Letter From Memphis
GIVE LAND BACK TO THE INDIANS? YOU BET
"I suggest the propriety of setting apart an ample district west of the Mississippi...to be guaranteed to the Indian tribes...."
Across the state of Tennessee, it's hard to escape the long shadow cast by Old Hickory: In Nashville, signs direct the traveler toward his plantation, the Hermitage, and here in Memphis, almost as many monuments and avenues bear his name as that of another local boy, Elvis Presley. Yet today, Jackson, or Sharp Knife, as he was known to the Indians, stands in danger of being repudiated by the political leaders of the city he helped found. Memphis wants its Indians back.
Jackson, you understand, was a scourge to the Native Americans. In his frontier days, his troops slew thousands of Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles. In 1818, by bribing a Chickasaw representative, he won a treaty that eradicated the tribe's claims to western Tennessee. Later, as President, he pushed for legislation that removed all Indians from the South.
But all that is in the past. Weighing heavily on the minds of Memphis city leaders today is an economic "trail of tears": U.S. Highway 61, which nightly bears a stream of traffic and treasure out of Memphis down to the eight gambling casinos in Tunica County, Miss., 35 miles away. These casinos are a glamorous lot, operated by such big-time ventures as Bally and Harrah's. Fitzgerald's, which opened in June, features 1,060 slot machines and 56 table games in a 72,000-square-foot "castle." Faced aith this new rival, nearby Treasure Bay casino brought in romance-novel cover boy Fabio to lure patrons to its tables on June 3. After a candlelight dinner with a lucky lottery winner, Fabio was posted near the slots to hand out prizes and kisses.
Mississippi figures it has hit the jackpot with gambling: In 1993, the first full year of casino gambling, retail sales in Tunica County rose by more than $21 million from the previous year. The chamber of commerce claims that the region is growing faster than any other in the U.S. and says the local unemployment rate has fallen from 26.2% to 5%, with gambling providing 10,000 jobs. In the first four months of this year, 2.5 million players visited the casinos.
Many Memphians fear all this has come at their town's expense. Indeed, it's hard for the old River City, even with recently reconditioned Beale Street and B.B. King's Blues Club, to compete, especially since Tennessee law prohibits the operation of casinos or even lotteries. Memphis has been a major market for Delta cotton and hardwood since antebellum days, and more recently it has become the home base for such large corporations as Federal Express Corp. and International Paper Co. But tourism has stalled, and even locals are seeking excitement elsewhere. Memphians once bragged that their town had more churches than gas stations. Now, it seems many folks are more eager to drop a bundle on blackjack than in the collection plate.
MUDDY WATERS. With efforts to amend Tennessee's antigambling law at a standstill, some Memphis council members think they've found a loophole: Give, or perhaps sell, part of Mud Island, a Mississippi River sandbar adjacent to downtown Memphis, back to the Indians--any Indians, since federal law allows them to operate casinos on their reservations. The rub: Thanks to Jackson, there are no Indian tribes left in Tennessee. Moreover, Mud Island didn't even exist in Jackson's time.
Undeterred, the city council voted to place a referendum on the August ballot asking voters whether the city should seek a tribe to buy the island. Perhaps, the council members suggested, a tribe in some other state could be granted a waiver to operate a "satellite casino."
In late June, the county election commission removed the measure from the ballot, saying that such a vote would be unconstitutional. But supporters may try again in November, and they've just set up a 900 phone line to conduct an unofficial plebiscite. "My main concern is that the public has a right to vote," opined City Councilman Myron Lowery.
KEY QUESTION. Lowery says he has no idea which Indian tribe should be encouraged to set up operations on Mud Island, calling the question "premature." But University of Memphis anthropology professor David Dye, whose field of study is local Choctaw and Chickasaw civilizations, says: "They're starting off backwards. They want to get the legislation passed and then say, `We're ready for some Indians now."'
Dye believes the Chickasaws would be logical candidates for the island. "They're increasingly interested in reconnecting with the area, since they feel cut off from their ancestral lands," he says. But the Chickasaws today are a small group, mostly living in Oklahoma.
The only thing resembling an Indian settlement in Memphis is Chucalissa, a museum and reconstructed village on the site of some excavated 15th century burial mounds. There, I spoke to Grady John, a Choctaw museum guide who, along with about six others, occasionally demonstrates moccasin- and pottery-making. John points to the just-opened Choctaw-reservation casino near Philadelphia, Miss., as an example of his hopes and fears about such projects. "Maybe they can use the money to finance schools and provide jobs," he says. "But I'm worried about the amount of traffic it will bring onto the reservation, since the place is booked up with tourists coming from all over the country." As for the prospective Mud Island venture, he has other concerns. "Is the Mafia going to run it?" he asks.
Still, for John, the bottom line is the bottom line. "I'm thinking that Indians have been mistreated for so long, I hope that they don't get stuck on this deal. I'd like to see them get at least 6% of the take."HARDY GREEN