Q: Tell me your history, where do the Viejas come from?

ANTHONY PICO, Chairman, Viejas Indian. He was interviewed in the early spring of 1997. Pico: The people of Viejas. Our tribe is known as the Quimi. We're native to southern California and south of the Mexican border about 60 miles. We've been here for about 10,000 years. We traveled throughout this beautiful land and were able to harvest its fruits and to initiate--plant husbandry that has sustained us for thousands of years. We originally came to this property in the early 1930s after being evicted out of what is now called the El Capitan Reservoir, which is a reservoir that was used to bring water to the City of San Diego. So we have our own trail of tears. We came out of the Capitan Grande Indian reservation.

Q: [For] ten thousand years you said you've been here. That's rather amazing. It's hard for an American immigrant boy like myself, to even imagine a people 10,000 years old but you say that very comfortably. Do you feel a connection with that heritage?

Pico: I feel a very strong connection with land ownership. I feel a very strong connection with local control which really means a very strong connection with sovereignty. We are sovereign people. We were, certainly our political institutions were here long before the arrival of the Europeans. I think this is what people of this whole country needs to understand. We've been here before the creation of what is now called the United States and we're going to be here way after.

Q: How much of that heritage, the culture and language, how much of that is known here today? Does much of it remain?

Pico: Certainly more. Probably in the last couple of years because of the tribe's rise of economic independence and as we have now come to know, in a more profound manner, since we were put in a position of abject poverty that economics drives everything. It drives the way we think, the way we feel, what our plans are for the future, what our visions are but now that we've become an economic player in the San Diego regional area more people are beginning to understand who we are, where we've come from and where we're going.

Q: Tell me, just a few years ago things were very different than they are now, economically, for your people. Tell me about that. What was it like here on the reservation before gaming and the revenues that came in.

Pico: Before gaming and revenue our people lived in despair, in abject and grinding poverty. Do you know how it feels to see children with swollen jaws, swollen cheeks, because they have bad teeth and can't find good dental care? Or even any dental care. Do you know what it feels like to see your people living in despair and the reality for them is alcoholism? Do you know what it feels like to be able to have to ask others for the basic necessities of life? [F]or food? These were not -- this lifestyle was not a choice that we made. Our people were driven into arid areas. We were driven into the mountains, into the rocks. Languished there for 150, 200 years not having an opportunity to access the economics of this rich and abundant country.

You know what it feels like to know that you have a qualifications for a job but for some reason you can't access that stuff. Our people lived -- you know, a few years ago there wasn't an Interstate 8 here so the transportation infrastructure wasn't there. There wasn't a larger population here. We lived, we were out of commercial corridors with little or no natural resources, and people thought we were lazy because we lived, sometimes couldn't buy shoes. People thought we were lazy because I went to school with holes in my clothes. Some people thought we were lazy because all we wanted to do supposedly was sit around and drink wine and just vegetate. You know what that was from? That was from being excluded from the economic system.

So that's the way it was then. I remember standing right here, because I grew up in this house as a kid, and watching a car come, right here, loaded with about eight Indians who were suffering from alcoholism. And there was another Indian walking alongside the road staggering drunk. The guy in the back opens up the door and lets him out. He gets out, lets the guy get in. So the guy gets in and then there's no more room for the guy who let him out so the car took off and left the guy who was in the car standing there. But I mean, people don't understand -- people who live whether they're in urban areas or suburbia or wherever that those kinds of things that we saw then were commonplace. Drunkenness was common. It was [a] very casual attitude towards drunkenness.

Q: How does it feel now as you look back at it?

Pico: I don't allow myself to feel too euphoric nor will I allow myself to feel, my emotions get down, because how I feel is that in my lifetime we will not reach the direction we're going. I'm happy for that. I think that's good that we become involved in something and some purpose, some profound purpose, that outlives our lifetime. And so if your question was, 'Do I feel really good about what's going on?' I'm encouraged because I know that the federal government, Congress can take away what we're doing right now at the vote of Congress, at any time.

