The Man Who Brought Casinos to the Indians

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Robert Siegel talks with lawyer Glenn Feldman, who represented the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians in Riverside County, Calif., before the Supreme Court in 1987. The tribe's chairman at the time, Arthur James Welmas, died earlier this month at the age of 77. But the tribe's victory in the case established the right to run gambling operations on Indian reservations.


In the pages of The Los Angeles Times, we read today of the death a couple of weeks ago of Arthur James Welmas, age 77. The name meant little to us, but when we read about what Mr. Welmas did, it seemed to us that he had helped change the face of America.

In the 1980s, Mr. Welmas was chairman of the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians in Riverside County, California. In 1983, the Cabazons, like a lot of Indian tribes, started running a high stakes bingo game on the reservation and they started running into trouble with local law enforcement. It was Mr. Welmas's band that went to the United States Supreme Court and beat the state of California six to three. Justice Byron White's decision in California versus Cabazon Band of Mission Indians established the right to run gambling operations on Indian reservations.

And joining us now is Mr. Welmas's lawyer in that case, Glenn Feldman, who is at his office in Phoenix, Arizona. Welcome to the program. And tell us how this case began.

Mr. GLENN FELDMAN (Legal Counsel for Mr. Welmas): Well, the case actually began three years earlier in 1980, when the Cabazons opened the first Indian owned, tribally owned poker room in California. And at that time, the city of Indio claimed that it had jurisdiction and that it prohibited card rooms within its boundaries. And the Indio police went in with a SWAT team and arrested about a hundred people and shut the operation down. And we immediately went to the court and spent three years litigating that case and eventually wound up with a ruling that the card room wasn't actually in the city of Indio.

And immediately thereafter, the card room reopened, and the county of Riverside then came in with a SWAT team, arrested about a hundred people, shut them down and said, well, you may not be within the city of Indio, but you're certainly within Riverside County and we have similar anti-poker laws. And that became the case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

SIEGEL: And we should say, this was long before entire cable channels were sustained by the World Series of Poker. This was illegal in those days.

Mr. FELDMAN: Well, the state and local authorities thought it was illegal. Art and the rest of the tribal council believed they had the right to conduct those games.

SIEGEL: What was Art Welmas's motivation in all of this?

Mr. FELDMAN: Art was chairman of the Cabazons at that time. He had been like, I think, in 1978. And at that time, it really was very different in Indian country. I mean, today, we see the casinos all over the country and think, man, these Indians must be getting rich. But at that time, you know, things were not good. And a lot of the tribal members were living in pretty dire straights. The poverty levels were very high. All kinds of social of problems. And what Art was looking for was a means to bring the tribe out of those condition and then to provide jobs and revenues on the reservation

SIEGEL: This ruling of the Supreme Court didn't really clear the way for casinos, though. That didn't come until a few years ago, that they could actually operate a big casino in California.

Mr. FELDMAN: Well, there are a couple of grounds. I had actually been - I've remained - well, I still represent the Cabazon. After the Cabazon decision in 1987, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act a year later in 1988. That act allows tribes and states to enter into what are called compacts for casino style gaming. And after some fits and starts, there are now, I guess, about 70 tribes in California that have compacts authorizing those types of games.

SIEGEL: Back in the 1980s, the Cabazons, when you represented them, were a couple of dozen people with some arid land and trying to make a go of it through bingo and poker. And today, they operate the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino.

Mr. FELDMAN: That's correct. They've come a long way. It's a beautiful facility with a large casino that you would think could be sitting right on the strip in Las Vegas, and a very nice 200 room, 12 story hotel. Quite a bit of progress, I would say, over the years. Yeah, I think if I described to the court at that time, they have nothing out there but sand and sagebrush. And they've come a long way since then.

SIEGEL: Well Glenn Feldman, thank you very much for talking with us about the late Art Welmas.

Mr. FELDMAN: Sure.

SIEGEL: That's Glenn Feldman, who represented the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians. He attended the wake last week for the tribe's former chairman, Art Welmas, who died at age 77. Welmas was behind the Supreme Court case that made gaming legal on Indian lands.

(Soundbite of telephone message)

Unidentified Man: Thank you for calling Fantasy Springs Resort Casino. For hotel reservations, press one. If you know your party's extension, press two. For our company directory, press three. For the box office, press four. For bingo, press five.

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