Tribes work to break tourism stereotypes

Potawatomi Bingo Casino, Milwaukee, has one of the state’s few four-diamond restaurants, Dream Dance.

Visits to four reservations comprise a five-night Northeast Wisconsin Native American Cultural Tour that is being marketed to Europeans.

Around 70,000 people will see lacrosse matches to finger weavings, intertribal dances to drum groups at Milwaukee’s annual Indian Summer Festival, Sept. 9-11 on the lakefront festival grounds.

And despite all these noble efforts, Native Americans here and nationwide continue to be best known for their casinos.

Tribal gaming revenues have more than tripled in the past 10 years and increased 15 percent nationwide from 2003 to 2004, says the National Indian Gaming Commission. The eight-state region that includes Wisconsin was up 6 percent from 2003.

The quick growth suggests “an incredible pent-up demand for casino-style gaming” in the U.S., conclude two University of Maryland researchers who studied 20 years of Native American casino growth and its effects.

Ed Hall of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs says a Mobil Travel Guide study concludes there is “a huge audience for a guide to Indian country casinos.”

Why not just go to Las Vegas? “Because these are tribal casinos,” he responded, during this summer’s Native American tourism conference at Lac du Flambeau. “A lot of people are inspired by the idea that your casinos are using their money to build or benefit a community.”

A big disappointment, he adds, is that casinos typically don’t provide much information about the tribe that owns the enterprise. It is a missed opportunity, he says.

Go to Casino City online (www.casinocity.com), and you’ll find more than two dozen places to gamble on Native American property in Wisconsin.

That includes the 78-slot E&EE Oneida Casino near Green Bay, Ho-Chunk’s 2,500 slot machines and 50-plus table games near Wisconsin Dells. It is Bayfield’s Isle Vista Casino, as well as the Little Turtle Hertel Express near Webster.

In 2004, travelers spent $646 million wagering in Wisconsin, says the state Department of Tourism. Although that includes bets from the Geneva Lakes and Dairyland dog tracks, the overwhelming percentage is from casino gaming.

Although that has lessened poverty and mortality rates on reservations, Native Americans aren’t necessarily getting the best-paying jobs.

“In many cases, most of the people employed by casinos are not Native Americans,” concludes the Maryland researchers, William Evans and Julie Topoleski.

Sharon Giroux says Wisconsin and Minnesota have more than 40 casinos between them. She is not a gambler, but her professional life is all about playing odds – helping her students beat as well as benefit from them.

“There is a need to have educated people in the gaming industry,” says Sharon, who has developed the Gaming Entertainment Management program at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. It is a part of the hospitality and tourism department’s curriculum.

Completion of the four-course program – plus classes in marketing/sales, accounting, law/liability and hospitality for the handicapped traveler – will earn the student a college minor.

The four courses – in gaming management, casino operations, psychosocial issues and casino tourism – also stand alone as a certificate program, for high school grads who are not pursuing a college degree.

Sharon intends to ask the National Indian Gaming Association to endorse the program. “I am quite confident that will happen,” she says, matter-of-factly.

UW-Stout and Native American Tourism of Wisconsin began a partnership within the past year; she is one of the few non-Indians on NATOW’s council.

Her passion for better educated Native Americans in the gaming industry stems from her doctoral thesis work. She studied racism, discrimination and shame among Lac du Flambeau youths. The high school drop-out rate for these teens was 53 to 73 percent during one decade.

After 50-plus interviews, the professor’s 500-page dissertation concluded “intense fear among young people” existed, in part as an aftermath to the spear fishing controversy. The teens also felt both pressure to be true to cultural traditions, as well as to conform to a primarily white student school system.

“A shoe on one foot, a moccasin on the other” is how Sharon summed up the situation.

“It wasn’t a matter of not wanting to go to school,” she says, regarding students’ decisions to drop out. The attrition rate continues to be high among teens on the Lac du Flambeau reservation.

Although a high school degree is a prerequisite, the UW-Stout program is an attempt to help the state’s Native American population gain a higher level of employment in the fast-growing gaming industry.

To learn more about the Milwaukee Indian Summer Festival, go to www.indiansummer.org or call (414) 604-1000.

To learn more about the Dream Dance restaurant, go to www.paysbig.com or call (414) 847-7883.

To learn more about the Northeast Wisconsin Native American Cultural Tour, go to www.packercountry.com or call (888) 867-3342.