Native American tribes bring fresh energy and time-tested traditions to Las Vegas hospitality

Las Vegas Weekly
 
Big Spin Casino

Las Vegas’ Palms Casino Resort has always had a great story.

The property just west of the Strip thrived under the original reign of the Maloof family, turning heads with its celebrity check-ins, over-the-top suites and starring role in the 2002-2003 season of MTV’s The Real World. In 2016, the Palms was acquired by Red Rock Resorts, parent company of Station Casinos, and that second, prominent family-run company sank hundreds of millions into a vast renovation of the property.

But the COVID-19 pandemic hampered the potential of the refreshed resort. The Palms remained closed for two years, as most casinos across the Valley celebrated their reopenings. Then came the news that it had been sold again—but this second transaction would be anything but standard.

When the Palms reopened on April 27, it returned as the first Las Vegas casino resort fully owned and operated by a Native American tribal gaming group. The San Manuel Gaming and Hospitality Authority (SMGHA), an offshoot of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, announced the breakthrough acquisition in May 2021.

“We definitely had this moment where we just stood back, like, wow. All this hard work has really brought us to this moment,” says Latisha Casas, San Manuel tribal member and chairperson of the SMGHA. “We were standing there at 9 o’clock when we finally opened up the doors, and the people coming into the building were just as excited as we were.”

And San Manuel isn’t the only major tribal player betting big on Vegas. The Seminole Tribe of Florida made waves recently with the announcement that its Hard Rock International brand would acquire the Mirage for a little over $1 billion. And last year, Mohegan debuted the Mohegan Sun Casino at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, making it the first tribal-operated casino in town.

San Manuel opened its first bingo hall in 1986, on its reservation in Highland, California. Thirty-six years later, that enterprise has evolved into Yaamava’ Resort and Casino, a luxury destination with more than 7,000 slot machines, a 17-floor hotel tower, an elevated pool deck, a full-service spa and salon and a concert theater that has hosted recent shows by the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Erykah Badu.

Like San Manuel, Mohegan comes from humble beginnings. “When I joined the organization in 2001, we were literally one small casino in southeastern Connecticut with about 2,500 slot machines and about 100 table games,” says Ray Pineault, tribal member and president and CEO of Mohegan, which also runs properties in Atlantic City, Pennsylvania and soon, South Korea. “Connecticut alone now has over 3,500 slot machines, 280 table games, 1,600 hotel rooms and more—a convention center, an expo center, an arena.”

Former visiting UNLV professors Kathryn Rand and Steven Light, who teach law and political science, respectively, for the Boyd School of Law’s Indian Nations Gaming and Governance program and serve as co-directors of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota, see these ventures as a clear way to diversify the tribes’ growing portfolios and expand their existing brands.

They’re unique in their ability to do so, because they’re already “sophisticated casino operators” on their reservation lands, Rand explains, capable of developing “destination casino resorts that rival what’s on the Las Vegas Strip.”

It’s likely the pandemic provided a rare opportunity to make these moves, as companies like Red Rock Resorts began to reassess their own portfolios, Light says.

And the presence of these tribes has created a ripple effect in the gaming industry. “What these tribes have done, or what Mohegan led with and now the other two tribes have followed with, is they’ve opened the door to the possibility of these tribes being seen as legitimate purchasers of additional commercial properties as they become available,” Light says. “They had to make their case and petition the Nevada Gaming Control Board and get that authority to do it. Now that they’ve done all that, and crossed the Ts and dotted the Is, that legitimizes them ... as being competitive in this market.”

The Palms acquisition might have seemed swift, but for the San Manuel tribe, it was 14 years in the making.

“We wanted to make sure that we did it right. With our tribes coming from very little, it took a while and it was a process to get our tribal citizens comfortable with the understanding of investing,” Casas says. “When you come from nothing, you come from that mentality of put all the money under the mattress, bury it in coffee cans in the yard.”

