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updated 3/25/2004 5:01:35 PM ET 2004-03-25T22:01:35

By all accounts, gaming is responsible for bringing the Viejas Tribe of Kumeyaay Indians from the depths of poverty to a standard of comfortable living. But continued gaming on Indian reservations is far from a sure thing in California.

There is a new governor in place, and it is yet unclear how this will affect gaming Indians. Viejas, aware of this state of affairs, has acted to diversify its business interests. Carmen "Daisy" Welch, a former chairwoman of Viejas who currently serves as one of the tribe’s lobbyists, said diversification is very important to the tribe.

"Gaming is not going to be around forever, I don’t think. I know people like to gamble, but my gosh, let’s look at the picture here. We’ve got 50 gaming tribes. We’ve got to be real in our thinking," said Welch.

In the late 1990s, Viejas moved to diversify by purchasing stock in a small bank, Borrego Springs Bank, creating the first American Indian-owned bank in California. The bank specializes in services like small business lending, becoming one of the 50 largest Small Business Administration lenders for three years. Welch also serves as vice chair of the bank’s board of directors.

About that same time, Viejas built a $30 million retail outlet across the street from its casino. Incorporating an Indian-village theme in the design, the tribe gave great attention to design details like displaying bronze animal sculptures and waterfalls and streams throughout. The center houses 57 stores and has attracted big-name retailers including Nike and Jones of New York.

In 2000, the tribe ventured into the concert business, starting the Viejas Concerts In The Park series. Usually held in late summer, the concert draws celebrity entertainers and is held in an amphitheatre park with seating for 1,500.

And nearly two years ago, Viejas partnered with three other tribes to form Four Fires, LLC. The corporation’s first joint venture, a $43 million dollar hotel near the site of a new national Indian museum in Washington, D.C., slated to open this fall.

In addition to its other businesses, Viejas operates two RV parks. The Alpine Springs RV Park was purchased in 1996 and features a clubhouse, swimming pool and laundry. The Ma-Tar-Awa RV Park, Viejas’ first business enterprise, opened in 1976, is still very popular with campers.

Education

Besides diversifying its business interests, Viejas knows its future depends on grooming the upcoming generation to take over the business reins. They realize, then, that education, whether formal or practical, is the vehicle to achieving that.

All tribal members are eligible to participate in the two-year Viejas Management Internship Program (VMIP). Interns learn how Viejas businesses operate by working two to 24 weeks in every department, from restaurant and legal, to food and beverage. At the end of the program, interns are usually placed in a management position in the department of their choosing. Three tribal members are currently in the program, including Gina TeSam-Reading, who is also a member of the Viejas Finance Committee.

TeSam-Reading explained the program’s benefits, "It will really help me because when IT [Information Technology department] asks for $300,000 for a computer program, I’ll understand why. I’ll understand because I’ll have already been in that department, so I understand what they do. And then when I sit on this committee … I can say, ‘I know why they need that …’"

Nikki Symington, Viejas public relations coordinator, said, "The point of the internship program is one: that every tribal member can know all aspects of their business; two: it gives them an opportunity to pick and choose careers in areas that interest them; and three: which is equally important, move up into the management of their business."

Educational and cultural programs are available for all Viejas children and adults at the reservation’s education center. Some of the programs offered are:

* A two week summer program on Kumeyaay culture, including games, crafts and language. Also cultural preservation classes teach Kumeyaay basket-making and beadwork.

* An independent study program as an alternative to the regular high school curriculum. A team comprising the parent or guardian, a program coordinator and teacher monitor and assess the student’s progress.

* A college and career center with information on career options, university degree programs and vocational/technical school training.

* Classes in family development, basic computing, and sewing, as well as financial planning, particularly for tribal members turning 18.

* Biweekly literacy workshops for children in grades K - 8 and their families.

* A scholarship program that pays all education costs for every child and adult member to the post doctorate level.

Social and civic services

The Viejas Reservation has a fully-equipped fire station with a professional fire-fighting crew of 15, including paramedics. Five fire fighters, who also protect the surrounding non-reservation rural area at no added expense to taxpayers, are on duty at all times.

Senior or elder Viejas members, those 60-years old or older, are an integral part of the reservation. Mabel Velasquez, coordinator of the reservation’s Senior Center, said the tribe treasures their 13 elders. No one goes hungry or languishes in solitude. The center keeps the group active by arranging monthly outings, and ensures the elders keep well fed by delivering daily meals.  

Politics

Viejas also trains members to lobby for its interests at both the state and federal level.

Welch said her job is to educate legislators about Viejas. "We go in and tell them who we are … what we do, how much we give to the community and how much we give in our taxes … We employ a certain number of people - they pay their taxes. Our wages are millions and millions of dollars …"

Viejas Chairman Anthony Pico and Symington later learn from the lobbyists which legislators were spoken to and if they were a weak or strong supporter of the issue under discussion.

"We have non-tribal lobbyists; we have paid lobbyists," Symington said. "But just as Viejas oversees their businesses … they understand the legislators are more interested in hearing from the tribal people - they are our lobbyists. Number one: they have more impact. And number two: it’s their business to know [the legislator]. If you just leave it to a lobbyist, you never know what’s going on. And … the only person that has that relationship [with the legislator] is the lobbyist, as opposed to the tribe."

Viejas continues to build for a future. Welch said the tribe eventually would like to establish a transportation system that would run between the reservation and the city of San Diego and build a hotel and convention center complex in Viejas Valley, where most of the tribal members’ houses now sit. Essentially, this project would crowd Viejas off the 1,600-acre reservation.

In such a case, the tribe would move north - back to Capitan Grande Reservation, Welch said.

Viejas - the Kumeyaay - will have then come full-circle, back to their ancestral homeland.

© 2013 Indian Country Today. All rights reserved.

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