Strike it Rich!


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This nation’s initial attempt to “accommodate” Native Americans was a story of Johnny-come-latelies doling out parcels of property to the people who owned it all in the first place. Most of the properties dealt back to the American Indians were less than prime.

To find Indian reservations in San Diego County, you have to drive the back roads or flip through the less familiar pages of your Thomas Brothers map book. But you can also see tribal names—and what they offer—on billboards along virtually any arterial highway. Or you can catch their commercials a few times an hour on the tube.

What is it they offer? Casinos.

The Mission Indians—so named, obviously, by the Johnny-come-latelies who often misused and abused the native residents —broke off into a handful of separate bands. A look at the Barona Band of Mission Indians is a look at the roots of many or all of these bands. The Barona Band split from the nearby (as the crow flies) Viejas Band in 1932 and settled in a pastoral valley a bit northeast of Lakeside. Each tribal family was given a wagon, two horses and five cows by the federal government. Remember, this was 1932! And that was wagon, as in horse-drawn.

The concept was that these people would take their “windfall” and find a way to live off the land. Without taking a Micheneresque approach—following generations through heartbreaks and hardships—suffice it to say there would come a day when San Diego’s true native sons struck a mother lode on their land.

It started slowly at first, with the realization that an Indian reservation was a sovereign place. White man–made laws could be set aside, particularly those pertaining to games of chance.

Gambling would become a bonanza. San Diego as a whole could not turn itself into Las Vegas or Atlantic City. But the progeny of those Mission Indians have built oases of gaming off the I-8 corridor to the east and the I-15 corridor to the north. They have come a long way from a wagon, two horses and five cows. The land, or what they have built on that land, now works for them.

The Barona, Viejas and Sycuan casinos have been fixtures in the foothills east of San Diego for a decade. Even farther east, Golden Acorn sputtered to life in August. Earlier this year, “Casino Row”—Pala, Pauma, Rincon and Valley View—sprung up in a loop east of Escondido.

Count ’em ... that’s eight casinos in San Diego County.

Though the door to tribal gambling has been ajar for a few years, Proposition 1A kicked it wide open. Walk out of the blistering summer heat into any of these air-conditioned tribal casinos, and you would be hard-pressed to say for sure that you had not been mileage-warped into Nevada.

Indeed, there are now almost 12,000 pinging, ringing, Elvis-singing slot machines in San Diego County. There are almost 300 tables for blackjack, poker, pai gow, et al. Three casinos offer satellite wagering, and two offer bingo. One casino already has an affiliated hotel, two have hotels under construction, and three others have them on the drawing boards.

Is it getting to the point where too much is too much?

“Think about it,” answers Jim Muse, general manager of Sycuan, the oldest continually operated gaming house in the county. “We were hearing the same thing about Las Vegas 10 years ago—probably 25 or 30 years ago—and they’re continuing to grow and continuing to build megaresorts. The gaming industry just represents another form of entertainment the public seems to like. It’s an awful lot more convenient here than trying to get to Las Vegas and find hotel rooms and airline reservations and all that hassle.”

The reality is that what you see, feel and hear in San Diego County is only the beginning.

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