Gambling addiction isn’t just a Las Vegas problem. Members of Nevada’s 27 native tribes struggle with it, too. An unlikely research duo is learning just how much.
“Gambling is a spirit that talks in your ear so that you can’t hear your heart.”
Those words came from a member of one of the 27 Native American tribes that live in Nevada. It was a poignant written response to an anonymous survey taken as part of an ongoing study that aims to understand how big a toll is taken by problem gambling among the nearly 60,000 Native Americans in the state.
Seeking that answer is an unlikely duo: an archaeologist who is a recovering problem gambler, and a behavioral researcher and psychotherapist who has seen many of her fellow Cherokee Nation members fall victim to problem gambling.
“Gambling addiction is a public health issue, affecting not only the individuals who suffer from it directly, but also their families, friends, coworkers, and businesses,” says one of the researchers, Desert Research Institute archaeologist Ted Hartwell. He cites one Nevada study that says we have one of the country’s highest rates of problem gambling, about 6.5 percent. “Identifying populations that may suffer disproportionately from this illness can help with the future allocation of resources to identify and successfully treat those affected.”
Hartwell talks like an academic, but his connection to the research is personal on several levels. For one, Hartwell has long had an appreciation of indigenous culture, dating back to his anthropology studies in college. That appreciation was sparked anew while conducting field research in Nevada in the early 1990s. “My first friendships with individuals from several Native American tribes came about while we were working together on archaeological data recovery projects on the old Nevada Test Site for the Yucca Mountain project,” he says.
Hartwell was joined in the federally funded project by tribal members who shared stories of their lives, heritage, and the challenges their cultures faced. Those memories came back to him years later when he embraced community volunteerism as part of his own recovery from problem gambling, an addiction that nearly ruined his life. Given his earnest, nice-guy-next-door demeanor, it’s hard to believe that, in the years before he began his recovery, feeding video poker machines and keeping his gambling hidden consumed much of Hartwell’s life.
“It didn’t seem to matter that intellectually I knew I was never going to beat a computer chip,” he says. “I became obsessed with the desire to gamble to try to win back the money I lost.” Hartwell’s descent into addiction included opening credit card accounts without his wife’s knowledge, and timing his gambling sessions so he could pick up his young daughter just as daycare closed. “On a couple occasions, at the last minute, I hit a jackpot that required me to wait until I got paid off by a floor person,” he says, “and I would have to call the daycare and pretend to have a flat tire or be stuck in traffic.”
Hartwell stopped gambling about a decade ago, and started speaking out about gambling addiction in a state built on the allure of beating the odds.
“I happened to have a conversation with a Native American colleague during which I shared details of my previous struggles with gambling addiction. In turn, he shared how his life had been impacted by a family member’s gambling addiction, and from that conversation was born the idea of carrying the message of available state resources to Nevada’s tribal communities.”
A sensitive approach
Colleagues supported the idea, but also cautioned on the need to be culturally sensitive.
“I didn’t want to be the white scientist who comes to study the Indians,” he says. Hartwell also knew that it would build trust and increase involvement among the tribes to “have someone who was Native American participate in a direct way in the research.”
In 2013, Dr. Robert Hunter, a psychologist who is founder and head of the Problem Gambling Center in Las Vegas, introduced Hartwell to Sydney Smith. At the time, she was a Southern Nevada newcomer who was setting up a therapy practice primarily focusing on problem gambling.
Her connection to the issue had a personal dimension as well. Smith had seen the woe unleashed on many of her fellow Cherokee members with the rise of tribal casinos in her native Oklahoma, home to more than 100 casinos. She shared Hartwell’s enthusiasm and concern about native peoples.
“It was exciting to hear Ted sketch out his idea to look at how a stigmatized addiction affects frequently marginalized groups,” Smith says. “My hope then and now was to be part of research that will offer insight that’s valid across tribal communities.”
But the process would be just as important as the goal; talking to native tribes called for a careful approach. For instance, Smith says the reliance on revenue from Oklahoma’s tribal casinos made the Cherokee there suspicious of anyone asking tough questions about compulsive gambling.
“This is a problem that touched my family, my friends, and other people I grew up with,” says Smith, whose practice, Rise Center for Recovery, has offices in Oklahoma as well as Las Vegas. “Back home, the tribes are wary of giving ammunition to their political opponents, who fought them on gaming every step of the way.”
Such wariness is less of an issue in Nevada, where gambling has been part of the fabric of the state for 85 years, and only four of the state’s 27 tribes are in the casino business. Still, Hartwell and Smith met countless times over the course of a year on how best to approach the tribes, and consulted behavioral and gaming experts to develop research questions that were evocative without being intimidating.
“Sydney suggested hitting the road, showing up and meeting with the tribes,” Hartwell says. “I was really pleasantly surprised we were immediately welcome in almost all cases after we started our field work in early 2015.”
That meant day trips to tribal entities in Southern Nevada, long car rides and overnight trips to the central part of the state, and several flights to Reno to work with tribes there.
“I thought Oklahoma had wide-open spaces, but it doesn’t come close to the vastness of Nevada,” Smith says. “Traveling the state, feeling the wind, seeing the mustangs and the raw land, and knowing we were trying to help our native peoples all energized me.”
‘Huge issue in Nevada’
The typical research session begins by bringing together tribal members for a “community health presentation” —
with no mention of gambling, which could influence who attends. While there, attendees are asked to fill out a confidential survey, learn how compulsive gamblers hurt the people around them, and address the issue through storytelling and discussion.
“It’s more of a problem than most people want to acknowledge,” says Jason Hill, prevention outreach coordinator at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony-Tribal Health Center, where Hartwell and Smith visited in mid-2016. “It’s a huge issue in Nevada. It’s a main source of revenue and a main source of problems.”
During Hartwell and Smith’s presentation at the health center, which treats those from the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony as well as members of other tribes, about 50 people turned out, and they peppered the researchers with questions.
“They liked it and wanted more information,” says Hill, who later provided books, CDs, and other information by the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling to pass around the tribal community. “There need to be more resources put into the prevention of problem gambling, just as we do with drug abuse prevention and suicide prevention.”
The issue is certainly on the radar of DRI, which sees gambling addiction as well within its research purview. To be sure, its studies are typically more about, well, the desert; recent work includes looking for ways to harness aerial drones to fight wildfires and seed clouds. However, its mission statement is broad, seeking to “excel in basic and applied research and the application of technologies to improve people’s lives throughout Nevada.”
“We’re just expanding with a focus on community independence, community preparedness, and community resilience,” explains Beverly A. Ramsey, executive director of the institute’s Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences, under which the gambling research falls. “We’re not looking at hard versus soft science; it’s about what we can bring to the table to assist our communities in Nevada,” says Ramsey, who is an Eastern Cherokee herself.
Ted Hartwell and Sydney Smith have visited nine tribal entities in the state and plan more excursions before concluding the research and publishing their work. While the research remains ongoing, their work has already been noticed. The two have been asked to present at conferences in the United States and Canada, and the National Indian Gaming Commission has invited Smith to Washington to brief tribal leaders.
“It’s too early to discuss findings,” Hartwell says, “but in general we can say the data show that gambling addiction is certainly impacting some individuals in tribal communities. Also, the prevalence rates appear to be higher in tribal communities than the overall rate for Nevada’s citizens as a whole, but we’re not able to make statements about how much higher that may be.”
When the findings are in, Native American communities troubled by how gambling can disrupt “hearing their hearts” will no doubt be listening with interest.