Last week’s trip to Ruidoso, N.M., for the summer convention of the West Texas Press Association produced many contrasts. Typically, one from West Texas looks forward to the mountains in the summer for a respite from the heat and to experience a summer rain shower. That was not the case this year. Most attending the conference are still waiting for the hot weather summer can deliver to their communities and are tired of the rain, even if they would not admit it out loud.

It had been seven years (2000) since the WTPA convened in Ruidoso and during the intervening time the old lodge has been demolished and a new resort hotel constructed. The Inn of the Mountain Gods is actually located outside Ruidoso on the 463,000-acre reservation of the Mescalero Apache Tribe. The area represents the heartland of the aboriginal homelands. The resort has been around for years and was a destination for families seeking a get-away at almost any season of the year, and a unique location for meetings. There is a championship golf course that offers an alpine challenge to golfers of almost every skill level. Ski Apache offers downhill skiing during the winter months and the resort’s close proximity to Texas made it a popular spot for weekends during the spring and fall.

The new state-of-the-art resort hotel was two years in construction and is situated on the same site as the old lodge. The scenic lake at the foot of a mountain remains a focal point in the new hotel lobby as it did in the old lodge. Many guest rooms overlook several holes on the golf course and also the lake. What is a new attraction and catches the eye of visitors and guests is the resort’s gambling casino and event center. They are inescapable. The old complex had a casino, but one could tell it was an add-on. It is clear that creating a new venue on the reservation for Indian gaming was the impetus for the major construction project.

Sovereignty — which means Native American nations can establish their own laws to regulate their citizens and actions on tribal lands — has allowed Indian gaming to become a huge economic venture for the tribes. Gambling in America is big business. According to one Internet site, it is a $400 billion a year industry. U.S. residents spend more on gambling than on all other forms of entertainment and self education combined. Gaming has made a major impact on Native American activities and planning. The U.S. government recognizes 557 Indian reservations, and 33 percent of them currently have gaming. Another 29 percent hope to get it. Many of the reservations without gaming are far from population centers and have nothing in particular to attract tourists. Those are the two necessary ingredients. Most successful gaming operations are on reservations very close to urban population areas or where there already was a well developed tourist operation that attracts large numbers of people. That describes Ruidoso.

The change brought by the popularity of gambling and its economic potential appeared to affect the business approach of the Apaches almost as much as it did the physical layout of the resort. The Mescalero Apache Tribe is made up of three sub-tribes; Mescalero, Lipan and Chiricahua. Historical accounts recognize them as fierce, expert guerrilla fighters who defended their homeland against the Spanish, Mexican and American settlers. In 2000 WTPA conventioneers came away with an impression that the staff accepted their presence at the inn and on the reservation, but it was not really welcome. Last weekend the impression of the service was vastly different. It may not be a fair comparison, but it was one I heard often. It appeared as if everyone we interacted with had been coached on the importance of friendliness and customer service. It is not hard to connect the dots leading to casino gambling dollars and their enormous importance.

It remains to be seen if gaming will in fact be the new buffalo for Native Americans. The potential for it to negatively affect their culture could also lead to it being the new smallpox. One did not get a clear indication from the Ruidoso visit, because for now it is just a part of a diversified tourism venture. The Apache elders need to keep a watchful eye to protect against the scale being tipped too far.

Robert Brincefield is publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at bob.brincefield@brownwoodbulletin.com.