Native American Casinos
Much is written and argued about Native American casinos. First let me get one item behind me. I am in agreement of Native American casinos. What better way to repay Native America for all the loss and injustice fostered on them by their unwanted neighbors? It cost taxpayers nothing and even adds revenue to the tax rolls in many cases. It is disposable income spent in a good cause while having fun, much like state lotteries. I do have one argument. Profits from Native American casinos should not be divided up and dispersed among tribal members as unearned income. This profit should be used by the nations to grow their tribal economies, educate their population and grow their employment. With 411 Native casinos in 28 states generating 29 billion dollars annually there should be no unemployment or poverty on any reservation. These casinos have about 600,000 employees of which a mere 25% are Native Americans.
About now you are asking yourself what all this has to do with food. Well as a Native American chef I have watched with interest how the Native casinos represent their culture to their guests. You should agree that food has a close relationship to a culture. I would bet that if an Italian themed casino was built you would find a restaurant on the property serving Italian food.
I have used California, which has the most Native casinos, to study how they present their Native culture to their guest. There are 62 Native casinos with names such as Sho-Ka-Wa, Morongo and Pechanga. They have used many architectural elements to represent Native American themes and just about all have gift shops selling Chinese made Native key chains and wind catchers. A few even have Native museums. These sixty two casinos have combined 180 food and beverage outlets with names such as House of Howonquet, Tu-Kah-Novie and Ku-Hu-Gui Cafe to name but a few. Now if I go into Ku-Hu-Guia Café you would think I could at least get a buffalo burger and maybe a Navajo taco or corn soup. But no worry, I can get wonton soup or buffalo chicken wings instead. The dismal fact is that only two outlets of the 180 serve a Native taco and one on Thursdays only. That is the total coverage of Native American cuisine by Native casinos in California.
Native American restaurant Menus
Except for expectations there is little demand for Native American food. So is there a problem? I think there is a missed opportunity. These Native American themed casinos owned by Native American nations are overwhelmingly influenced by non-native management and food and beverage executives. While executive chef of Burning Tree Native Grill I was approached by a local tribe to provide Native American food for the grand opening of their new casino. They had a talented executive chef hired out of Las Vegas and I offered to show him how to prepare what the tribe wanted. He declined with disdain. So we hauled in all this food that could have been produced in their brand new kitchen.
For Native America to spend so much wealth hiring food and beverage directors, executive chefs, sous chefs and chefs with no or little cultural food input is one gigantic missed opportunity. If only a fraction of the nations 411 Native casinos featured Native American cuisine it would present to their quests an opportunity to share a part of their culture on a daily basis. By encouraging creative chefs to look at the foods of Native America would provide the impetus to yet another cuisine to grow and define itself.