Q: Do you worry about that --

Pico: And change the laws. I'm very concerned about it and so we work real hard, hopefully to put us in a better position so that doesn't happen. For example, there are bills in Congress right now to tax Native Americans. Okay. Military reservations aren't taxed, neither are tribes. This evolved out of the Constitution of the United States. There's a misconception in this country that tribes do not pay taxes, which is completely incorrect. Tribes do pay taxes. Because we are a tribal government and we have to provide services to our own people so our enterprises, be it gaming or whatever, in this whole country, other tribes are not in gaming. Some of them are using their natural resources very smartly but one hundred percent of the net resources that tribes receive are taxed by that individual tribe. So, the net resources that we receive from the gaming is taxed one hundred percent...That's our tax rate.

Q: Going back to before, did you have much contact with your white neighbors? What was it like?

Pico: We were isolated by our poverty. We had little incentive to make contact with our outside neighbors, we had little desire to make contact with our outside neighbors because of the abject poverty we lived in. Poverty is what separated us. We lived in this poverty stricken reality because we've had our economics stripped away from us. Not being able to continue the way we were in the past, to continue to use the land in its abundance, and then being completely defeated and rubbed into the dirt so that we couldn't continue as a people.

Our culture has been obliterated. Our language is almost dead. Our custom and traditions are still being followed but are becoming a faint memory because of poverty. And therefore we didn't have a whole lot of contact with the outside communities. That's one of the biggest changes today is that now we do and today we are taxpayers and not tax liabilities. Today we are off the welfare rolls; we are on the tax rolls. Today we're able to be positive contributors to the societies that are around and across our borders here on the Viejas Indian Reservation. We're very proud of that. But it's also our duty, it's anyone's duty who has a resource to become part of the community and the surrounding communities around them. We all live on the same planet. We can drink the same water. We breathe the same air. We have the same interaction and we are all profoundly human. And so we owe that respect and dignity to one another.

Q: You don't sound bitter like one might imagine a person who had grinding poverty in his past. You seem a lot more generous about it.

Pico: I might be if I did not evolve out of this community. Native Americans have been able to survive because of their generosity. They've been able to survive because of their kindness. I mean, we've heard -- you and I -- heard stories and read about how the Europeans were welcomed when they came on the shores of the Atlantic and on the shores of the Pacific. There were homeless people, yes, and we helped hook their boats up to Plymouth Rock or wherever and taught them how to, where the fish was, where the game was. We taught them how to plant and how to survive. There were a couple of groups that came over in the 1600s. One of them starved to death. One group starved to death and the other one made it because the Indians took pity upon them. Our people are a people of pity. We are a people of compassion and people of generosity, a people of kindness and a people of forgiveness. So I arose out of that community and I am who I am because I reflect those people have taught me the proper way...

Q: Even though you didn't get much of that kindness and generosity in return.

Pico: We didn't get that in return. I think the stereotypical Native American in movies as being someone who is warlike or someone who is mean, someone who is destructive and hurtful is 180 degrees -- at least in my experience -- and I'm Native American -- 180 degrees different than what I see who we really are.

Q: It reminds me of a line you told...that you describe what you feel out of the Indian Wars of the 1900s in which bows and arrows are traded in for suits and briefcases and lawyers. Is that a fair representation of what you said?

Pico: Even though we are more successful than we have been in the past in my opinion the oppression of Native Americans still continues. The prejudice and racism of Native America still continues. As we actually see currently in one of the national news programs. Native Americans are an enigma in this country and I believe it's really -- it's up to us, of Native America, to educate the public. We are a people of great compassion. We want to be part of the greater society but economics will not let us do it. We still have a struggle. Yes, we have changed as far as the form of the war has changed, yes. We do have to use a plane ticket as an arrow head. I do have to use a suit as the shaft of that arrow. Yes, I do have to speak to Congressmen, lawmakers, people who we have to interact with daily to protect our resources as the feathers of those arrows as it flies through the air on this jet airplane. Yes, that form, the form of war has changed but the war is still there. The oppression is still there. Congress still is trying to take away our sovereignty by changing the law. Congress is still trying to tax Native Americans who are already taxing themselves one hundred percent.

Congress is still ignorant of where the Native Americans evolved within the Constitution of the United Sates and why are we in this unique situation 200 years later. And it is our responsibility to educate Congress.

Q: Tell me, how did the casino change your lives. And it wasn't that long ago. Six, five years ago?

