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The Amazing Journey of the Kickapoo

WRITING - The Vegas Guy


Chief Makateonenodua, better known as Black Buffalo, is calling from the little Mexican village of Musquiz.

"Here, talk to the chief," says Isidro Garza, business manager for the Kickapoo Tribe. "He's feeling good. They had his 60th birthday celebration on Sunday. It's the chief. He doesn't talk often, and he wants to talk to you."

Black Buffalo comes on the line but doesn't say anything. So I explain who I am, what I'm doing, what we've been talking about. After about 30 seconds, I pause, expecting him to add something. Instead I hear a brusque good-natured laugh that rumbles over the line. It's an inspired laugh, from the stomach, and it gets louder and louder and goes on for a long time.

And then Black Buffalo is gone.

"What was that about?" I ask Isidro Garza.

"He wanted to talk to you."

"Didn't you say he doesn't speak English or Spanish?"

"That's right. Almost none. He couldn't understand a word you were saying, and he thought that was hysterically funny. Welcome to the Kickapoo."

Welcome, indeed, to the surreal world of the most pure- blooded Indian tribe in the states. Five years ago it was also the poorest, the worst educated, and the most isolated. Fifteen years ago the Kickapoo were living in cardboard huts on a mud flat under the international bridge to Mexico. But the Lucky Eagle Casino--a cramped prefab structure at the end of a pitted asphalt road just a stone's throw from the Rio Grande--has turned out to be what the Kickapoo can only regard as a last-minute gift from God.

God, in fact, is never far from a Kickapoo's mind. Chief Makateonenodua was actually on a religious pilgrimage when I spoke to him. At least twice a week he travels from his home in the little border town of Eagle Pass, Texas, to the holiest Kickapoo city, El Nascimiento in the state of Coahuila, to pray and to officiate over the ceremonies that preserve the world so that it won't disappear before its proper time. "My mother is a devout Catholic," says Garza, "and she keeps all the candles burning and does everything that Catholic mothers do, but it's nothing compared to the Kickapoo. These are the most religious people I've ever known."

That's why, of all the 200 Indian tribes that have embraced casino gambling over the past 15 years, the Kickapoo story is the strangest and least likely. A University of Texas historian calls this band of 800 "the most traditional of all North American Indian groups" and virtually the only one that has never mixed with western civilization in the course of its 400 years of encounters with the white man. They've fought at various times for the French, the Spanish, the British, the United States and Mexico, and yet in every case they were fighting only for their own land and their own independence. Among their relics in El Nascimiento are a medal given to them by George Washington. Another gold plaque was presented to the chief at Versailles by King Louis XV. And yet they regard these mementoes from foreign governments as compromises made only to preserve their own nation.

From their earliest days they've refused to have formal commercial dealings with Europeans, moving instead to wherever land was promised. From their ancestral home in Lower Michigan, they migrated to Wisconsin, then Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and finally northern Mexico, where the government awarded them land in 1852 in exchange for war service. Throughout their sojourns they maintained their strict religion, which requires the hunting of the white-tailed deer and constant prayer for the earth, and they opposed western education, including the learning of European languages. The tribe continues to speak an Algonquian tongue long forgotten by most of the woodland tribes of the East, where it originated. Even today, the five members of the tribal council have no formal education, not even grade school, and none of them speak English or Spanish. At a time when many American tribes require only 1/16th blood for membership, the blood of the Kickapoo is 99 per cent pure.

Yet, as late as the eighties, it looked like the Kickapoo were finally on the verge of dying out entirely. With no jobs in Mexico, their hunting lands played out, and droughts that left them with barely enough agriculture to feed themselves, they had become migrant farmworkers, moving with the harvest from South Texas in the spring to Colorado in late summer. They spent the winters in cardboard huts--shaped to resemble their traditional wickiups--under the international bridge that links Eagle Pass to Piedras Negras, Mexico. This sprawling homeless camp was not only an eyesore and a health hazard--there was no modern sewage disposal, and their only heat came from open fires--but the Indians were regarded by the townspeople as a nuisance. They walked into stores smelling of sweat and wood smoke and were thought of as shiftless drunks at best, possibly even dangerous thieves. They died young and their numbers dwindled.

