Rolling the Dice to Underwrite Reservation Education

A conversation with a future NBCT reveals an interesting relationship between Casino money and education systems on reservations. Author Sandy Merz walks us through a complicated reality that many of our Native Americans face.

Recently, during a coaching session with teachers working toward their National Board Certificates, I had this conversation with a candidate:  

“The Per Capita? Reina, you keep mentioning ‘The Per Capita,’ I’m not sure what you’re referring to.”

“Oh, that’s when families on the Reservation receive their quarterly share of the Casinos’ profits.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“Oh it’s a big deal and disruptive. Some teachers even plan around it because there are a lot of absences then.”

“Go on.”

“Beyond that, when a child is born on the reservation a trust is opened in his or her name and every quarter a deposit is made. If the kid graduates high school he or she gets hundreds of thousands of dollars. If not, the kid has to wait until he or she turns 21.”

“So, many go from poor to wealthy in the blink of an eye?”


“Do they get any instruction on how to handle that wealth?”

“Not formally. Financial planning is offered by the bank, I don’t know how many use it. We teach financial literacy at our school as a math class; I don’t know the specifics or the impact, if any. I do talk to them about depreciation and why that hot expensive car might not be the best use of the money.”

“This must be happening on reservations everywhere.”

“I only know of a few tribes who distribute large sums like this quarterly or have money to give out when a child turns a specific age. On my reservation in another state, the casino is remote. It makes money, but not enough to distribute. We did in the beginning, make a lot, and one year they gave out $1000.00. It was not reinvested…business dropped off and now it barely makes money. So, my tribe is still very poor.

“I know of one reservation that hired investment counselors who invested the money, and now it has millions of dollars in assets, but the neighboring reservation to that one just distributes the money and has nothing to show for it.”

“What’s your overall take on this?”

“I do wonder what impact this might have on students and their plans for the future. But, it’s back to the “children of poverty research.” Are students acting out this poverty model or is the lure of instant money creating false impressions? I don’t know of any research about possible impacts of gaming on attendance or motivation of tribally enrolled students in school.

Do schools receive any gaming proceeds directly?

“I don’t know how much…but some are better funded than neighboring schools. I think that information can be looked up…but am not sure. There are very few tribes who have chosen or are able to open their own schools. The charter school option may allow a tribe to create another choice for their children.”


So what to do after a conversation like this – One that comes out of the blue and reveals a gaping hole in my knowledge of education policy and practice? I’ve related this talk to several colleagues and although some know a lot about gaming gains and education on reservations, most are as in the dark as I am.

I can’t say how my own teaching context is impacted by the topic, nor how invested should I be in learning about it. I can’t even think what questions I should be asking.  But like that dog with that bone, my mind won’t let it go.

So it’s time for some research and some more writing.

In the meantime, can you help a blogger out?  What do you know about Indian gaming proceeds and education on reservations?  Can you share any stories? Opinions? Research?

 (The conversation above is a composite of a face-to-face meeting and two emails. I changed the person’s name and left out the name of the reservation, at my colleague’s request.  “Reina” read and confirmed that the composite accurately reflects our exchanges.)

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  • ReneeMoore

    Casino money and education—on and off the reservation

    You’ve piqued my interest; I’m not sure how casino money designated for education is used by the First Nations people in this area, but I’ll be asking to find out. For that matter, how does casino money that was promised to education get used from gambling establishments outside the reservations? Casinos were allowed to open in many places around the country on the promise of helping education—Mississippi, Detroit…. So how’s that working for schools in those areas? 

    • SandyMerz

      Continuing Research

      I’ll be writing again on this soon. Please post anything you find out about your area.  I did find one California Reservation, that gives monthy dividends to all members and scholarships to all kids. I’m going to write them and learn what I can.

  • LallaTPierce

    Realtor’s Perspective

    You definitely have raised an issue new to me also! I was sharing some of it with my husband, who is a realtor, and this is the story he recanted for what it’s worth:

    (We live in Florida.)

    “I sold a house to an Indian from a reservation in Montana a few years ago. He had a brand new Hummer and a Corvette. He was purchasing a 300-400 thousand dollar house. It came time to close the house and the bank said he couldn’t close because he didn’t have enough for a down payment. I asked him what happened to the money because he had the cash a few days prior. He answered that he’d bought a Ferrari. When I asked him how long it would take him to save $90,000, he hesitated and then replied it would take about ten days. Ten days to save $90,000! Sure enough, two weeks later he had the cash and we closed on the house.”

    I realize this doesn’t enlighten us regarding the education side of this discussion but it was another huge eye-opener for me to understand the kind of money that is out there.

    • SandyMerz

      Huge Eye-opener is right!

      Thanks for your comment.  Almost eveyone one I talk to has some anecdote, along the lines or yours.  I’d love to find something comprehensive.  It seems like Frontline did something on gaming in general, I’ll track it down and see if it has anything to say about education.

  • EllenElementary

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  • JustinMinkel


    I found this fascinating, Sandy. The fundamental flaw seems to be that almost all Americans are here on stolen land. When you add the fact that reservations are, in a sense, sovereign nations, the patchwork that is education policy in the U.S. becomes even stranger than usual.

  • SandyMerz

    Patchwork is right

    That’s so true, Justin.  I’m considering a small post just giving the raw data on Reservation gambling – revenues, governing authorities, employment, and then some long writing on specific reservations and how they’re using the revenues.  

  • kaiserthesage24

    Not a financial settlement though

    I’m not against it but this is not a financial settlement, but rather a commitment to everyone to be good neighbors and to work together to achieve their goals and basically to solve the issues that impact both the people and the economy of our region.Casinos are being part of some people. Even I, I used to play casinos and I enjo a lot via Gclubslot. The government can not just removed them because it’s being part of the economic growth.