The Rules of the Game

Are casinos a tool to help Native American tribes pursue economic self-reliance? Or could they destroy small town values? The Rules of the Game follows the conflict that erupts when an Indian tribe decides to build a casino in Rohnert Park, California.

Arts, Culture, & Sports, Identity & Diversity

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About the Film

Garance Burke first came across the topic of Indian gaming when she was in Mexico writing about a plan to build a casino in the heartland of the Zapatista indigenous territory. At about the same time, Monica Lam went to the polls to vote on whether California Indians should have the right to build casinos on reservation land, and she got interested in what would happen when the casinos started getting built.

Soon afterward, we met at journalism school and found a story unfolding close to home that tackled the same issues of indigenous land rights and modern economic development.

Our first shoot documented an emotional city council meeting that rocked the small town of Rohnert Park, CA, with its intense emotion and rancor. An audience of about 1,000 packed an auditorium and took the podium to express their fears and hopes about an Indian tribe’s proposal to build a casino on the edge of town. We were immediately drawn into a complicated modern debate: should Indians have complete control over what little land remains to them? What if their casino project sits miles away from the old reservation and next to a small town? Is gambling really the path to economic development? What happens when you throw race into the already contentious debate over land use?

The immediate contrasts were part of the story’s intrigue: an impoverished, landless tribe was suddenly going to run a multi-million dollar business; suburban dwellers who thought they were in charge felt powerless to say what should happen in their backyard; a Las Vegas company was marketing a glitzy megaplex they said would be key to preserving traditional Indian culture.

Over nine months, we recorded one community’s attempt to find new solutions and ways of working together. Given the tensions surrounding Indian gaming, we wanted people on all sides to tell us their perspectives, whether they were living on the last acre of the tribe’s former reservation or inside a trailer park next door to the planned casino. Since then, the full-length version of our film has been used as a discussion tool in classrooms and been incorporated into government discussions about land use in California cities. It has also aired on several PBS stations and in film festivals across the country.

The bureaucratic procedures for getting an Indian casino approved mean that the tribe won’t be able to build in Rohnert Park for a few more years. Meanwhile, the Indian gaming business is growing fast: 223 tribes now run 411 casinos in 28 states. Nationwide, annual revenues are approaching $20 billion, nearly double the take from Nevada’s gambling industry.