"I'll never forget the first day the Kickapoo came to my office," says Isidro Garza. Garza had grown up in Eagle Pass, gone away to college, then returned when he was appointed City Manager in 1981. He'd been in office less than six weeks when the Kickapoo requested a meeting.

"The chief and the elders came to tell me that they had 800 people living under the bridge, and they had only one water spigot. I didn't know what to tell them. I was just as bad as everyone else in Eagle Pass. I had grown up among them, but I had never really noticed what they suffered. From the time I was eight or nine years old, I had picked crops with Kickapoo--we had ridden the same trucks together--and yet I'd never really thought about them. But when I became City Manager the full impact of it hit me. They had no restrooms. No heat. No school. And yet right next to where they were living was the municipal golf course. Their little huts were 50 feet away from it. I knew we had to do something."

What Garza did first was to order 30 portable johns to be sent to the bridge, at city expense. Much to his surprise, the decision was controversial.

"The community was negative about helping the Kickapoo," he says. "People would tell me, 'You must take care of us first.' Eagle Pass did have high unemployment and a low per capita income. We WERE one of the poorest counties in the nation. But I told them that, no matter how bad life is for the rest of Eagle Pass, the Kickapoos were much much worse off."

Ultimately Garza discovered that his best allies were in the media. A few newspaper articles appeared, describing the living conditions under the bridge, where responsibility for the Indians was assumed by neither Mexico nor the U.S. (The Kickapoo have never carried passports, but have always been allowed to cross the border freely.) KHOU-TV in Houston devoted an hour to their plight. And finally local churches showed interest in helping the Kickapoo raise money. A fundraiser attracted worldwide attention, bringing some sizeable contributions from a few Hollywood celebrities, and enough money was raised to purchase 125 acres of scrub desert near the Rio Grande. The land became a federal reservation when the Kickapoo, with Garza's help, were finally recognized as an American tribe through a special act of Congress, eventually signed by President Reagan.

"And after I got the porta-johns for them," says Garza, "they kept coming to see me. They were just searching for someone to listen. They would all come to my office and sit there for two or three hours. And sometimes they wouldn't even be speaking. There would be these long periods of utter silence in the room. They're not talking and I'm not talking. They knew I had other work to do, but I never once said 'I have to do something else now' or 'You have to leave.' I just sat and waited. But then, when the elders did talk, they spoke mostly in Kickapoo. So at first we're not speaking at all. Then they're speaking to me in a language I don't understand. Then, at a certain time that they seem to all understand, they would leave. I can't explain it, but that's how we became friends. That's how they came to trust me." Though the young Garza couldn't have realized it at the time, those friends would eventually become his employers. Garza was fired as manager in the mid-eighties and left Eagle Pass to run construction firms in California and the Houston area, but he never lost contact with Black Buffalo.

It's smoky, it's tiny, it's jampacked, and it sits at the end of a primitive asphalt road, but the Lucky Eagle Casino is regarded by the Kickapoo Indians, once the poorest tribe in America, as a gift from God. Then, in 1988, the prospects for Native Americans everywhere changed dramatically. That was the year that Congress, reacting to the Supreme Court decision in the "Cabazon" case, passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Essentially that act allowed legalized gambling on Indian reservations in any state that already allowed other forms of gambling. (Texas had both bingo halls and a lottery.) And like every other tribe in America, the Kickapoo were eventually contacted by a gambling management company, eager to get them into the casino business.

"The chief called me in 1991," says Garza, "when I was living in California, and he said 'I need your help--this company says they can create jobs for us.' I had strong reservations about it, because I was so familiar with the culture and religion. And the chief had his doubts, too. He was afraid they would be assimilated into a western civilization. But he also wanted jobs for his people."

Garza agreed to help the tribe evaluate the possibilities. And to do that he took the chief and several of the elders on a plane trip to the Silver Star Resort Casino in Philadelphia, Miss., which was owned by the Choctaw Indians but run by the same management firm.

"We all walk into the casino," says Garza," and after about ten minutes the Kickapoo have seen enough. They want to leave. They say, 'There's not one Native American working here.' So we check into our rooms and later that night my wife and I want to go see the casino when it's busy, but the Kickapoo won't go with us. They said, 'Have you seen the television here?' And I said, 'Yes, I think so.' And they said, 'There are so many channels.' They were fascinated with the TV and wanted to stay and watch it. So they never really went to the casino. They watched cable TV and then we flew home."

