Ernest White Eyes has been dealt a very good hand. The 52-year-old Oglala Lakota native, who has worked in gaming for nearly 20 years, recently moved to Southern California with his wife and 2-year-old son. After an extensive search for casino work, he was one of about 100 people recently hired at the newly renovated Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula. In a state with unemployment still hovering around 8.5 percent, White Eyes considers himself one of the lucky ones to be employed.
“I was hoping to work in a bigger operation, and this is one of the biggest casinos in California right now,” said White Eyes, who was hired as a dual-rate dealer (a floor supervisor and a blackjack dealer). He is especially grateful that he doesn’t have to pool his tips, as was the policy in other casinos where he worked. “I’m very happy. It’s more money down here and better benefits.”
It took four months and 30,000 man hours to complete, but the multimillion-dollar renovation (exact cost is undisclosed) of the Pechanga Resort & Casino is expected to have a positive economic impact on the Temecula region, most famous for its wines, for many years to come.
Dr. Manfred Keil, an economist and associate professor at Claremont McKenna College, estimates that the wages and purchases of more than 350 construction workers, as well as the nearly 100 new, permanent positions created within the resort, will result in a much-needed $20 million dollars pumped back into the local economy.
“Pechanga is one of the most popular destinations we have in the region,” said Kimberly Adams, founding president of the Temecula Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau. According to bureau statistics, travel spending in Temecula amounted to $625.3 million in 2012 – much of it from visitors to Pechanga.
“I think when people get here, they have no idea that it is the largest casino in California,” said Adams. One Pechanga spokesperson said the casino floor is even larger than any in Las Vegas.
What’s more, Adams said the renovation was something the local community was really looking forward to. “Just to be able to have something new and fresh, and to inspire a new kind of traveler … people who travel for the newest luxuries … is exciting for us to see.”
Some of the highlights of the renovation include a 22,000-square-foot lobby decked in Italian marble, mahogany and brushed brass, two new restaurants – Umi Sushi & Oyster Bar and Blends Coffee & Wine Bar – as well as upgrades to Blazing Noodles and Pechanga Café. There are also plans in the works to renovate the rooftop nightclub, Eagle’s Nest. Resort officials stressed that ecological touches were used wherever possible, in alignment with tribal values.
“We set out to renew and transform the lobby and restaurants into a focal point for guests to come into our grand entrance and say, ‘Wow!’’’ said Patrick Murphy, president of the Pechanga Development Corporation, in a press release issued by the resort.
That’s precisely the reaction that White Eyes had. “It’s beautiful, really classy. When I first walked in, I thought, ‘Wow! It’s fantastic!’ I have never seen a casino like this.” Specifically, the native blackjack dealer appreciates all the tribal touches. “There are great oak trees all over the casino, and they have eagle-feather lights – and lights made out of baskets! … It’s very oriented to the Pechanga tribe, and the other casinos in the area don’t look as tribal as this.”
Pechanga Resort & Casino is owned and operated by the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians. It officially opened in June of 2002, and according to its website, has been the primary source of funding for many high-cost improvements and social services on the reservation.
White Eyes, who grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, believes that the Pechanga renovation has really hit its mark. “The hotel is full every night, especially on the weekends.” And he believes it’s his job to keep these guests coming back. “The people who come to play on my table, even though they lose, they are there to be entertained, so I make it fun for them.”
Entertaining is in White Eyes’ blood. He said his great-great-grandfather, Jacob White Eyes, was the native interpreter for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and traveled all over the United States, Great Britain and Europe with the production.
Lynn Armitage is a freelance writer and enrolled member of the Oneida tribe of Indians of Wisconsin. She has yet to visit a casino where she didn’t lose money, but had fun doing it anyway.