In the last year alone, the U.S. Indian casino industry brought in $24 billion.
Billed as "godsend" for tribal economies nationwide, casinos in the U.P. are helping a community with a struggling economy stay afloat. This week, they are celebrating 25 years of Indian gaming.
In Baraga county, they say one man made it all possible. They call him the 'grandfather' of Indian gaming and a two-car garage in Zeba, its birthplace.
In 1983, former Keweenaw Bay Indian Community President Fred Dakota was out of a job and desperate for cash.
"I was out of unemployment, and I had five children to feed," says Dakota.
He was pressed to get creative. With a $10,000 loan, a tribal gaming license, and a homemade blackjack table, he opened the doors to The Pines, one of the nation's first Indian casinos.
"It was scary because I really didn't know who would come through the door," Dakota said. "The FBI, the state police? I did expect somebody, but nobody ever did."
Customers did. In fact, six months after opening, Dakota needed a bigger space. His money problems disappeared.
"It was a lot different, yeah," Dakota said. "I had to hire an accountant."
However, it didn't last. The U.S. Attorney General's office caught wind of his operation, and a judge ruled against Dakota's argument that his casino was legal because of tribal sovereignty. After an 18-month run, The Pines was forced to close. However, the government did allow casinos run by non-profit tribal communities.
So the KBIC opened the Ojibwa casino. Tribes across the country followed suit. Today there are about 360 U.S. Indian casinos across the nation including 11 in the U.P., generating about $24 billion in revenue.
Casinos in large metro areas are the big earners, but the KBIC casinos--not far from where Fred Dakota started it all--bring in $12-$15 million annually.
It's not just about dollars. Baraga county suffers from one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. The casino is providing plenty of much needed jobs for the community.
"It helps our tribal members put food on the table, put gas in the tank, buy the babies shoes, bottles, the milk they need," says KBIC President Warren C. Swartz.