The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians consists of the Yuhaaviatam clan of Maara’yam, also known as the “People of the Pines,” in their native Serrano language. Tucked into the San Bernardino Mountains near Big Bear, the tribe peacefully resided in its homeland until the 1800s, when the clan was brutally ambushed and uprooted by a California state government-sanctioned militia.

“My great-great grandfather, Santos Manuel, was our leader at the time, and he’s the one who led our people to safety,” Casas says.

Manuel, known as the tribe’s Kiika’, succeeded in helping the clan take refuge in the San Bernardino Valley, but fewer than 30 tribal members survived the vicious attack.

That history weighs on Casas, and serves as a reminder of what the tribe has set out to accomplish.

“We have to make sure that we’re doing the right things today to honor the sacrifices of all those that came before us. They endured so much to make sure we survived, and we’re doing everything we possibly can to make sure that continues,” she says. “This purchase of the Palms is one of a legacy. We’re hoping that it’s a legacy journey within our portfolio, so that we’re able to secure a future for our tribe into perpetuity.”

Since the Palms has felt like a brand-new resort since the Station renovation, San Manuel essentially bought the keys to a kingdom. To lead the project as general manager, the tribe tapped Cynthia Kiser Murphey, a gaming veteran who has spent 20-plus years with MGM Resorts International, including serving as president and COO for New York-New York. Murphey calls it a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to join the first Native American gaming owner-operator in the city.

Many of the newer venues and most popular features at the Palms remain intact, including the outrageous experiential suites equipped with bowling alleys and mini movie theaters. Beloved restaurants like steakhouse Scotch 80 Prime and Mabel’s BBQ by celebrity chef Michael Symon are also back in action.

“This is where I could come and break barbecue rules. It makes me very happy,” Symon says. “I was talking to a chef friend today, and I said, ‘You know what’s more fun than opening up a restaurant once in Las Vegas? Opening one twice.’ It’s been fun. All of our chefs, all of our pitmasters, all of our managers came back.”

And they aren’t the only ones. Murphey notes that 50% of former Palms’ employees returned when the resort reopened, including 78 workers who started at the property when it originally opened in 2001.

“I believe they had a sense of community and pride, that Palms was always a special place to them,” she says. “They cared deeply for each other. They were having reunions at the bar over there by the sportsbook.”

And when the tribe took over, Casas says, the first priority was that staff. “We wanted [them] on the first day to walk in and understand that they are part of our family, and we wanted them to feel welcomed and warm,” Casas says.

To prove it, the tribe renovated the entire back-of-house area, from the lockers to the hallways, for its team members. Murphey says employees are flown out to the Yaamava’ property regularly to experience other San Manuel practices.

But while plenty has stayed the same at the Palms, Murphey assures that the staff is “auditioning” lots of new aspects, including live music in different zones around the casino. You might find dueling pianos on one spot, and hear country music in another. “People want live entertainment. I think they crave it, but I think they might crave it in smaller environments,” she says.

Other new additions include Serrano Vista Cafe, a contemporary comfort-food restaurant that’s especially popular at Yaamava’ in California. And on the casino floor, one can now find a large-scale replica model of Yaamava’, a distinct tribute to the flagship that started it all.

Murphy explains that the next six months will be about “really owning hospitality and getting our entertainment all the way opened up.” Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo will reopen the Pearl Theater on September 3, and the rooftop lounge Ghostbar—a favorite from the Maloof era—is also expected to return later this year.

“With the tribe, our job is to create opportunities for the next seven generations and to honor the past,” Murphey says. “That’s a 140-year strategic plan. That’s new for me.”

Every casino has its mission, vision and values. Few are steeped in the generational commitments of a tribe.

The Mohegan tribe filters everything through the “Spirit of Aquai,” a centuries-old outlook based on passionate service to others, creating welcoming environments and fostering lasting relationships.

