I ran a security gantlet to get a look at wall murals in a new addition to the Wind River Casino outside of Riverton. Each security person who looked me over called for someone higher up the chain, until finally the top dog, Vince Blake, walked me back toward the closed new dining area where the murals will shortly be unveiled. He’s a white-haired, round-faced Arapaho man with a rolling gait, and as we made our way through the dinging slot machines, he said, “This is going to cost you a cheeseburger.”
That seemed like a reasonable bribe. Then he added, gesturing to the guard behind him, “And one for him too.”
I started to say, “I suppose you’ll want …”
And Vince added, “Fries too.”
The large murals cover three tall walls of the dining area in the casino’s newest wing. There are 10 of them, but you could spend an hour just looking at one; for all their size there’s enough history, landscape, wildlife, people, and even poetry to keep you studying for hours. It’s the impressionistic story of a people, the Northern Arapaho, colorful and well-lit.
I don’t have any interest in gambling. Growing up with family visits to Reno, Nevada I developed a childhood aversion to casinos; they seemed a sad, smoky sump of sagging lives. Craps, I confess, was a brief exception…. But I work in Riverton part of the time, so I drop by the Wind River Casino for the food, which is excellent. I’ll show up for the occasional musical act. And now, I’ve come to stand in front of these murals, one at a time.
Unlike casinos in Nevada and many other places, no liquor is served at Wind River, or at the four other small casinos on the reservation. In places like Las Vegas, booze is an essential part of the gambling industry: a lure, a loosener, and a profit-center. That may change in the future — the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone compete with each other for gamblers (the Shoshone Rose casino, which plans to expand, sits just north of Lander), and liquor could be an edge — but there will be resistance to that, if you listen to an older tribal member like Vince Blake. The tribes have banned liquor sales on the reservation since the 1970s, and it’s evident at the Wind River Casino that they’re doing just fine without it.
The current expansion will be followed by additions to the hotel and a grand ballroom that can hold 1,200 people for conventions, and the massive new kitchen reflects that — as manager Jim Conrad said during a tour — “If there was a disaster, we could feed 5,000 people.”
And those disaster victims would have to walk through the busy casino to get to the food. The casino entry is designed that way, so that those who come for beef brisket or mural art will be tempted to drop a token in a slot machine. It’s a business, after all.
It’s a business that now has 770 employees, about 90 percent of them Native American. (The patrons, despite what you hear about slot machine orphans on the reservation, appear to be mostly non-Indian.) On a reservation with poverty and crime problems, and an unemployment rate that once was over 70 percent, those jobs have played a role in bringing idle workforce down to a still-frightening 50 percent. (The state of Wyoming leaves that statistic out of its unemployment numbers for Fremont County, which it lists at 6 percent.)
For many of the casino’s new employees, that means learning how to work. Not how to deal cards or cook ribs — though that’s part of it — but how to punch the clock and dress right and look customers in the eye. There is plenty of work done on the reservation, much of it unpaid, but for many casino employees, the routines and orderliness of a regular payroll job are a new experience.
Sometimes, they fail. But here, and at the nearby 789 Smokeshop & Casino, if they have problems at home, or substance abuse, or other bad habits that get in the way, they get more chances. Employees have access to a “wellness” program that can help them with addictions and other problems. Conrad and his crew are a little messianic about this: “A job is the biggest motivation for getting a person to change.”
The success and growth of the casino — and all those new disposable incomes on the reservation — would seem to be a boon to adjacent non-Indian communities, like Riverton and Lander. But there are other issues, particularly between the tribes and Riverton, that get in the way (more on this in a later column). And there are studies, mostly elsewhere (there are more than 450 Indian casinos nationwide) that suggest casinos are something less than an economic miracle, and quite vulnerable to economic downturns, like the current one in Wyoming. (The famous, and enormous, Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut – run by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe — has been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy in recent years.)
And then there are sourpusses like me, who simply find gambling unappetizing. I once had to write a magazine piece about Las Vegas — bad choice, editor — and lasted only an hour or two among the fumey, grey-faced folks fossilizing in front of slots before I fled to the surrounding red rocks and river canyons.
But … at the Wind River Casino, you have those murals. One visit is not enough. They have layers and layers of imagery: maps, photographs, petroglyphs, words. The words would sound too simple if they weren’t embedded in a dense world of bugling elk, kids playing basketball, stained glass (from St. Stephens Church), aboriginal art. As Jackie Dorothy, who works at the casino, said: “Every time you come you see something you didn’t see before.” And she promptly showed me a ground squirrel I’d missed, down in the corner, by Royce Long Bear’s name. (Long Bear’s quote: “I am glad we still have our spirituality. It teaches you respect, love, your ceremonies.”)
All that’s missing from the murals — though I may discover it when I look again — is the teasing humor of the Northern Arapaho. As we left the mural-dining area (it’s undergoing a “soft open” while chefs are trained, so I needed an escort during off hours) Vince Blake reminded me of the cheeseburger, and I reached for my wallet.
“Rain check,” he said, waving me off with a smile.
— Geoffrey O’Gara wrote about the Wind River Indian Reservation in his book, What You See in Clear Water (Vintage). When he writes about Indian-non-Indian conflicts, he notes that his spouse’s law firm does work for the Northern Arapaho tribe.
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