As far as Black Buffalo was concerned, that was the end of casino talk. If there weren't jobs for his people at the casino, then he wasn't interested. "But then he calls me again in 1994," says Garza, "and he says another company has approached him and this time he thinks he wants to do it because 'we have no other hope.' He was desperate. He wanted to create jobs for the tribe. That was his number one motivation. He had a 98 per cent unemployment rate."

By 1995 Garza had been hired by Makateonenodua as the tribe's business manager, and one of his first acts was to make a deal with the Southwest Hotel and Casino Corporation out of Minnesota to build and operate a casino. Immediately there were problems, both business and cultural.

The management corporation didn't really want to hire the Kickapoo. After evaluating the project, Southwest said they could hire only four to six Indians, mostly in maintenance jobs. The chief was livid, and Garza tried to hash it out with them. "The whole point, as far as the tribe was concerned, was to provide jobs," he says. "But this company said, 'Look, these people have no English, they have no social skills, and they can't count.' I said, 'Well, you have to teach them a very specific job. Teach them how to count. How high does a blackjack dealer have to count? To 21, right? I don't think it would take them that long to learn to count to 21.'"

After 15 months the Indians and the management firm were at an impasse, so Garza raised the money to buy them out of the contract. But just as that situation was resolved, a bitter fight broke out among the tribal council over Garza himself. Branded as an opportunist and a sort of Rasputin figure who held far too much sway over the chief, three of the five tribal council members voted to fire him as their gaming representative. They claimed that he had excluded them from meetings with government officials, made "empty promises," defaulted on contacts, and billed the tribe for unreasonable expenses. They were especially suspicious of his motives when they learned that Garza was heavily in debt from the failure of his construction companies. (He acknowledges that he owed $500,000 at one time, but has paid back all but $200,000 of it.)

Makateonenodua felt betrayed by the renegade council, and felt they had been stirred up by an attorney named Sandra Hansen, who represented the tribe's legal affairs from 1989 until 1995, but was fired when Garza showed up. So the hugely popular chief forced new elections, and the three council members who opposed Garza were voted out of office by wide margins. The ousted members then complained to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which initially refused to recognize the new council. Everything was finally resolved in February 1999 when Kevin Gover, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, ruled that the Makateonenodua faction was the legitimate government. Garza was in control.

"People say to me, 'Why Isidro?'" says Garza. "'Why does he have all these benefits from the Kickapoo?' Well, it comes from this long time of blind trust. I had twenty years of working with them. The casino is something that the lord did as a special blessing to them, but I was on their agenda long before there was any casino."

Meanwhile, the tiny Lucky Eagle Casino had formally opened in 1996, staffed by many Kickapoo who had learned to count, and it was an instant success, drawing 7,000 customers a week. It may be the most downhome casino in America, more like an Old West saloon than a Vegas-style resort, but it was perfect for the Mexican and Texan low-rollers who stormed it like an invading army. To get there you have to drive 10 miles from downtown Eagle Pass via a state highway and then a winding country road full of trailer homes, "Fix Flats" places, dusty motels, adobe gift shops with hand-lettered signs, skanky farms and desert. The casino itself is a low-slung temporary structure decorated in turquoise and pink--the generic colors of Indian casinos everywhere--and inside it's decorated with white Christmas tree lights dangling from the ceiling. It has a dull red-and-yellow carpet, and half the floor space is devoted to an American-Legion-style bingo hall. The seven-table poker room is packed every night--both Texans and Mexicans love the game--and the 200 slot machines are dominated by determined Hispanic women. (The tribe owns the patent on a bar-code slot machine known in the industry as a Kickapoo Bar machine, under the trade name "Lucky Tattoo.")

But a few hundred yards away, huge steel girders and construction equipment herald the future of the Kickapoo. No sooner had the council dispute been resolved than Garza began a $30 million expansion project. With $3-4 million a year in casino profit, the tribe was able to secure loans and other financing to buy 771 acres just south of the reservation for a 152-room resort hotel. Then they bought a 9000-acre ranch to the northwest of Eagle Pass just for hunting. "If anyone has their priorities straight in the whole world," says Garza, "it's the Kickapoo. They believe they can only pray when they have access to the deer. So they had to have land for hunting. The casino opened up what had been denied them for so long."

