War against gambling addiction is being fought by Native Americans


THERE is a new addiction growing in Indian country. The addiction is gambling.

The American Psychiatric Association, according to an article in Harvard Magazine, lists the possible symptoms of gambling disorder as preoccupation with gambling; steadily increasing the size of bets; intolerance of losing and immediate efforts to recoup losses; gambling in response to disappointment in the other areas of life; neglect of family; losing one's job or marriage as a result of gambling; and engaging in illegal acts or injudicious borrowing or selling to finance betting.

According to the APA, any five or more of these symptoms qualify one as a "pathological gambler." But that's still a somewhat murky definition.

Gambling was limited to illegal dens or to Nevada before 1964. New Jersey didn't get into casino gambling until 1978. New Hampshire started a state lottery in 1964. Since then, 36 other states have joined New Hampshire.

Twenty other states now have some form of legal casino gambling. Hawaii and Utah are the only two states with no gambling allowed.

Started with bingo

Indian nations started with bingo halls in 1974 and in the mid-80s started to build gaming casinos. Fearful this would get out of hand, the federal government passed the National Indian Gaming Act in 1987.

An article on Internet gaming in the Jan. 26 edition of Sports Illustrated charged that the fastest growing segment of the gambling population is college students. They attribute this to .. the explosion of gambling in the past 30 years in America.

In his book "The Gambler," Feodor Dostoyevsky wrote, "At that point I ought to have gone away, but a strange sensation rose up in me, a sort of defiance of fate, a desire to challenge it, to put out my tongue at it. I laid down the largest stake allowed -- 4,000 gulden -- and lost it. Then getting hot, I pulled out all I had left, staked in on the same number, and lost again, after which I walked away from the table as though I were stunned. I could not even grasp what had happened to me."

These days I am hearing tales of Indian men and women reacting in a like fashion. One man, an employee of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and his wife, who works for the tribal government, middle-class Americans for all intents and purposes, find themselves over their head in debt because of their frequent trips to their tribe's casino. They have reached the point where they are beginning to sell off possessions to get back into the game.

Any Indian nation with a casino has among their customers those on welfare who have become addicted to gambling. They take what little they have and make a try for the pot of gold they hope to find at the slot machines or 21 tables.

We are just beginning to understand the havoc that gambling addicted people are bringing to their families.

Just as many Indian tribes are beginning to win the battle against alcohol and drugs, this new addiction is pushing many families into deep poverty. Perhaps there is not the physical violence and the abuse associated with drinking, but the separation of mother and father from their children and the poverty brought about by the loss of money to the casino is creating many psychological problems, teen-age suicide for one.

Gambling a stimulant

The Harvard Magazine article estimates there are 2.2 million people, or 1.4 percent of the population, addicted to gambling. The magazine suggests that this report does not include the 2.2 million adolescents also addicted to gambling. In the scheme of things, 1.4 percent of the population seems pretty minute, but if this study had been restricted to American Indians only, how would this percentage shake out?

John Lauerman, contributing editor of Harvard Magazine writes, "Although we're not exactly sure what defines problem gambling in individuals, its impact on the nervous system is undeniable. In many ways, problem gambling is like any other addiction. It appears to act as a stimulant, one to which frequent risk takers can become inured. Research shows that problem gamblers exhibit patterns of brain activity familiar to experts on drug and alcohol addiction."

Sound familiar?

Mr. Lauerman quotes Mohandas Gandhi who said, "No doubt war against gambling is not so simple as war against plague or earthquake distress. In the latter there is more or less cooperation for the sufferers. In the former the sufferers invite and hug their suffering."

This is an issue several tribal governments are just now beginning to address. Just as so many Indian nations declared war on alcohol and drug addiction among their own people, they must now declare war on this new addiction.

The writer is editor-in-chief and publisher of Indian Country Today, a national weekly newspaper on American Indian issues. His Lakota name, Nanwica Kciji, means "Stands Up for Them." Readers may write to him at Indian Country Today, 1920 #F Lombardy Dr., Rapid City, S.D., 57701.

Pub Date: 5/27/98

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