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The Oneida tribe: From poverty to prosperity

VERONA, N.Y. - In the 1970s, the Oneida Indians lived in rusty trailers crammed onto 32 acres here. Most adults were unemployed and saw a bleak future for their children.

Today, they have ranch homes and town houses on 17,000 acres. Many work, and the tribe picks up the tab for health insurance. An array of services is provided for seniors and kids, including free college tuition.

Gambling brought about the Oneidas' improved circumstance. Their Turning Stone Resort and Casino takes in more than $400 million a year from 4.5 million visitors.

The sprawling gaming palace, about 30 miles east of Syracuse, has more than 120,000 square feet of slot machines, table games and bingo. Its popularity since opening in 1993 has led to the development of four hotels, 12 convenience stores, five golf courses, 19 restaurants and a cattle ranch.

Once ridiculed by some people who dumped garbage on tribal land, the Oneida Indian Nation now ranks among central New York's largest employers with a workforce of 4,800; 95 percent non-Indian.

"We were in poverty, a very bad existence," said Ray Halbritter, the nation's political and business leader. "Because of our success, our people now go to school, have jobs, have medical care."

Casino profits go to land purchases, business development and services for nation members, not direct payments. The Oneidas, who number about 1,000 nationwide, receive small stipends derived from nongambling enterprises.

"Before the casino opened we decided that the worse thing we could do was create a welfare mentality," said Halbritter, who attended Harvard Law School. "We wanted our people to still have the incentive to help themselves."

Casino proceeds support a health clinic, meals for seniors, youth programs, a day care center and preservation of Oneida culture. There also is a housing program backed by federal and tribal money.

"They have benefited from their extremely successful casino," said Eric Cheyfitz, director of the American Indian Program at Cornell University. "But, in general, Indian country remains the poorest part of the United States . . . tribes are turning to gambling to leverage their situation but it doesn't always work out."

He and others warned that casinos have divided tribes, with traditionalists saying slot machines violate ancient custom. Disagreements also are common over how to use the profits.

"Making money is the easy part," Halbritter said.

The casino helped underwrite Kathy Kuhl's college education and that of several of her children. It also subsidizes her housing and health care.

Kuhl, 57, returned to the nation in 1994 as a single parent with three children. The nation helped pay her electric bill and provided counseling after she and her husband separated. She enrolled in college at age 40.

"The opportunities are there, you just have to seize them," said Kuhl, who works for the nation on large community events.

Asked what life would be like without the casino, Kuhl said, "I wouldn't have made it. I would have been on public assistance."

Facts about the Oneida Indian Nation:

Federally recognized Indian nation in central New York. Member of the Iroquois Confederacy

Population: 500-600 in central New York; 1,000 nationwide

Median Household Income*: $41,477

Casino: Turning Stone Resort and Casino, Verona, N.Y. Opened 1993.

Casino Revenue: Approximately $400 million a year

Their Land: 17,000 acres, primarily in Oneida and Madison counties. In the 1700s, the tribe's aboriginal homeland comprised about 6 million acres in central New York.

History: In 1788, New York and the tribe entered into a treaty in which the Oneidas ceded all their lands to the state, but retained a reservation of about 300,000 acres for their own use. The tribe later sold off much of the reservation, but in the 1990s tribe members began to buy back pieces of the land.

*1999 figure, the most recent available

Sources: Oneida Indian Nation; U.S. Census; City of Sherrill, N.Y. v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York; Harvard Law School

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