From the Archives: Trump & the Indians

Casino mogul Donald Trump’s 1993 campaign to prevent New Jersey’s Ramapough people from rolling the dice.

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C.
Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C.
Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons: Gage Skidmore.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the November 1993 issue of New Jersey Monthly under the headline “Casinos and Indians.”

“Why is everybody talking about casinos?” asks a clearly annoyed John Running Deer, treasurer for the board of the New Jersey American Indian Center. “Why aren’t people interested in something positive about Indian culture?” Running Deer has spent twenty years promoting and enriching the study of Native American culture in New Jersey, and now people are calling him to ask about casinos. It is almost as if a rude tourist stopped Yeats on his way through Sligo town 70 years ago, while a poem about the ancient Celts rumbled through his brain, to ask him about his race’s supposed affinity for the drink.

But there is no avoiding the issue, even though the earnest and well-intentioned Running Deer prefers to focus the world’s attention on his people’s glorious and grief-stricken culture. American Indians, long stymied in their hope for a piece of the great American dream, have turned the tables on some of the wealthiest and most powerful interests in the nation. Those tables, as it happens, are blackjack tables, and the house is on a winning streak. The next victory may come in New Jersey.

Indian casinos are all the rage these days, thanks to federal legislation allowing Native Americans to run the establishments on their generally impoverished reservations. About 150 federally recognized tribes have some sort of gambling operations, and more are expected to follow, perhaps coming to a county near you. This does not sit well with some people in the Garden State, including a certain Atlantic City mogul named Donald Trump, who has filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs seeking to overturn the federal law allowing Indian gaming. The suit was filed earlier this year in U.S. District Court in Newark.

Trump’s goal is to protect his turf. For there is in the Washington office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs 600 linear feet of genealogical data designed to prove that a small band of Passaic and Bergen County residents—The Ramapough Mountain People—are descendants of American Indians and are therefore entitled to federal recognition as a tribe. The Ramapoughs and two other New Jersey tribes already have state recognition, thanks to an act of the Legislature and the governor. But acknowledgement by the federal government is more coveted, because with official tribal status could come land. And upon that land in the Ramapo Mountains, some think, will rise the sort of gambling supermarkets that already are in operation in Connecticut and upstate New York.

The prospect has Atlantic City’s supporters talking as though they have had a vision of the Apocalypse, one in which the Four Horsemen are Native Americans carrying playing cards and bingo markers. To be sure, the stakes are enormous. Atlantic City’s casinos bring in $3 billion a year, and last year they generated $391 million in state and local tax revenue—a huge chunk of Trenton’s annual budget. Even if casinos have failed to return the city to its former glory, they still account for tens of thousands of jobs, and there are plans for a $700 million tourist corridor to link the casinos with downtown. All of that could be wiped out, casino advocates say, if Indians begin opening their own casinos in New Jersey.

By November 11, the Bureau of Indian Affairs must release its proposed finding on the Ramapoughs’ application for tribal status. Once that happens, all interested parties have 120 days to comment—either for or against the decision. The bureau’s assistant secretary will review the data and issue a final determination 60 days later. The bureau hands out one or two decisions each year.

But no matter what the federal government ultimately decides, someone is apt to appeal in this case, and the issue will then get another hearing before a review board. (Only three decisions have ever been appealed; one was decided for the tribe, one for the group that appealed, and one is still being heard.) Given the lengthy decision and appeals process and the slow wheels of government bureaucracy, the Ramapoughs probably won’t know for sure where they stand until some time next summer.

In the meantime, as the various parties await the federal government’s finding, the possibility of high-stakes bingo and blackjack coming to Passaic County, less than 25 miles from New York City, hasn’t inspired a particularly elevated public debate. Trump, until recently not known for his interest in anthropology, has taken to the airwaves to discredit the Ramapough people’s ancestral claim. In a conversation with radio wild man Don Imus in late spring, Trump said that he himself “might have more Indian blood than a lot of the so-called Indians that are trying to open up reservations. It’s a joke.” But after Imus said he was against Indian casinos in New Jersey, Trump couldn’t resist showing his sensitive side. “General George Custer was against it also, and look what happened to him,” Trump said.

A few weeks after the on-air conversation, U.S. senators Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and John McCain (R-Arizona) ordered that a transcript be printed in the Congressional Record. Mind you, the two senators were not seeking to memorialize Trump’s wit, but were citing the interview as an example of “the kind of misinformation and misunderstanding…which have characterized discussions about Indian gaming,” according to McCain.

A touchy subject? No doubt about it. The timing couldn’t be worse, either. For just when mainstream America is finally beginning to show signs of acknowledging Native American culture and its unhappy history since the days of Columbus, along comes the casino dispute to muddy the waters. Thanks to the controversy over gambling, a claim to Indian blood is now suspect.

