Over the past decade, many impoverished Native American tribes have improved their lot by opening casinos in states that do not allow gambling on non-tribal lands.
But in Nevada, a state that allows casino gambling for all, one tribe has been investing in property and has secured deals with Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, as well as with a Mercedes-Benz dealer to boost its members' historically low standard of living.
"We started out with smoke shops as the main source of income," said Doug Gardipe, vice chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, referring to stores selling cigarettes and related products. "Now we've diversified into other businesses."
He is wary of tribes that become too dependent on casino revenue. "If you open a casino and all your eggs are in one basket, what happens if that business goes away?" he said.
Given land on the outskirts of Reno when white settlers moved into northern Nevada, the tribe has been buying plots around town for a dozen years. It has then converted the acquisitions into reservation land, which exempts the tribe from paying Nevada property tax and lets members keep all sales taxes collected there.
Under the Wal-Mart deal, the tribe is leasing the land to a property developer, who will sublet a 203,000-square-foot superstore to Wal-Mart in a long-term deal, perhaps to last 30 years, said Charles Rosenow, the director of the tribe's economic development department.
"Most of the development we are getting is not because it is Indian land, but because it is well-located land," he said of the 22.6 acres along the Truckee River off the main highway near the Hilton Reno Resort and Casino, the city's largest hotel and casino. The tribe is open about its finances.
It spent $7 million to buy the land, Rosenow said, and like many who invested in now-booming Reno property market, the tribe seems to have made a good investment. Members expect to collect $4.4 million in annual sales tax, of which they will share $1.5 million with the state in a complicated development deal, he said. They will also take in $600,000 a year for the lease.
Eric Burger, Wal-Mart's regional community affairs director, said the retail giant already has stores on Indian land in Washington state and in Arizona. He concurred that location was the key factor in the Reno deal, where the store is to open in September 2006.
The store will also get some tax breaks for investing and hiring on Indian land, Rosenow said.
In a separate location but also off a prime highway, the 481-member Reno-Sparks Indian Colony leased land starting in 2003 to a Mercedes dealership. So anyone hitting the jackpot at a Reno casino and splurging on a $100,000 Mercedes would be assessed a local sales tax of $7,375, which the tribe would keep.
"I do appreciate the irony of having the wealthiest people in town support the poorest," Rosenow said.
This year the tribe also expects to keep about $8 million in sales tax from its smoke shops at five locations.
Yet in recent years, some tribes have sparked criticism by buying property to turn into sovereign tribal land.
"There is a backlash of conservatives not really supporting the tribes buying land," said Daryl Crawford, executive director of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada. "I guess there is still prejudice and racism that prevails."
Because of the special status that reservation land has as sovereign territory, others say tribes should not be able to incorporate new real estate willy-nilly into their realm.
Such criticism has been acute at times in California, where local politicians complain that tribes have sought to buy property near urban centers to introduce casinos, a practice some label "reservation shopping."
"Attempts at off-reservation gaming and the practice of 'reservation shopping' have increased dramatically in my state over the past five years," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in April. "It is now estimated that there may be up to 20 proposals to game outside of tribal lands in California."
Because Nevada already has casinos across the state, such gambling expansion is not an issue, but some politicians think the tribes should share tax revenues from their other commercial projects.
"The best solution would be to share the sales tax to some degree, but I don't think that's on the table," Reno councilman Dwight Dortch said in an interview. "I don't think they can acquire all this land and not pay taxes on it and we still have to provide services for it."