Dramatic advances that arrived on the long wave of casino income have transformed the lives of thousands of American Indians in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
Consider the following.
From his fifth-floor office balcony, James Ramos, San Bernardino's newest county supervisor, can see the 940-acre reservation of his tribe, the San Manuel Band of Serrano Indians, climbing from the valley floor into the mountains.
In a sweat lodge built of oak and willow branches, in the Riverside County hills of the Pechanga Band of Luise? Indians' reservation, Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro exclaimed: "This is amazing. This is what our teens are doing."
And in a medical clinic on the Morongo Band of Mission Indians' reservation in the San Gorgonio Pass, a roomful of doctors studied pain management.
"There have been major changes since gaming emerged," said Clifford Trafzer, director of the UC Riverside California Center for Native Nations. "People lived in abject poverty before gaming."
Casino wealth has opened doors long closed and boosted a growing American Indian influence in the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles.
"It's really enriching and rewarding ... when I drive our (supervisorial) district. It basically is the Serrano territory" of his ancestors, said Ramos, who grew up in a reservation trailer, one of four children of a mechanic and a beautician.
The San Manuel tribe and reservation are named for Ramos' great-great-grandfather, Santos Manuel, who 147 years ago, with his followers, was chased from the mountains to the valley in an attack by a local militia. Today, a photograph of Manuel graces the second-floor lobby of the tribe's 3,000-slot machine casino — and Ramos, 46, has ascended to political power.
That, he said, offers a lesson to upcoming generations of American Indians around the state.
"We have to start building and supporting one another," he said. "We have to speak to kids in Indian communities, let them know that it's not just a dream, that people actually have made it to these positions, and you can make it and go even further."
Casino profits made possible the schooling — from junior college through a master's degree in business administration from University of Redlands — that Ramos credits with his rise.
"It paid for my education. Education is what carried us through that election," he said about the 2012 contest in which he beat an incumbent who called him a "casino boss."
But observers say Ramos also assembled an effective and well-funded campaign supported by his and other tribes, allies on the Board of Supervisors, employee unions and the California Nations Indian Gaming Association.
"Ramos has become a real powerful force in the community and he had a real awesome machine behind him; he had a lot of money," said James Mulvihill, a San Bernardino city planning commissioner and an urban geographer at CSU San Bernardino.
The election made Ramos one of the state's very few American Indian elected officials, if not the first. "This was a major step forward — and James Ramos has aspirations to go forward," Trafzer said.
As the San Manuel tribe's gambling income — first from a bingo hall, then from its casino — grew, so too did its ambitions for its members and in politics.
"The economic base of the reservation rose, and when that starts to rise, your dreams start to get larger," Ramos said.