A growing number of New Jersey residents apparently have discovered their roots in the New World only recently. In the 1980 census, 8,176 residents claimed American Indian ancestry. In 1990, there were 14,500—an increase of 77 percent. Experts in ethnic studies attribute the increase to a greater appreciation and pride in Indian ancestry, thanks, no doubt, to the Dances With Wolves version of how the West was won. But Trump and others see a more insidious factor at work. They see not ethnic pride, but a scheme to make lots of money tax free. And there is a lot of money to be made. An Indian-built casino in remote Ledyard, Connecticut, featuring high-stakes poker and bingo is now among the nation’s most profitable, earning $20 million last June. A new casino near Syracuse hopes to duplicate the Connecticut success story, and it certainly has a chance. It is the only casino in the state of New York.

The Indian casinos in nearby states are, by Atlantic City and Las Vegas standards, pretty drab affairs. You won’t find Wayne Newton crooning a tune in some vulgar palace of pleasure. These casinos are strictly utilitarian. You don’t go to an Indian casino for light entertainment; you go there to gamble, usually in a hall the size of a shopping mall, with all the attendant charm.

There is a proposal to build such a facility in Vernon, near the Vernon Valley/Great Gorge resort. Great American Recreation Inc., which operates the resort, has offered to donate land to the Oklahoma-based Delaware tribe, whose roots are in New Jersey and other Northeastern states. The tribe would set up a reservation, and Great American Recreation would take care of the rest. Not surprisingly, critics, including U.S. representative Marge Roukema (R-Fifth District), see the proposal as just the sort of shady deal that Indian gaming encourages. The tribe’s former chief, Charles Keechi, was an enthusiastic proponent of Indian gaming, arguing that casinos bring in revenues which make up for the federal government’s neglect. “We tribes have to find ways to make up the shortfall, and gaming has provided much-needed money that we’re not getting from the government,” he said.

It is almost too glib to suggest that casinos may be to the long-suffering American Indians of the late twentieth century what firewater was a hundred years ago—an intoxicant designed to keep the native people pacified. Representative Robert Torricelli (D-Ninth District) has emerged as one of Washington’s leading opponents of the spread of Indian casinos, and he is among those who have drawn the firewater analogy. He has introduced legislation in Congress that will make it impossible for Indian casinos to open in New Jersey, unless the Indians wish to build in Atlantic City—an unlikely prospect. “New Jersey has 75,000 employees in casinos,” the congressman said. “It’s a $5 billion investment, and that employment and investment are at risk.”

Torricelli argued that Indian tribes not only enjoy a competitive advantage over the Trumps of the world—tribes are not taxed on the profits from casinos—but also are not subject to the stringent background checks and audits to which Atlantic City casino owners must submit. “There are no regulations to ensure that the games [on reservations] are honest,” Torricelli said.

American Indian reservations have hardly been economic-development engines, however. President Clinton himself has said, “Indian reservations have been kept dependent too long”—although he went on to describe gambling as a “lousy basis for an economy. Atlantic City would testify to the President’s opinion.

Still, with reservations scandalously neglected and often beset with chronic unemployment, the prospect of jobs and money is irresistible. In the case of the Ramapough people, though, the issue of casinos has been mixed up with a long-standing dispute over ancestry, and there seems to be no separating the two.

The Ramapough people played host last summer to the New Jersey American Indian Center’s annual powwow, which took place on a hard-baked field near the Ringwood Manor in the Ramapo Mountains. For a few dollars, which go to benefit Native American medical students, curious white folks got a chance to put themselves in Kevin Costner’s moccasins, wandering around a festival of Indian crafts, music and culture. The powwow had to overcome the resistance of locals, who anticipated “a big drunken party,” according to John Running Deer. When they discovered it was nothing of the kind, he says, residents and state officials welcomed them and invited the Indians to participate in other ethnic festivals around New Jersey.

As Running Deer—looking like Nehru in his plain brown suit, cornered cap, and sunglasses—explained the steps of dances handed down through generations, a contingent of New Jersey Indians gathered around a smoky fire to perform what looked like a conga line. Feathers flew, shawls swirled, and, in the distance, two visitors in shorts, polo shirts, gym socks, and sneakers captured the moment on their camcorders. Representatives of the Ramapough people came forward to accept gifts from Running Deer’s group, and in the glare of a noonday sun, the Ramapoughs—a spectacle of feather and buckskin—certainly looked like Indians.

The camcorders followed the dancers as a child, speaking Spanish to his parents, pointed to the curl of smoke rising from the fire. Beside him, a young couple gathered in front of a stroller; a yarmulke was perched on the father’s head. It was multiculturalism in action, and when Running Deer invited onlookers to join the Indians in a dance of friendship, there was a great rush followed by lots of laughter.

“You know,” said one of the guys, squinting through the lens of a video camera, “all these people ever did was fight for their homes. And look what happened to them.”

Are the Ramapough authentic Indians? The 3,000 people living in the hills above Mahwah and Ringwood say they are, and indeed use what they claim is an ancient spelling of Ramapo. Scholars have filled reams of paper attempting to answer the question, and the most prominent studies have not pleased the Ramapough leadership. The most commonly cited work on the subject, a book by historian David Cohen published nineteen years ago, concluded that the Ramapoughs were not direct descendants of New Jersey Indians but were, in fact, black or of mixed black-white ancestry.

