Once upon a time out in the middle of South Dakota, not all that terribly far from the Rosebud Reservation, a Lakota pastor was talking to a bunch of white folks. I was one of them, a tour leader, in fact. His message was a testimony that fit into the genre of "once I was blind but now I can see."
But he also talked about tribal affairs and life on the rez, a kind of Lakota 101. He was spirited and gracious, wise and comical. A good time was had by all.
And then a pastor among the palefaces worriedly brought up the topic of casinos--not so much whether they were a good thing or not, but whether they were a good moral thing.
Our Lakota chief smiled gamely and told the white folks he just couldn't get upset or unnerved by a band of Indians taking loot from a swarm of white folks who were handing it over willfully--you know, given the sad history of what once was "the Dakota Territory."
He didn't pull out a tomahawk. Basically, he was shucking and jiving, but he was also telling the truth; and there was, on his face, a wry smile that broadcast sheer delight. He wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. We weren't all that far from a couple of casinos, most of them full of elderly grandchildren of northern European South Dakota pioneers.
But our dominie wouldn't be put off. "But you, as a Christian preacher," our reverend said.
The Lakota reverend just shook his head and smiled as if some ironies were a God-sent.
"I don't know how you can tolerate it," our preacher said. He wouldn't let it rest, but that smile on the face of the Lakota man-of-the-cloth didn't disappear. Stayed right there until I determined it was high time to change the subject.
My father hated gambling, just hated it. I'm not sure why, but I'm guessing he did so in part because his father was a pastor who likely had very strong feelings, too. One of my first moments of existential darkness occurred when I was no more than ten years old. My father, the village President, deeply disliked the raffle that played itself out every Fourth of July. I knew it, and, as a boy, it made me see that particular tent in the village park festival into a kind of den of iniquity.
But I simply didn't know what to do with the fact that one blessed Fourth, my uncle, my father's own brother, a man totally convinced that if JFK were elected, the Pope would be President, won the cement mixer, one of the grand prizes. "Jay Schaap," the announcer broadcast over half the town, after the fireworks. Dad's own brother had thrown down cash. Just about blew away my sense of righteousness.
Once upon a time my wife and I went into Winnevegas casino, gave ourselves $20 a piece, picked up what tokens we could buy, proceeded to a pair of one-arm bandits, basically lost every everything in ten minutes, and left. That was it. I couldn't help but hear my father's voice.
But I remembered that Lakota preacher's naughty smile when the news story came last week. A woman named Marie Holmes won a huge lottery, or at least a satisfying chunk thereof--188 million dollars. She's a welfare mom, the kind of unrighteous human being that some on the right think suck up other people's hard-earned wealth. She's got four kids, one of whom has cerebral palsy, and she'd just quit work at McDonalds and Walmart in order to care for her kids.
I know very well what Mitt Romney would think of her, so I'm figuring just about everybody ought to be happy now--those who think gambling's a gift, those who are foot soldiers in the war on poverty, and even those who basically hate welfare moms. Hey, in this story, everybody wins.
She's free. She and her kids could rent Disneyland next week. She could buy an Escalade yet this afternoon with pocket change.
I've got enough of my father in me to stay out of casinos, and the only time I bought lottery tickets was to give them away as gag gifts. But the Marie Holmes warms my heart. She said she's going to donate some money to her church. After all, her mother bought her the ticket one Sunday morning on her way to church.
"I'm thankful I can bless my kids with something I didn't have," Marie Holmes told reporters.
You know and I know that shipwrecks galore have happened on the rocky shores of new wealth. But just for a moment last week, I got this lovely feeling that all was right in the world, gaming or not. Ms. Holmes has reason to be thankful all right, and so do I.