Pico: I'll answer that in a broader sense. That the casino hasn't changed my life philosophically, emotionally or spiritually. It has required me to think in more depth. It has required me to think in the breadth of what I'm involved in. It's required me to think not only in economic terms but legislative, political and legal terms more indepth. But more importantly, it has caused our people to be able to think in terms of a long vision so that the tribe can prevail in the future.

Except for the elders, when I was a teenager I didn't hear a whole lot of thinking and talking about what about tomorrow? What about next week? What about next month? What about next year? What about 10 years, 20, 100, 200 years from now? Now, our people are thinking in those terms, and that's because of economics. Economics requires you to do that. And it does that for every one of us individually. The more we are of economic substance, the more that we have to think -- as personally and individually, the more we have to think in terms of farther along down the line.

Q: You're substantially better off than you were just five years ago.

Pico: Yeah, I've driven around the reservation. I mean, where are the Rolls Royces and the BMWs and the fancy mansions? Maybe, it's in our blood I think in this time of our lives, to not hoard things or to make things bigger. I've never seen that happen with our people. They -- and maybe it comes from the Aboriginal lifestyle. I'll give you an example. When -- and this is a custom and tradition we follow today and I did that when I was a kid. Every time you killed a deer you could not take the deer meat and eat it yourself. What you had to do was take the deer and chop it up in pieces and give it to your family and friends because they said, what I was taught was to eat the deer is bad luck. They didn't mean something of change. What they meant was is that if you hoard things and eat things for yourself, then that action or that emotion in itself then will cause you to do other things of like nature. And as you can see how many people do we see that are successful in life, and I don't mean materially. How many people do we see that are successful in life that are greedy? There are some, but they may be successful materialwise...but they're not successful spiritually. They're not successful emotionally. They're poverty stricken, and that's the way we see things. We haven't seen people who have a desire to have more and bigger. And when people talk about that some of the elders will say, you know, that's not right. You know, and we all know what they're talking about.

Q: When they first started to have some economic independence, how did your people spend their money? What did they buy, what did they spend their money on?

Pico: We set up scholarships for every child on the reservation and the scholarships were for their higher education through doctorate, if they so desired. Every child today that's born, there's a trust fund put up for that child for their higher education. What we've done is we've invested in ourselves to begin with. And we know that's the best decision we could have made and that was the priority. The priority is the children and those children not yet born, and our elders.

Because of our history we understand that we need to continue our future. We need to be in a place where those children that are not yet born we know those seven generations ahead of today need to be in a place where they can stand, have their own land to stand on to be able to make choices, to be able to live in dignity. The choice of material wealth and all that kind of stuff is not our choice. We're here to lay the foundation for future generations and it's going to be very difficult because Congress, I think because of not knowing about who we are and where we've come from, why we are here today, continue to try to change laws to put us under the state jurisdiction. You know, we understand local community controls and that's the state's rights issues because that's where we're at. We want local control. We want our own national states rights issues. That's the way it was set up for the Constitution of the United States. Let's just follow the Constitution.

Q: Do you imagine that there would be much movement on the federal and state level to encroach upon that independence if you didn't suddenly have a lot of resources? Do you think they would be just as interested --

Pico: No, they wouldn't. They wouldn't. We wouldn't even be a blip on the radar screen. They wouldn't even know we were here.

Q: But now that you have money.

Pico: It was said in a Supreme Court case, California vs. Cabeson, there was a commodity where if there was a value on sand and sage brush then Congress would have tried to change the law a long time ago and put us under the state.

Q: But now that you have casinos they see the wealth, they see an opportunity or a desire to get something, I guess.

Pico: I think there's a pie there. Everybody already has their slice of the pie. Well, we have moved into the pie and everyone in this country who works hard deserves a part of that pie. Every one in this country who sacrifices and pays their taxes and pays their own way and is independent, deserves a part of that pie. And that's what we're doing today. We're paying taxes. We're working hard. You know, there's no free lunch. It's 16 hours a day, six-seven days a week. It wasn't up to a couple of months ago. I had only ten days vacation in ten years. But that's what it takes. If that's what it takes, that's what we're going to do. But now that we're here trying to get our slice of the pie I think lawmakers are saying, No, wait a minute now, wait a minute. We cannot upset the status quo now. That pie is ours and we're going to make sure we get ours.

