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.

"It is, in essence, the cornerstone of the tribe's relationship with the Americans. Whoever lays eyes on this medal recognizes the Kickapoo have been given their place in this country by George Washington, and whatever their needs, they will be met," says Makateonenodua. "It's a commitment, government to government. The whole tribe knows about the medal and respects it."

But in the centuries after its issue, the medallion has held little currency, and until a brutal drought hit northern Mexico in the late 1940s, forcing the Kickapoo to come north again, the tribe avoided modern American culture. Their midcentury reappearance in Eagle Pass triggered a series of articles about the long-lost "Stone Age Indian tribe." To survive, the Kickapoo began following the migrant circuit each summer and returning to Mexico each fall.

Their long isolation there had both protected them and left them vulnerable, says Eric Fredlund, an Austin anthropologist who worked with the Kickapoo during the 1990s.

Mark Blackwell/San Antonio Express-News

"Their tribal integrity was preserved. They were not on American reservations or in Indian schools. They did not suffer the benevolence of the U.S. government. They had kept to themselves until they fell on very hard times," he says. "They had disappeared into Mexico for 100 years, and when they came back across the border, they were in the same place other tribes would have been in 1850. They were in a very large sense unprepared for life in the United States in the latter part of the 20th century."

The Kickapoo were especially susceptible to alcohol and inhalant abuse. And during their seasonal stopovers in Eagle Pass, they lived in wretched conditions underneath the international bridge. Their floodplain settlement was seen as a municipal eyesore and a public health nuisance. Ultimately, their plight drew the attention of lawyers from the Native American Rights Fund who helped them obtain tribal status in 1983.

They also received help from church groups in raising money to buy land. Among their closest allies was Presbyterian minister Jim McLeod, who worked with the tribe from 1980 to 1988. McLeod says nothing he heard then from the Kickapoo indicated they would be planning a huge gambling complex to be run by outsiders a little more than a decade later.

"Back then they told me the biggest problem in their history had been white people and outsiders in general, and they were very opposed to gambling," he says.

In 1986, the Kickapoo purchased their reservation site seven miles down river from Eagle Pass. A decade later, they opened their casino.

"They were a minority within a minority, living in the harshest of conditions. The general opinion was they were paint-sniffers, drunks and lazy," recalls Julio Frausto, tribal administrator from 1990 to 1995. "My greatest thing was I wanted to break them of the migratory cycle. If you do, kids stay in school. You get them educated. I was a migrant myself, but my parents never took me out of school."

It was the white man's vice, gambling, that broke the migrant cycle. Within a few years of the casino's 1996 opening, few if any Kickapoo went north to work the crops. Most had also moved into permanent housing on the reservation.

"I saw my people below the bridge. The dirt from the bridge would fall on my plate as I ate. I lived in those cardboard huts without land and suffered a lot," recalls Makateonenodua, the tribal chairman. "The big change came when the casino opened. We didn't have to go anymore to Wyoming, Montana and Colorado to work the crops. Now we all work. We can go to school. It's much better."

But the change has not come without a price.

The first casualty of the Kickapoo's new way of life was tribal harmony. Some Kickapoo also miss the unhurried pace of a life that is impossible in a 9 to 5 world. Others fear increased exposure to modern ways will erode Kickapoo religion and culture.

"Obviously it's affecting our culture and the way we look at things now," says one Kickapoo who asked not to be named. "We were isolated when we lived under the bridge. We didn't have much outside contact. Now days, everyone is pretty much mainstream, you might say, and we're doing a lot of things we didn't used to do."

The downside of regular jobs is loss of mobility and freedom, he says. "The majority of the people are working now. It's like keeping up with the Joneses. 'Hey, you've got a new car. We want a new car,' and in order to do that, you have to finance it, and in order to do that, you have to keep working. In the short run, I don't think it's affecting us that much, but in the long run it will. Traditionally, I think it's a bad thing. The majority of the children are now speaking English first instead of Kickapoo, which is the way I grew up."


The critical spark that split the tribe came in late 1996, when three of the five tribal council members voted to fire Isidro Garza as the tribe's gambling representative.

"He excluded us from meetings with government officials and the tribe's gaming partner; he made empty promises that were never fulfilled; he defaulted on other contracts that he made with the tribe or with the tribe's gaming enterprise; and he billed the tribe for unreasonable expenses," read a sworn affidavit from one of the three council members, Jose Hernandez Sr., who died this spring.

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