Here we are in the . . . well, it's not the Adirondacks. That gorgeous mountain range would be off to the north somewhere.
This is more like . . . well, it's not exactly the Finger Lakes either. That beautiful area would be west of here.
We're pretty much right smack in the center of New York state, among the flatlands that were perfect for the Erie Canal but don't have much to recommend for your average tourist.
There's the monument commemorating the Battle of Oriskany, in which the Oneida Indians sided with the patriots against the British and their Mohawk warriors, but that was 224 years ago. At least we have the nearby big city of . . . well . . . Utica.
That's why it's something of a miracle in Indian gaming that these same Oneida Indians have erected one of the most aggressive and continually successful casinos in the country in a little less than eight years. In 1993 Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation Representative and Chief Executive Officer (first time I've heard that designation for a chief), christened the Turning Stone Casino Resort, so named because the Oneidas are "People of the Stone" (meaning they're strong) and "Turning" because this casino in the year 1993 represented the turning point in their cultural rebirth and economic independence.
They were finally claiming what George Washington granted them in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua--title to their lands and control of their government. Those lands had been whittled away to as little as 32 acres before they won a victory before the Supreme Court in 1985, upholding the 1794 treaty, and today they own 14,000 acres outright in their traditional homeland, with legal claims still pending for more. (And some of the fearful local farmers are not to happy about those claims.) Even more incredible, the Oneidas are now the largest employers in a two- county area, and the unemployment rate is so low that they recently had to import 100 Vietnamese and Bosnian refugees to fill out the workforce of 3,000. They're in negotiations with the Mexican government to build and operate casinos in Acapulco and Cuernavaca--the Mexicans were impressed with their business acumen and their respect for traditional culture--and they hold the patent on a "coinless" slot machine called a "multi-game" that is used by Indian casinos throughout the country. They own a chain of gas stations and convenience stores--under the "SavOn" brand--and they publish Indian Country Today, the leading newspaper for Native American tribes.
This quiet revolution has occurred at a modest little curvilinear casino--Moroccan white with soft blue lights--located just off Exit 33 on the New York State Thruway. It's relaxed and informal, a consummate "locals" place, where the main table-game area is sheltered by a huge skylight that, contrary to traditional casino theory, bathes the whole place in bright sunlight throughout the day. "When they were negotiating the gaming compact with Governor Mario Cuomo in the early nineties," explains Jerry Reed, the "media specialist" for the tribe, "they thought, 'Well, if for some reason he doesn't approve gambling, we'll make it into a mall.'" Since then the gaming area has been greatly expanded, with more traditional chandeliers and glitz, but the gaming tables under the skylight are still immensely popular.
It took two lady boxers with famous last names--that's Laili Ali on the left and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde on the right-- to put Turning Stone Casino on the gambling map. Unless you live in Syracuse, Rochester or Utica, you had probably never heard of Turning Stone until a month ago. That's when 380 reporters from around the world descended on the place, along with 8,000 spectators, to see the daughters of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier duke it out in what was billed as "Ali-Frazier IV." Laila Ali was considered the more experienced fighter, so there was some fear that it would be a one-sided stunt that would backfire on the promoter, but Jacqui Frazier-Lyde more than held her own as the bout went the full eight rounds and was decided on points. Lost in the hoopla was the fact that Turning Stone has become a regular fight venue, with about four major bouts per year, sometimes in concert with the Boxing Hall of Fame, which is just eight miles down the road.
"That definitely did it for us," says Dwayne M. Spitzer, Vice President of Marketing & Sales. "Nothing else we've done has gotten that much attention. Probably second on the list would be Laila Ali's debut fight in 1999, and her father showed up for that one."
Gradually Turning Stone has acquired all the accoutrements of a full-scale Vegas resort, including a showroom with a seven- story stage that seats 800 and hosts 150 acts per year. (Bob Newhart was playing during my visit, and Earth, Wind and Fire had just left.) A temporary outdoor arena features acts like Wynonna and Kenny Rogers during the warm summer months. A convention center opened two years ago, a championship golf course last summer. Four times a year they sponsor a national "Let It Ride" tournament, with a $100,000 first prize, and their bingo hall--in existence since the seventies--seats 1100 and draws bus business from all the northeastern states and Canada.
In fact, the only thing holding back the Oneidas at this point is a scarcity of hotel rooms. There are only 285 rooms in the casino itself, with another 63 at the nearby Inn at Turning Stone. The business is 95 per cent drive-ins, with the average visitor (3.5 million a year) staying less than four hours. ("We do much better in bad weather," says Spitzer.) Yet the Oneidas are determined to play in the big leagues. And the main thing they're banking on is golf. The new Shenendoah Golf Course has already been noticed, not only by golfers but by the Aububon Society, which made it one of only 17 golf courses awarded "signature status," meaning it preserves and enhances the forest and wildlife out of which it was carved. The resort also has two other courses, including a par three, for those who don't feel up to championship-level play.
All of this has been done through a tribal government that seems baffling in its complexity. The tribe governs by "consensus," meaning they don't take votes--they simply wait until everyone agrees. The membership is divided into three clans--Turtle, Bear and Wolf--and each of those clans sends three male representatives to the tribal council and three female representatives to the "clan mothers." (The tribe is matrilineal, and women are charged with all long-term planning. The male body and the female body must agree before decisions are made.) All these various divisions must evaluate each business move according to its impact on the next SEVEN generations of Oneidas. (Using the Biblical 40 years per generation, that would mean they have to determine the effect of a decision 280 years from now.) The Oneidas have so far avoided the problems other tribes have had with sudden wealth, because they don't distribute any gaming revenues to tribe members. Everything goes back into joint programs, although members can qualify for free housing and higher education, and everyone has comprehensive health insurance.
The Oneidas have always thought of themselves as the "good" Iroquois. Of the six tribes in the Iroquois confederacy, they were the only one that sided with American patriots in the Revolutionary War. (They fought alongside a militia made up principally of German settlers.) All the rest of the Iroquois fought for the British, including the Mohawks and Senecas, who had far more warriors than the Oneidas.
But America has a short memory. Even as the Ali-Frazier fight was taking place, New York Governor George Pataki was making a trip to Buffalo to meet with the Senecas. He promised them not one, not two, but three casinos of their own--one in downtown Buffalo, one in Niagara Falls, and one in some other western New York county.
The Oneidas aren't saying much about the threatened competition, but then that's not their style. They have three expansion projects underway at Turning Stone, including a new hotel and 50,000 more square feet of gaming space. They have alliances with other tribes across the country. They have patents on the gambling equipment itself. And they know other things.
What's their total investment so far in Turning Stone, I asked Spitzer.
"That would be an Oneida Nation secret," he said.
After all, the odds didn't look so good in 1777 either.
TURNING STONE CASINO RESORT
Theme: Cool Elegance
Total Investment: Oneida Nation secret
Known For: The only place in the country where blind people can play bingo. (They use electronic Braille card readers.)
Marketing niche: Locals from western New York state, a few
junketeers from Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: No alcohol, but soft drinks are brought
Dealers: Extremely friendly
Surrounding area: The small towns of Rome and Verona, on the decline since the closing of the Erie Canal.
Overall rating: 84
Joe Bob's bankroll: Up $105 after an hour of $10 blackjack: total to date: +$76