The Northern Quest Casino, near Spokane's airport, opened in 2000 and has been continually expanded since. It features a 250-room hotel, more than a dozen restaurants, a spa, sports bar and cigar bar and 46,000 square feet of gambling space with 2,000 slot machines and table games.
It is the Kalispel's only casino, but Pierre said its success has allowed the tribe to provide clean drinking water, medical and dental care, a wellness center, fire and ambulance service, higher education scholarships and jobs in various fields for every member who wants one. The casino employs about 2,000 people, but most of them are non-Indians.
"Our standard of living is way up," Pierre said. He declined to reveal how much money the casino generates.
By contrast, gambling has not been so good to the Spokane Tribe, which has 2,655 members and a much larger reservation about 30 miles northwest of Spokane. The Spokanes at one time operated five modest casinos on their reservation, but only two are left.
The opening of the Kalispel casino cut revenues at the Spokane Tribe's venues by 80 percent, Abrahamson said.
Their biggest remaining casino is in Chewelah, a town of 2,000 people in an impoverished area 40 miles north of Spokane. It has 400 slot machines in a glitz-deprived building that offers no hint of Vegas.
The revenue drop forced the Spokanes to reduce their social programs, aid to elders and youth and education programs, Abrahamson said. Yet gambling remains the tribe's second largest business, after timber, Abrahamson said.
"We want to go back into taking care of the health and welfare of our people," he said.
Unemployment among the Spokanes is around 50 percent, a number that would instantly drop if the proposed casino with at least 800 permanent jobs is allowed, he said. The tribe expects a decision from the Interior Department next year.
One of the Spokane's key arguments is that the Kalispel casino is within the ancestral lands of the Spokane Tribe, which lent its name to the region's largest city.
"The Spokane Tribe should be allowed the same playing field to achieve its self-sufficiency goals as a neighboring tribe was allowed within the aboriginal lands of the Spokane Tribe of Indians," Abrahamson said.
Pierre argued that many tribes can claim they had ancestral lands in the Spokane area, and all tribes lost those lands to whites.
State Sen. Margarita Prentice, a longtime member of the state Gambling Commission, thinks the Spokane's proposal should be denied, because the tribe has plenty of other ways to make money, including improving its existing casinos.
"It's not as if the Kalispels had any other options, and it's not as if the Spokane's don't have options," Prentice said.
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