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First Nations need the modern white buffalo

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When legislation allowing gaming on Indian reservations in the United States was passed into law, it was called the "modern white buffalo."

The buffalo had provided Plains Indians with everything they needed -- food, clothing, shelter and tools. The White Buffalo Calf Woman provided sacred teachings of the Sun Dance and the sweat lodge. It was hoped that modern gaming could at least generate the wealth and employment that many Native American tribes needed to overcome widespread poverty today.

Gaming improved the socio-economic conditions for many indigenous people stateside. This created enthusiasm for a similar solution in Manitoba and a deal was struck to develop four native-run casinos in this province. Casinos in Brokenhead Ojibwa Nation and Opaskwayak Cree Nation are up and running, Spirit Sands in western Manitoba is set to open this summer and there is one more to go.

Most of the attention has been fixed on the socio-economic benefits provided by Indian casinos, but we shouldn't lose track of the related social and cultural effects gaming has had on First Nations on both sides of the border. There is plenty to learn from taking a closer look at the ways in which gaming was employed in the past and the way it is used today.

Gaming has always played a major role in the life of North American First Nations, not only for recreation and a way to pass on skills such as manual dexterity and counting, but often as a major way to build community and even resolve intertribal conflicts.

For example, entire tribes could avoid going to war by staging an elaborate intertribal competition called the Bone Game instead. This wasn't some pseudo-serious sports competition with a trophy and T-shirts for a prize; the stakes could be one tribe's winter wheat supply against another tribe's entire herd of horses. But when the choice is between choosing teams to compete at hiding bones versus riding into battle with loss of life and limb, you can see just how vital a role gaming could play.

The very process of choosing teams for the Bone Game was a community-building exercise that empowered individuals because everybody had a role to play in choosing the team and the strategies that would be employed. An almost endless series of sharing circles with talking tokens would take place, and everybody was empowered to express their opinion, audition for particular roles or just be heard in any way they needed or desired.

When each tribe had its team ready, the game began. The players used deception and sleight of hand to hide their bones (small, polished "stones" held in the players' hands), while advisers adjusted strategy, speakers negotiated field position and a vast array of dancers, singers and other supporters cheered their team on and tried to distract the other team's roster of pointers who tried to guess where the other team's bones were hidden. It was quite a spectacle, not unlike the kind of show professional sports teams put on today.

First Nations people know they cannot live the way they did in the past, but that doesn't mean we can't bring some important knowledge forward to learn from. We certainly can't envision armies putting down their guns to play a hand game, but we can strive to use diplomacy before force whenever we can, negotiations before blockades as it were, and if the process empowers individuals, all the better.

The roles people play in gaming are different today, as is the selection process. A job interview with a pit boss substitutes for the sharing circles of yesterday. But everybody should be provided with a fair chance to display their skills for a particular position for which they feel they are most suited.

Most important, the bounty won was sizable, just like the revenues gained from successful casinos today. But where the spoils of victory used to be shared equally among all members of the tribe, now we see too many examples of avarice and greed, at least in the U.S. Tribes get into major battles over tribal memberships, whereas they used to adopt women and children to replace warriors lost in battle. There are some lessons from the past we should carry forward so the wealth and employment from modern gaming is shared equally today.

But the most valuable lesson First Nations can learn from the past is the tradition of independence. First Nations never depended on welfare or government handouts, and they certainly don't want that today. That is what gaming is intended to do, and whatever needs to be done to fit in with that tradition is the way to go now.


Don Marks is the editor of Grassroots News.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 28, 2014 A9

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