The Ramapough people were furious, and it is interesting to note that a more recent, though much less exhaustive newspaper report described some of the Ramapoughs as blond-haired and blue-eyed.

Despite the controversy, the Ramapough Mountain People had a claim on Indian ancestry long before it became fashionable, not to mention potentially lucrative. That’s a point made by Roger Joslyn, a New York genealogist hired to help put together part of the Ramapough application to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in defense of the Ramapoughs’ motives. “They began the application process in the 1970s,” he says, noting that the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed in 1988. Joslyn worked for a year on the tribe’s genealogy, tracing individual roots back to the 1700s through personal records, government documents, and the like. He contends that the Ramapoughs are the descendants of the Munsee Indian tribe.

“It’s clear what happened,” Joslyn says of the Ramapough people. “As the Europeans grabbed up the land and didn’t find agreeable terms of living with the Indians, they forced them off the land by whatever means possible. But some [Indians] stayed behind and took to the hills in Ramapo. They were the ancestors of the present-day tribe.”

Not everybody agrees. Academics such as Herbert C. Kraft, director of Seaton Hall University’s Archaeological Research Center and Museum, have questioned the Ramapoughs’ claim on historical and anthropological grounds—an opinion that may carry weight in the federal government’s proceedings. The bulk of the New Jersey congressional delegation is opposed to the Ramapough application, and they made public their position during the summer. The timing was critical: The Bureau of Indian Affairs was finishing up its work and preparing to announce its proposed finding in the fall.

The Ramapough people fired back in kind, producing a letter to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt from eight congressmen (six of them from New York State) in support of the Ramapoughs. Two New Jersey representatives, Donald Payne (D-Tenth District) and Robert Menendez (D-Thirteenth District) broke with their colleagues and came out on behalf of the Ramapoughs.

Such clout and political savvy might seem incongruous with the public image of a neglected and poor would-be Native American tribe, but bear in mind that the Ramapoughs have retained the powerhouse, high-priced lobbyist Murphy and Associates to represent their cause. John Barry, a Newark-based attorney representing Trump in the federal lawsuit, did not let the lobbying firm’s work pass without comment. “It’s clear that somebody is behind the Ramapoughs. They have no money of their own,” he says. His observation is based on some precedent, since the Malaysian Gaming Group bankrolled the building of the Ledyard, Connecticut, casino. “Why is Murphy and Associates backing them all of a sudden?” Barry asks. Spokespeople for the lobbyist and the tribe would not talk about the case.

Barry says that Trump is not trying to prevent Indians from establishing casinos. He simply wants them to abide by the same rules that apply to other casino operators. And, Barry adds, Trump is ready to take his case to the Supreme Court if necessary. Meanwhile, he has become a lightning rod for Indian-gaming proponents, who call Torricelli’s legislation the Donald Trump Protection Act.

Congress, meanwhile, was preparing to consider the issue in the fall. A midsummer article in the National Journal, that Bible of the Beltway, anticipated a great struggle on Capitol Hill as gaming advocates and opponents wrestled with the proposed federal legislation.

While the battle rages in Washington, the buses still come rolling into Atlantic City, disgorging passengers who turn their eyes skyward at the neon-tipped monoliths along the Boardwalk beckoning them and their dollars. Two-thirds of these people are from out of state, says Tom Carver, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, and about a third of them come from North Jersey—the potential customers for a casino in the Ramapo Mountains. Carver describes the Ramapoughs’ application as a “great concern,” as well it might be. “If casinos opened and they were not regulated as we are and paid no taxes as we do, it would undermine the entire northern part of our market,” he says. “In addition, it would force pressure on the New York Legislature to have casinos in the Catskills.”

Still, watching the Atlantic City crown strolling the Boardwalk between sessions in the gaming rooms, it is hard to imagine that they would settle for Indian-style gambling halls when they can mingle amid the glitz of Atlantic City. No Indian casino could hope to match the flashing signs advertising the likes of Barry Manilow and Johnny Mathis, or the bells and whistles of the giant gaming room of the gaudy Taj Mahal, where women in skimpy I Dream of Jeannie outfits fetch drinks.

Atlantic City, for all its faults, is an experience, and one not likely to be replicated. Where else can you sample the diverse delights of saltwater taffy, an all-you-can-eat buffet, Don Rickles, and blackjack within a matter of hours? Where else would you see a woman with no arms or legs playing “Amazing Grace” on a keyboard, flawlessly, using her tongue? Where else would a dark, windowless room be filled to capacity on a lovely summer’s afternoon?

Meanwhile, 150 miles or so to the north, the Ramapough people wonder if the federal government will recognize their claim to tribal ancestry. Their neighbors are left to speculate about how the remote Ramapo Mountains might change if the Ramapoughs get their wish. And the sleep of many an Atlantic City mogul is interrupted nightly by the specter of tour buses lining the narrow roads of Passaic County.

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