In September 2002 the first Kickapoo school in the history of the tribe will open, but true to their historic mistrust of mainstream culture, all teachers will be Kickapoo. They're also in the process of building 80 homes on the reservation. And sometime in the future Garza plans a 9,000-foot jet landing strip for high-rollers, as well as two more casino expansions if the first one succeeds.

"Most important," says Garza, "the tribe's unemployment rate has gone from 98 per cent to zero. There's no better example of welfare-to-workforce. The casino is now the most powerful economic development tool that this part of South Texas has. The poorest people, in the poorest part of the country, have turned it around. In the next two to three years, we will have 4,000 employees. The unemployment rate for the county as a whole is still 30 per cent, but we'll drop that to zero."

To do that Garza brought in Lee Martin, an executive who quit his job at NBC Bank to manage the new casino. It will have a total of 106,000 square feet of gaming space, or seven times more than the current building. A 150-room resort hotel is scheduled to open in May of 2002, with a championship golf course following in September. The course is being designed by veteran pro golfer Lee Trevino, a Texan with Tiger Woods level popularity among Mexican-Americans, and if everything goes according to plan, the final hole will require a tee shot across the Rio Grande to a green in Mexico. "I want to see Lee and Tiger Woods be the first golfers to play a hole that begins in one country and ends in another," says Garza. "We own the land on both sides of the river, but it takes a presidential permit to do it."

Still, the Kickapoo are not satisfied. Their compact with the Texas governor makes them only a Class II gambling establishment, which means they can't bank games. (Blackjack and poker winnings are awarded through a player's pool.) So they've been lobbying intensely, first with Governor Bush and now with new Governor Rick Perry, to give them a full-scale Class III gaming compact. Garza and Makateonenodua both attended Bush's Inaugural Ball and have had recent meetings with both Bush and House Speaker Trent Lott to further their agenda.

"The governors have treated us with respect and compassion," says Garza, "but they haven't given us what we need yet."

What they need, he says, is 100 per cent control over their affairs.

"We as a people owe the Kickapoo so much. The Treaty of 1796 deeded thousands of millions of acres to them. Then there were treaties in 1803, 1809, 1832, 1852 and 1862, all of which were broken. The Kickapoo never wanted to settle, so they kept moving. They wanted to keep their culture and their religion. When the French came, they asked the Kickapoo what the big river was called, and they told them its name--'Mississippi' is a Kickapoo word. So they're as American as any of us, and they ended up with not one inch of land. In a way gaming is eventually realizing that we have a moral reponsibility to Native American tribes."

The Kickapoo have not become rich, but for the first time in this century they've become comfortable. Obviously that means changes in their way of life, and not all the tribe members think that's a good thing. Already the children have begun speaking some English. The fallout from the bitter election battle of 1996 has created pariahs in a tribe that was once incredibly close- knit. They no longer marvel at cable TV in hotels; they're all wired. But Garza is convinced that the Kickapoo culture will survive nonetheless.

"Kickapoo means 'guardians of the earth,'" he says. "They pray for world peace every day. Their whole word revolves around the Lord. Even their calendar. They have no calendar. Their new year occurs whenever the Lord tells them it's the new year. The sign is when the birds start singing. The casino doesn't change any of that. They will still go to Nascimiento."

If you go to the international bridge today, you find uncluttered parkland set aside for baseball fields and a carrizo canebrake where the Border Patrol occasionally catches a smuggler or an illegal alien. There's no trace, not even a sign, showing where the Kickapoo Nation lived for so many years.

"They were dying there," said Garza. "These were people who told me 'We hoped people would stop on the bridge to feed the ducks, because maybe some of the food would fall down onto our plates.' If you had seen them then, you could see their condition by the expressions on their faces. They were frowns. There was fatigue and suffering in their eyes. Today they're very bubbly and personable."

And does that mean that the Kickapoo tribe will start growing again, I wonder.

"I wouldn't say that they're growing yet," says Garza. "I would say that they're not dying as fast."

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