Casino income transforms American Indian lives in Inland Empire

  • Riverside/San Bernardino County Indian Health clinic CEO, Jess Montoya, stands by the reservation clinic and Morongo Casino Resort & Spa by Banning on Thursday, June 6, 2013. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

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.

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