“We’ve learned from 13 generations in the past, and we’re building for 13 generations to come,” Pineault says. “We’re not built on what next week’s stock report is going to say or what our earnings report is going to say. We’re built on what’s in the long-term interest of the tribe, the tribal members, our communities, our team members and our guests.”

At Mohegan’s flagship in Connecticut, the tribe participates in traditional Wigwam corn festivals in the summer and celebrations every five years in honor of the Mohegan tribe federal recognition. When the company opened the casino at Virgin Las Vegas, it conducted its traditional “smudge,” which “wipes away any bad spirits that may be around the casino and to make sure it comes in with good spirits and washes everything clean,” Pineault says.

He says Mohegan has also been working with Cornell and Dartmouth universities to rehabilitate the original language spoken by the tribe in pre-settlement days, so it can be taught to younger generations.

And San Manuel has an education department on its land to teach children the heritage of the tribe and the Serrano language.Back in their homeland, the members of the tribe celebrate at intertribal pow wows, during which Serrano people sing and make percussive music with gourd rattles filled with palm tree seeds.

It’s been an active effort to keep the culture and traditions of the Mohegan and San Manuel tribes alive.

And as far as Las Vegas goes, “These aren’t fly-by-night operations. It’s a long-term investment,” Light says. “Each of these tribes has a reputation of using some portion of its gaming revenue to fund community or charitable organizations or educational opportunities for others.

“It’s probable that these tribes will continue to put down roots in the Las Vegas area.”

On reopening day, San Manuel and the Palms donated $50,000 each to local nonprofit groups Mondays Dark, Opportunity Village and the Las Vegas Indian Center. Prior to that, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians donated $100,000 to Three Square Food Bank and $9 million to UNLV to support education on tribal gaming operations and law.

Casas says the company will continue reaching out to its new community, especially to indigenous organizations. The chairwoman says there are also plans to create a land acknowledgment to the Southern Paiute Tribe, since the Palms resides on its ancestral territory. And with time, she’d love to see property become a “touchdown headquarters” for other tribal organizations to feel at home.

Now that the door has been opened, Rand speculates more tribal operators could break into different versions of commercial gaming or management, but the bigger, more successful brands will be more willing to target the city.

“The tribal operations are now a part of how Las Vegas bounces back from the pandemic,” Light says. “That’s going to be an interesting, continuing part of the story.”

How Las Vegas’ operators differ from other companies

“How many tribes are they going to let own casinos in Las Vegas?”

It’s a question former visiting UNLV faculty member Kathryn Rand fielded from a local Uber driver. Her initial thought: “Nobody’s letting them. There’s no such thing as a special tribal license on the Las Vegas Strip.”

All casinos operate under state law in Nevada. Things get different on tribal turf.

Casinos on tribal land “have been used to operating under federal law, tribal law and the tribal state compact,” says Rand, who co-directs the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota with fellow expert Steven Light.

Three layers of government regulation (which are called for by the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act) might seem like a lot, but tribal casinos still undergo the same auditing, licensing and reporting as non-tribal casinos.

“In fact, each of these tribes has not only been operating gaming on their lands, they’ve been regulating gaming on their lands,” Rand says. Yet, in Las Vegas, “They are treated just like any other casino operator on the Strip or in the state.”

And any profits made from these tribal gaming operations are also funneled back to the tribe to be used by tribal government in whatever ways it decides will best benefit its communities, Light says.

On tribal land, states generally can’t regulate federally recognized tribes. For instance, zoning restrictions for building on tribal land don’t apply unless construction conflicts with federal environmental laws or the tribe’s own laws.

During the pandemic, tribal governments made decisions on their own authority about whether tribal casino would shut down, even as the state ordered others to do so. In South Dakota, Rand says, she witnessed tribal casinos shutting down before the state even asked.

But that’s how sovereignty works. It gives tribes governmental authority over their lands. It’s a status upheld with pride, and “one of the key differentiating factors between tribal gaming and commercial gaming,” Light says.

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