd like folks to know," he says softly, "is that it was our homeland and we were forced from there. We didn't ask to go. I have mixed feelings when I go back. One is that I walk on the same land as the ancestors there."

At this, he pauses, his voice choked with emotion, struggling to explain himself without crying.

"It's a feeling you get," is all he can say.

During my entire time in Oklahoma, not a single person brings up the possibility of using a land claim as leverage to get a casino.

Lorain Mayor Craig Foltin stresses that Lorain's casino would be part of a "destination resort," not just a "big box" casino like in Detroit.

His plan calls for 36 acres of lakefront land to be turned into Lorain Harbor Resort, a complex including shops, restaurants, a hotel, a spa, a place for the visiting Tall Ships to dock, a gazebo and bandstand, a marina, the Great Lakes Maritime Museum (which would relocate from Vermilion) and a trolley to connect all of the above. Foltin also talks excitedly about eventual charter trips from the resort to Cedar Point and the islands.

"This would be the premier gaming facility in the Midwest," he says.

The whole complex could cost more than $200 million, according to Foltin. For perspective, Legacy Village in Lyndhurst cost $145 million to build, while Westlake's Crocker Park will ultimately cost about double that.

By comparison, Campbell's plans are just in the baby stage. Foltin knows that -- and seems to enjoy it. "Right now, we have the only legitimate plan in town," he says. "Jane, she doesn't have that prime land ready to go."

Foltin enthusiastically plays the role of David versus big-city Goliath. When asked what his relationship with Campbell is, he responds in a faux hangdog tone. "I've met her a couple of times," he says, looking down at his hands. "She probably wouldn't even remember my name."

Still, Foltin refuses to engage in an out-and-out duel with Campbell -- there's no need to. "Our position is, there's room enough for everybody," he says.

Seitz, the legislator leading the push for gaming, agrees. "There seems to be a general acknowledgement that the market is large enough to accommodate Cleveland and Lorain," he says. "It doesn't have to be an either/or."

But then there is the question of whether gambling will really help any city.

It can if it's done right, says Thompson, the gambling expert from UNLV. If Ohio wants to draw money in from other states, it will need to create resorts like Foltin is proposing. Otherwise, we'll just be taking money away from our own economy -- called a "zero-sum game" in economic terms.

In order for casinos to be an economic advantage, 50 percent of their revenue would need to come either from out-of-state gamblers or from Ohioans who would have gambled that money out of state. "You have to show that the gamblers are not all Ohio people," Thompson says. "If so, it hurts your economy."

To those who would argue that Ohio should protect its residents from the social costs of gambling, Foltin would say it's too late. To prove it, he takes out a map of the United States showing that Ohio is one of only 14 states without gaming facilities and is soon likely to be surrounded on all sides by states with casinos. "That's my point," he says, slamming his hands on the table. "Gambling is coming to Ohio. It's inevitable. Look at this map."

"Ohio and Utah?" he asks incredulously, throwing his hands in the air.

fter I meet with Chief Enyart, I follow Marty's Chevrolet Impala down the desolate country road to Miami, Okla., the nearest town with a motel. The plan is to meet for dinner, but Marty calls to say some unexpected business has come up, so we'll have breakfast at my motel the next morning instead.

Over coffee and eggs, I try to figure out how exactly Marty and Betty got involved with the casino quest. In news reports, it's usually mentioned that the tribe is working with "National Capital 1, a development firm," but no information beyond that basic description is given.

The company's name (abbreviated as NC1) conjures images of a team of suit-clad power brokers working out of some high-rise in a big city. But the reality is sitting across from me drinking coffee. And it's just Marty and Betty. Actually, it's just Betty. Though Marty frequently answers questions and attended our meeting, he describes himself more or less as a sidekick. When pressed, he says he and Betty are dating. "Let's just say we're engaged," he chuckles.

While Betty unfolds a map of Oklahoma and patiently explains tribal history, Marty rails on about the injustices done to American Indians. "The federal government has ... ground them, totally ground them up," he says. "They came in and tortured all the women and children."

Marty then switches to the logic used by every pro-gaming person with whom I've spoken: "Bob Taft," he states, disgust in his voice. "What's he got to lose? Do you think he can stand up to the people of Ohio and turn these jobs down?"

Betty, who is as quiet as Marty is loud, says the fact that they don't fit the mold of the typical development firm has worked to their advantage. "We can go into an area and nobody really pays attention," she says. "We've made quite a coalition."

To better orchestrate their campaign, Betty and Marty moved to Troy, Ohio. "We've been up there three years," Marty says. "This doesn't just all fall into place."

When pressed on financial details, Betty will only say that "we've got quite a bit of our own money in it" and that she has a "handful" of private investors from across the country. Neither she, nor anyone else, will say what her company stands to profit should the deal go through.

Betty says the idea for a casino was planted in her head many years ago by her grandfather. "He always said we had areas in Ohio we needed to look into," she explains.

Two generations later, "looking into" things has taken the form of intense legal work. NC1 has hired two of the top attorneys in the field: Elizabeth Homer, a Washington, D.C. attorney who formerly served as vice chair of the national Indian Gaming Commission, and Mason Morisset, a Seattle attorney who's specialized in Indian law for 37 years and has won three American In-dian land claim cases in the Sup-reme Court.

In other words, they're ready for a fight.

Marty and Betty never mention it, but I later find out that, while I'm in Oklahoma, NC1's attorneys are already working on a land claim. And just a few weeks after I get back, it will be finished.

The tribe has prepared a claim for 145 square miles in western and central Ohio, according to Terry Casey, a political consultant hired to push for Eastern Shawnee casinos. It amounts to nearly 100,000 acres, an area about twice the size of the city of Cleveland. Casey says the tribe plans to file the claim "sooner rather than later."

The tribe is not yet saying exactly what it will ask for in exchange for the lost land. It could be money -- millions of dollars -- or it could be land elsewhere in the state that's owned by the state or the federal government, according to Casey. The tribe does not plan to try to win back land now owned by private citizens. "This tribe clearly doesn't do to others as was done to them," he says.

Casey says the tribe could lay claim to far more land, but only wants to press where it has the "solid best case and facts that support it."

Again, although the attorneys are working for Betty and Marty, they never mention the land claim (and later don't return phone calls).

But they are confident. And I finally understand why.

While opinions differ on whether the Eastern Shawnee's land claim is viable, they have achieved their goal by creating a threat that feels real. Real enough to catch the attention of government officials and the media. Real enough to inspire hope in Foltin that his city will get a casino. Real enough for the Eastern Shawnee to begin imagining how they will use the money. And real enough for Betty and Marty to invest three years of their lives in it.

"We know where we're going," Marty says. "We know exactly where we're going. The tribe's going back to Ohio. The tribe's coming home."

I'm ready to return to Ohio, too. But before I do, I drive a mile or so from my motel to test my luck and perhaps get a taste of Ohio's future. A dark, two-lane road leads me to the Buffalo Run Casino, operated by the Peoria tribe. It's a dreary Monday night, but when I enter the casino, I feel the energy of the laughing, chattering crowd and reach in my purse for a $20 bill. Voters in the state recently approved Class 3 gaming, so blackjack and craps are on the way, but for now it's just slots.

My $100 investment quickly swells to $130, but it doesn't seem like a big enough windfall to run with, so I keep playing -- all the way down to zero.

Gaming proponents would say that's $100 Ohio could have kept in its borders.

Gaming critics would say it's a good thing there's not a casino close to where I live.

As for the Eastern Shawnee, they'd just say this: See you soon.

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