Q: How much do tribal members get a month? Now that you have these resources? How does it work out?

Pico: Each tribal member is an investor, much like a corporation. Each person has an abstract number of shares in this corporation and so each member, not only -- that's somewhat unique I think with gaming tribes where each person then receives a dividend from this corporation. It's really for this corporation. I think that's good just like anybody who has a corporate stake in Coca-Cola or General Motors, you know. And so each person does receive a dividend from their investment.

Q: What does that dividend amount to? A monthly dividend?

Pico: It's a monthly dividend. I'm not at liberty to divulge what that is. I'm held by tribal custom tradition. (ED NOTE: the stipend amounts to slightly more than $1000 a week.)

Q: But I assume it's a good deal more than they've had before, five years ago.

Pico: When you have nothing, anything is better. As long as you can provide for your children, I think. You know, it's very difficult. I mean, again, you know, how it feels to have your children not have the adequate shoes they need. Not have coats that are warm enough for them. Not being able to at one time have access to computers for their children. I remember a lot of times as a child, and growing up watching what was going on. "Mom, mom, but mom, I need"--whatever it was--something for school. Maybe a donation for baked goods or something for the kids doing a party in school. And we didn't have that. I mean, basic stuff. We just didn't have it and how it feels to go to school and feel inferior, to feel less than, to feel not considered, to feel somehow detached from the human species. You really feel that way when you're in poverty. It's awful.

Q: That journey from poverty to relative affluence has been incredibly fast. What affect did that have, the way it happened so quickly?

Pico: I think it's been a very positive effect because it's brought great change and adversity. And whenever there's change and adversity, the more the change the more painful the adversity. The more confusing the adversity, the better it is because it causes you to be very sharp, it causes you to be very forward thinking, it causes you to consider many options that you've never thought of before. It's just a great learning process. It's a great learning process.

Q: What is that adversity? Is it tension conflict within the tribe, among the members or what is the adversity you refer to?

Pico: I'm referring to do what is the unknown. It was unknown how we would be received even going off the reservation and having to speak to non Indian strangers. I grew up feeling rejected. I've had instances that I remember of being rejected. I don't know the reason why, the only thing I know is I felt it. I don't know if it was the color of my skin. I don't know if it was my poverty, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and somebody had a bad day. Or whatever. That's immaterial. The thing is is that I did feel it inside here and to feel that rejection and in my opinion, it's because of poverty.

Q: So the adversity you were talking about, how that creates a challenge.

Pico: Adversity for example, having to learn the business real fast. Many tribal members who have taken this challenge very seriously. We don't know how long this window of opportunity is going to be open but we spent a lot of time and study and planning. Most people go to bed at 9, 10 o'clock at night, who stay awake late reading, studying. Reading management books. It's almost like I was wishing for a sabbatical. I understand what sabbaticals are about now because you're so far in the trench learning about what you're doing that you don't have a whole lot of time to learn about the theory of what you're up to. Sometimes it's like, it's the adversity of doing things you've never done before and you don't even know it's the right thing. Sometimes because it's never been done before and sometimes you don't have the experience of it happening to you before. So oftentimes, probably seventy five percent of the time you're making decisions on things you've never done before, continually to break new trail all the time. Which is exciting to me, I like stuff like that.

Q: Tell me about the white buffalo.

Pico: What it really that we are not progressing. What we're really doing is we're going back to where we were when we were completely sovereign. When we had our independent government institutions, our judicial, our legislative and our executive branches of government. Going back to a time when we were economically independent and trading with whoever we wanted to trade with. We were able to interact again, to communicate with other tribes. And in this case, not only with other tribes, but it's the greater tribe of the United States of America if you will. So we're going back so that's what they're talking about. The return of that buffalo so that we can choose our own teachers, choose our own school, chose our own way of life as long as we respect the life of other people. As long as we respect the life of the people beyond our borders. We are private landowners, we are a government. We are a true government that's been a government for thousands and thousands of years...We all want to prevail.
Q: You say that with great feeling. That really does touch you, doesn't it?

Pico: It's the truth. I have no fear of the challenges and the adversity of the future. When you know what you have is the truth that's when it prevails. That will always come to the top. It always does so people can say derogatory, misleading or untruths about us in our sovereignty and who we are as a people, and where we're going and why we want to get there. That's okay. As a matter of fact, the more outlandish those accusations get the more untruth there is, the better I feel about it because I know the truth then becomes even more extreme and more pronounced and will rush to the surface quicker.

