Let the Chips Fall

Texas' Kickapoo Indians once lived in squalor under a bridge and worked as migrant laborers. Now things are looking up, thanks to a new Native American tradition: casino gambling.

Bumping along rutted caliche roads used nightly by prowling U.S. Border Patrol agents near the South Texas town of Eagle Pass, Isidro Garza sketches in the contours of the brave new world of the Kickapoo Indians.

Below, on the brushy bank of the Rio Grande, an 18-hole golf course is taking shape. On the high flat ground above, a jet landing strip will be built among the pecan trees for junketing high rollers. Nearby, on the tribe's small reservation, the concrete and steel infrastructure of a new 100,000-square-foot casino and 152-room hotel complex is already rising.

A well-known golfer has been invited to design the course. "We had Lee Trevino visit last week. He's very enthused about the project. He likes the story behind the Kickapoo," Garza says. And this $30 million expansion project may be just the beginning. Two more phases are on the books if the first succeeds in drawing the deep-pocket swells to Maverick County.

Mark Blackwell/San Antonio Express-News

"Ten years from now, I expect to have 1,000 hotel rooms and a half-million square feet of casino space. We expect to have large conventions coming through, to be on the PGA Tour and have 25,000 visitors a week," he says.

Garza, a former city manager of Eagle Pass, handles all business affairs of the Texas Kickapoo, a peripatetic 500-member tribe that has long been a downtrodden historical oddity. If his grandiose plans are realized, a destination gambling resort will rise beside the Rio Grande, and the Kickapoo will become a big player in South Texas.

"It's all about money and politics," says Garza, who knows a little about each, having taken his lumps in both the financial and political arenas. Last fall he sought to unseat U.S. Representative Henry Bonilla, who represents the 23rd Congressional District. Garza was defeated by wide margin but carried Maverick County.

After being so long on the bottom, Garza believes the Kickapoo's time has finally come.

"Fifteen years ago, they were landless. They were perceived as squatters underneath the international bridge. They had one water spigot and no toilet facilities. No youngsters were going to school. They were dying on the doorsteps of hospitals," he says.

But they were also Indians, which in the United States brings its own special curses and blessings. The Kickapoo eventually gained federal recognition as a tribe and then used donated funds to buy a 119-acre reservation south of town.

Taking advantage of the peculiar status of Indian land, the Kickapoo opened a small "mom and pop" casino in 1996 on a corner of their reservation.

The Tiguas in El Paso operate the only other casino in Texas. Now snowbirds and low rollers from San Antonio, Laredo and Mexico motor through Eagle Pass down the "Lucky Eagle Trail" to play bingo, card games and "pull-tab" slots.

But for its new casino, the tribe wants to offer Las Vegas-style "Class III" gambling including conventional slots. To do so, it will need the approval of Texas Governor Rick Perry.

The tribe has hired San Antonio lawyer Roy Barrera Jr. to persuade Perry to see things from the Kickapoo's point of view.

"I really hope a plan will be presented to the governor that will answer all questions about the propriety of a Class III gambling license," says Barrera, a former San Antonio judge and a Hispanic Republican years before it was politically fashionable. "We need so badly something to bring about change on the border. It would be a great benefit to the citizens of Maverick County."

Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a less likely venue for a posh gaming house than here. Maverick County has long suffered from poverty and a persistent reputation for backwardness.

Local chamber officials are thus drooling about the Kickapoo's plans. "We're very excited," director Sandra Martinez says. "Since the opening of the casino, requests for information received by the chamber have tripled. We're just waiting for the new casino to open. It's going to be a mega-project," she said.

Others are less enthusiastic.

"It's just changing the atmosphere here. This is a very poor community, and when you combine gambling with poverty, it's not what I would have envisioned as the way for the community to develop," says one county official who asked not to be named.

Kickapoo now hold about a third of the 240 casino jobs, but the tribe is attracting significant local talent. Among the nontribal members are a former local banker, a former county commissioner and a well-connected customs broker.

"The only time we hire Chicanos or whites is when we cannot find a Kickapoo for the job. The only ones who aren't working are the ones who don't want to work," says tribal chairman Makateonenodua, also known as Raul Garza.

Isidro Garza, no relation to Makateonenodua, says the casino nets between $3 million and $4 million annually. Long landless in the United States, the Kickapoo are using some of the earnings to buy property. First they spent $3 million on a 9,000-acre ranch in nearby Kinney County, where tribal members hunt white-tailed deer, essential to Kickapoo religious ceremonies. Late last year, the tribe spent $2 million on a 770-acre pecan orchard adjacent to the reservation. Here they plan to build their golf course and airstrip for their clients.

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