Beyond the Ethnic Umbrella and the Buffalo: Some Thoughts on American Indian Tribes and Gaming

Gaming Law Review, Vol. 5, 2001

17 Pages Posted: 13 Dec 2006

See all articles by Kristen A. Carpenter

Kristen A. Carpenter

University of Colorado Law School; UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Ray Halbritter

affiliation not provided to SSRN


Rennard Strickland's Beyond the Ethnic Umbrella and the Blue Deer: Some Thoughts for Collectors of Native Painting and Sculpture analyzes the problematic search for "Indianness" in Indian art in a way that helps us look critically at the similar debate on Indian gaming. According to Strickland, collectors cherish certain stylized, traditional symbols in Indian art—especially the little blue deer. The little blue deer has thus somehow become emblematic of Indian art, for supporters and detractors of Indian art, alike. But the preoccupation with the little blue deer obscures the depth and diversity of Indian art. It also puts Indian artists in a precarious situation: they can neither paint, nor fail to paint, the little blue deer without being attacked by the collectors on whom they depend to purchase their art. With additional pressures to have the right blood quantum and enrollment status, Indian artists are truly trapped in an "ethnic umbrella."

American Indian tribal governments find themselves under a similar umbrella when they "participate in the Nation's commerce" (as the Supreme Court recently put it). Instead of a little blue deer, commentators on tribal commercial ventures keep looking for a buffalo. Tribes that do not exhibit a certain level of economic success are lamented as backward, undeveloped, and failing to embrace modern society. As in, "Why can't those Indians recover from the loss of the buffalo?" But when Indians do engage in successful commercial enterprises— from shipyard and media holdings to smokeshops and casinos —they are criticized as departing from customary Indian activities. As in, "Where is the buffalo in this picture?" Both critiques play on stereotypes to wage political and economic wars over Indian gaming. Like the art world's little blue deer, the gaming world's buffalo (or "new buffalo" as it is often called) masks the diversity of tribal economies. It suggests that all five hundred tribes are looking for a single panacea, one that might someday disappear at the hands of conquering whites. Most problematically, arguments invoking typified emblems of Indian activities redirect the dialogue from legitimate legal and economic analysis, and allow tenuous concepts like "Indianness" or "tribalism" to affect Indian rights.

This paper paints the ethnic umbrella and then steps out from under it. First we identify several critiques of tribal commercial enterprises that seek to condition tribal rights on continued adherence to stylized notions of customary or traditional Indian activities. We next draw on the experiences of the Oneida Nation to tell one story of Indian gaming as a step toward tribal self-determination over lifestyle and livelihood. We argue that rights to pursue tribal business endeavors, including Indian gaming, should not be based on any external measuring stick of Indianness, tradition or tribalism. The meaningful test is the extent to which gaming and other commercial enterprises enable tribes to determine their own socio-economic landscapes in ways that are both culturally relevant and contemporary.

Keywords: Indian law, gaming, casino, law and culture

Suggested Citation

Carpenter, Kristen A. and Halbritter, Ray, Beyond the Ethnic Umbrella and the Buffalo: Some Thoughts on American Indian Tribes and Gaming. Gaming Law Review, Vol. 5, 2001, Available at SSRN:

Kristen A. Carpenter (Contact Author)

University of Colorado Law School ( email )

401 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309
United States
(303) 492-6526 (Phone)


UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples ( email )


HOME PAGE: http://

Ray Halbritter

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

No Address Available

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