Q: Do you regret in any way that your success has come from gambling?

Pico: Gambling has been depicted as immoral and for those who are of that persuasion they are certainly entitled to that, and I support their right to say that. I also support the right of those who choose to make gaming a recreational activity for them and when you look at the alternative of the poverty, of the alcoholism, of the neglect of children, of the high death rate. We're talking about in this reservation alone somewhere between I think it was around eighteen percent of the children infant mortality rate -- eighteen percent of the children died between 1970 and about 1978. Now, when we look at that, of children dying, of people dying from disease, people dying from despair, no there's no regret because the other choice is life.

Q: Do you worry what the effect of gambling will have on the people of the tribes themselves?

Pico: I worry about any unhealthy effect that there is. My father's generation, on this reservation there are very few elders left because almost all of my father's generation died from alcoholism, alcohol-related illness, accidents, so when I look at a situation where a whole generation almost died out and yes, I am concerned about anything that interferes with the health and the safety of the people in this community. Certainly if a problem arises, whether it's alcoholism, whether it's drug abuse, whether it's compulsive gamblers, we're very concerned about that and we'll continue to take steps to mitigate those things, as we do today.

Q: Do you think all Indian tribes should open casinos? Do you think this is a solution for all the tribes?

Pico: I think that because of the extreme poverty situation that probably ninety-five percent of Native American tribes are in today....I support any tribe who wants to develop economics within their reservation, whether it's developing their own natural resources. Whether it's developing their own human resources, whether it's gaming or whatever.

Q: Do you worry that too many tribes though will get into gaming? Just for instance, in California I think there are 117 or so tribes. Would that be a problem if 117 tribes decided to open casinos in the state of California? Is there a possibility there might be too many casinos and that would injure the tribes themselves?

Pico: I believe that the number of casinos on Indian reservations in California has pretty much reached its maximum. There may be another handful or so but the economics will drive the whole thing. For example, you can only have so many convenience stores on one block. You can open them up but really who's going to loan you the money to open up the 10th convenience store on one block. Somebody had to be crazy to do that, so it's the same thing with casinos. There won't be a proliferation of casinos in California because the economics just won't be there. The saturation point, we're probably near the saturation point somewhere. It won't hold that.

Q: What do you imagine the money will mean to your tribe a generation from now, assuming everything goes as you hope it will?

Pico: It's a very easy question and it's a question that we talk about a great deal. It involves the goals of the tribe. Our goals are to prevail culturally, spiritually and economically and what this will do, this will guarantee us a place in the future of those children that are not yet born.

It feels good to know that that will happen. We were an endangered species. When I talk about the infant mortality rate, that's a big symptom. When I talked about my father's generation almost being annihilated from what they call the slow massacre, which is alcoholism. We're on the endangered species list. This is going to give us an opportunity -- allow us an opportunity to make a place for those generations that aren't yet born in the future.

Q: It strikes an outsider right away.....An Indian tribe with a business like you have, being as generous to the white workers. It does give you pause. It makes you think: why are they being so generous? Why are they being so kind? You'd think they'd be too angry.

Pico: Anger is something that just destroys people. Resentment is something that destroys people and I think, you know our people have been around a long time and they've lived in the same geographical area for a long time. They've interacted with one another for a long time so they learn from each for a long time. I think these things -- and even today they've been talked about, about anger and how resentment can destroy people. So they understand that doing the same thing is not going to bring future generations the prosperity of the soul.

I think that's most important and we treat the people who work for us with dignity and kindness and respect. They have full medical and health insurance. They have, we give them generous bonuses during Christmas. We have a profit sharing program for them. We care about them. We care about their health, their emotional health and their physical health, their psychological health, their spiritual help if need be. You know what? It's just good business. It's good business to keep retaining people you have, try to keep the turnover low. And not only that, it's when people walk in the door I'm hoping that they treat them like 'I'm really glad to see you and I'm glad you're here.' And we have together a purpose in life here. We have a purpose of entertaining. We have a purpose ot entertain you. Also, they know too where we're going. They know our struggle for sovereignty. They know our struggle for our own states rights. They know our own struggle for our own property rights. They know our own struggle to bring ourselves out of poverty. They know these things and they're part of it and we make sure that they know that what they're doing is important. They are important.

