Corporate Cultures

Culture Clash

by Ray Knight and Rob Sanders

Gaming is being touted in some quarters as "the new buffalo" for Native Americans, a source of economic renewal and independence. However, a conflict between noble purpose and pragmatic reality poses a built-in dilemma for many Native American casino cultures. 

Indian-owned casinos are established for the betterment of tribal members and helping to make them self-sufficient. Yet running the casinos requires expertise and manpower the Indians can't yet muster. It requires outside help. In Indian casinos, most (or in some cases all) of the management and employee base is non-Indian. Therein lies the dilemma. 

Policy mandates handed down from tribal councils that govern gaming operations favor Native American interests. This is, after all, why the casinos are built. By contractual terms, non-tribal casino management in many instances must groom its own Native American replacement.  Indians typically get preference in hiring, promotions, and perks such as shift preferences. In more than a few Native American casinos, tribal members with a tendency to absenteeism and tardiness, as well as other disciplinary problems, are treated more leniently than their non-tribal co-workers. The rationale is that tribal members need an extra allowance of tolerance and guidance to help them recover from what the American Indian Gambling and Casino Information Center calls "centuries of economic and social neglect." 

Non-Indian employees often view this as legalized discrimination. Legal it may be, but the bias violates a basic truth of human nature. Though preferential treatment of favored employees is nothing new to gaming (indeed, it is practiced in some form in most casinos), it is always a divisive force in the casino cultures. However, the line of division between the "ins" and the "outs" is seldom as clearly drawn as in Native American casinos. 

When an Indian blackjack dealer gets promoted to floor supervisor, for example, detractors have a clear-cut indictment, in their minds, to explain why: "What'd you expect? He's an Indian." Whether or not the dealer was actually qualified for the promotion doesn't inhibit their conclusion. 

The bitter fruit of this conflict is tasted on both sides. Non-Indians are demoralized, believing they have no future with the company. They seethe at what they view as unfair employment practices. On the opposite face of the coin, tribal members feel they aren't given due credit for their accomplishments and abilities. They chafe at allegations that their advancements result from favoritism rather than merit. It undermines their emerging sense of self-worth. Both sides lose respect for each other. 

Casino management and the tribal councils often overlook one simple fact: Indians and non-Indians don't understand each other. Kathryn Gabriel, author of "Gambler Way: Indian Gaming in Mythology, History, and Archaeology in North America," underscores the cultural differences as illustrated in myths. "There are no good guys and bad guys per se in Native myths," she explains. "The social function of traditional tribal myth is to distribute value evenly among all the elements 'providing a model or pattern for egalitarian structuring of society.'  This is not easily understood by 'hierarchically inclined westerners.'" She points out that "traditional American Indian stories 'work dynamically among clusters of loosely interconnected circles,' shifting the focus from one character to the next 'until all the pertinent elements in the ritual conversation have had their say.' In this way, there are no heroes, no villains, no chorus, no minor characters." 

This is difficult for Western minds to grasp. Non-Indians find it baffling, for example, when Isaac Roberts, chairman of the tribal council which owns Meskwaki Bingo and Casino in Tama, Iowa, carefully explains he is a signature figurehead, empowered to act only by consent of the council to sign documents which must be approved by the council. For their part, Native Americans often fail to see or comprehend the demoralizing impact of policies they impose that trample on the Western sense of ambition. 

How can the dilemma be resolved? 

There are no simple answers. But a few basic concepts which address fundamental needs of human nature hold some clues. Here are five important strategic principles that Indian gaming operations can apply to mitigate the cultural schism between the best interests of the tribe and the motivational needs of non-Indian employees: 

1)   Plainly explain to all employees, existing and new ones applying for jobs, that the casino's reason for being is to uplift the tribe and, by extension, if not for this, there wouldn't even be a casino for them to work in. If there are preferential policies, make them known clearly and without apology and spell out the reasons for them. At the same time, make clear what opportunities are available to non-Indians and what the criteria are for taking advantage of them. 

2)   Install processes that ensure uniform and consistent application of stated policies, whatever they may be. Employees can more readily accept things, even those they may not like very much, if they can depend on the rules being enforced the same way every day in every situation. It is the "exceptions" that create perceptions of favoritism, of playing by some hidden rules known only to a chosen few. 

3)   Build a strong casino culture that welds the employees together in a common bond.  Give them a reason to rally together, a cause for solidarity that transcends socioethnic agendas. Look at the crowds in any sports stadium and see people of different races and cultures with little else in common joining arms and lifting their voices in support of the home team. 

4)   Educate tribal members to understand the Western mentality, to know what makes non-Indians tick. They will then be better equipped to frame policies and actions benefitting tribal members in a fashion that will be easier for non-Indian employees to digest. 

5)   Systematically research the attitudes and perceptions of employees to measure understanding and acceptance (or lack of it) of tribal mandates and gauge the overall state of the casino culture. Let the employees know you are listening, and that you hear them. Use these measurements as a barometer of progress in building the common bond. 

Almost by definition, the desired results of tribal independence and non-Indian ambitions seem mutually exclusive within a Native American casino culture. It is an old and still troublesome conflict. Yet if, as some say, tribal gaming is "the new buffalo" of economic survival for Indians, the tribes need help until they can go it alone. Tribal leaders must find some common ground of cooperation with the non-Indian managers and employees needed to make the casinos produce the desired benefit for the tribes.

(This article appeared in the August 1997 issue.)