Pamela Wade discovers how gaming has helped native American cultures survive.

The ideal waitress is friendly and efficient - and Jana is that and more - so we can't really complain about her parlous grasp of geography. She does have the grace to be abashed about having no clue where New Zealand is, and we aren't offended: she is, endearingly, equally ignorant about Australia.

We're a long way from Auckland, after all, in Washington State on an Indian reservation in the restaurant of a flash new casino resort.

For those of us brought up on TV Westerns, Indians and casinos seem an unlikely combination; but the route from teepee to Texas Hold'em is both straightforward and fortuitous.

Gaming is a tribal tradition: back in pre-colonial days, it centred on guessing games with shells, bones and sticks to the accompaniment of drumming and spectators shouting wagers; so bingo, brought by the settlers, was readily adopted.


Since Indian tribes are recognised in the US constitution as "domestic, dependent nations", their self-governing sovereignty means they aren't bound by state regulations limiting the size of prizes. The freedom to build high-stakes casinos and reap the huge profits they bring has been vital to the tribes' self-sufficiency.

Tulalip Resort and Casino is a perfect example: it was built by three tribes that were pushed off their land in 1855 onto a peninsula on Puget Sound, north of Seattle. No longer able to follow annual fishing and hunting routes, the children were forced into English-speaking boarding schools and family ties were broken.

For a time, their culture looked doomed; but thanks to legs eleven, pokies and playing cards - and some shrewd commercial sense - a cluster of spanking new buildings alongside the I-5 highway has turned their fate around.

While I appreciate all the hotel's luxurious trappings, gambling leaves me cold - though I find a tour of the 9000ha reservation fascinating. There's a new museum showcasing native art, customs and history.

The local language, Lushootseed, is so distinctive that it has its own font, incorporating a bewildering collection of symbols. There are schools, shops, a fish-hatchery, forestry - and in the traditional longhouse on the shore, tribal ceremonies celebrate the salmon.

Jana offers a taste of wild king salmon "to signal our friendship". It's so superior to farmed fish that we forgive her all over again.

Getting there: Tulalip Resort is 30 minutes north of Seattle on Interstate 5, at Quil Ceda Village.

The Hibulb Cultural Centre shares Tulalip "lifeways". See Tulalip Tribes.

Pamela Wade went to Tulalip as a guest of Washington State Tourism.