Q: The question that began that whole thing was does the white man understand the Indian. You were starting to explain why he doesn't.

Pico: Well, there's been a whole lot of misinformation about who the Native Americans are. They are an enigma in this country. Much of the country not knowing who we are really is because of our poverty. We've been in [a] corner, in this village of poverty for so long that they don't know very much about us. I don't know if I answered that or not.

Q: I asked that only because as you describe your relationship to your workers it seems like there's a greater understanding from the other direction. That you understand the non Indian better than the non Indian understands you. Do you think that's true?

Pico: Well, yeah. It's just natural to happen. If they went to our school, they would know more about us but we've gone to their school so we know more about them. I think that's probably what it is.

Q: Tell me. You're a sovereign nation, constitutionally sovereign nation and California has no authority over you yet you hire [lobbyists] to go to Sacramento to deal with the Legislature. Why is that necessary? Explain to me why you have to play a role in state politics like that?

Pico: I think it goes back to the question before then about America really not knowing who we are, so it's our responsibility then to educate America. We're beginning to educate the lawmakers in America of who we are, what our plight is, what are dreams and aspirations and what our visions are for the future. What kind of challenges do we face every day. What kind of challenges do we face for the future. What are our needs, not only locally but statewide, in the regional community. Also, how can we be a part? How can we contribute? How can we enhance the quality of life in California? I think that's the question every citizen needs to answer. How can we help. What can we do.

Q: It's funny because most people think that when you have a lobbyist it's because you're trying to get something for you. But what you're saying is it's almost the reverse: you're looking for how you fit in to the state, or what? What does it mean?

Pico: I think -- you know, we have a tremendous desire to contribute and it's just the way we were raised. I mean, I was raised that way, to contribute and when I look at my -- we don't say these things to one another but when I see them interacting in the community, I talk to them one on one. I see them in our government meetings and listen to what their dialogue, what they have to say. That's what I see. I see them wanting -- you know, a great need to contribute in some way. And yes, we do want something. We want to be able to prevail in the future and the State government has been notoriously oppressive in California. I mean, the State government stood by and watched while we were all slaughtered. I mean, there is a reason how come there's probably about four, possibly five or six tribes that are still left on the whole coast of California. All the others were annihilated. All the others were forced to embrace the policy of genocide. All the others died of disease. All the others -- their own individual identity was destroyed and they either had to stay and fight a losing battle or they could flee to other tribes and be absorbed into other tribes. And that's what happened. California has been very oppressive to Native Americans.

Q: One thing that immediately stands out to me is that comparing your gaming to the State's gaming, lottery, you give much better odds than they do.

Pico: Well, we are really. In my opinion, we're exactly the same because we are government gaming. We use the proceeds for our constituency for health care, for services to the elderly, to educate our children, to mitigate environmental problems on the reservation, to diversify our economies.

Q: So it's just like the state lottery?

Pico: And the state government in using their resources for their lottery, etc., they use those for the same thing. It's the same thing.

Q: And yet, they criticize you. They are trying to stand in the way. Governor Wilson hasn't even agreed to talk until very recently about even a contact for this. It does seem to an outsider somewhat like a double standard.

Pico: Well, the Governor is at the negotiating table now and we continue to be hopeful.

Q: Tell me about your ad. I think it's very good, by the way. What did you want to accomplish with that ad? What's that ad trying to do?

Pico: We're trying to educate -- see, we just had an election here in the State of California and there is a high percentage, and I don't know what it is, but there's a high percentage of lawmakers who are freshman. And they have staffs, so there's several hundred people in Sacramento who don't have a clue of what went on the last couple of years. They don't have a clue of who we are. The American public and lawmakers they want to know what are Indians doing with their money? The ad is to educate what we're doing with our resources.

Q: When you say thank you at the end of that ad, who do you mean to thank?

Pico: We want to thank the American public. I think it's great that the American public I believe is in our corner. We just want to thank them for that.

join the discussion / what are the odds? / gambling: pro and con / interviews / timeline / facts & stats / tapes & transcripts / press

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation