I Spent Thanksgiving at a Native American Casino

If the original Thanksgiving was all about breaking bread with Native Americans, then the modern version would be stuffing your face at the buffet of a tribal temple of gambling.

by Justin Caffier
02 December 2014, 5:00am

​Being a transplant in a city far from your birthplace leaves you few options around the ​Thanksgiving holiday. You can either force an awkwardly timed compulsory trip home into a four-day weekend (not at all worth it if planes are involved) or clump together with all the other orphans of geography for a scrappy little Island of Misfit Toys Friendsgiving. Neither of these options suited me much this year, so I figured I should do something marginally positive with my day for a change. No, I wasn't going to volunteer at a soup kitchen - I was going to spend my day at a Native American casino.

I settled on Morongo Resorts in the high desert town of Cabazon, California, because the name tickled me more than the other option, San Miguel, and fuck if I'm driving more than an hour and a half on a lark. Naturally, Thanksgiving day traffic was atrocious when I left at 1 PM on Thursday and I found myself pulling into the Morongo Casino parking structure at 3:45.

My excuse for making this trip was to symbolically give money back to the indigenous people who my white forefathers stole a continent from. It was a mission in line with ​The National Day of Mourning and ​Unthanksgiving, two holidays focused on commemorating the struggles of this country's native population.

I started at the bar and found the drinks to be refreshingly cheap. The bartender was friendly as well; he told me the casino was commemorating Thanksgiving with a special feast at the buffet. When I pressed a little more to see if there were any shows or promos in honor of Turkey Day, his eyes seemed to say, Do you understand where you are? while his mouth said, "No." I took my drink and sought out guest services to see if I could find any other attempts at a holiday cash grab, or even a shout out to Squanto, but unfortunately, all I could find out from the nice lady at the desk was that many people stayed at the casino over Thanksgiving weekend to participate in the three-day Black Friday bonanza going on at the outlets next door.

I noticed a sign offering $5 off the buffet if I were to sign up for the Morongo Winner's Circle card. I'm fully aware that these are nefariously designed bits of social engineering meant to have you disassociate what you're spending on games with actual money, but I signed up for one anyway because besides the buffet discount, I apparently also got $50 of free slots credits to play with. After my ID was scanned into some database that would surely be emailing me promotions in a week, I approached an activation machine with my newly-minted card. The $50 of slot play I had been promised turned out to actually a maximum of $50. A digital wheel popped up on the screen, spun itself, and predictably awarded me only $5 of credit. Whatever.

You'd think that a facility run by an ethnic group would be more sensitive to borderline racism in the characters within its games, but the Morongo casino was chock-a-block full of slots that teetered precariously on the tightrope of caricature and racism. Notable examples included a poncho- and sombrero-wearing Mexican man from ​Jumpin' Jalapenos, a woman with a bindi and hands clasped in prayer in ​Graceful Lotus, and a wide-eyed surprised Asian chef in the game ​Fortune Cookie. Not that the gamblers minded.

I marched through the dense forest of unsavory slot machines like Merriweather Lewis, but instead of looking for a route to the Pacific I was merely looking for a penny slot. My Sacajawea appeared in the form of a tree trunk–sized security guard. He escorted me to the proper section of the floor while I asked if he was going to be able to do anything with his family later. (They'd already had an early meal, so he was fine.)

I sat down at one penny slot and quickly learned that you can't actually make one cent plays anymore. How foolish of me to think I could stretch this $5 out into 500 spins of the e-wheels. But as luck would have it, I won as frequently as I lost and pushed the free-credits-to-cash-won accounting into the black. After a likely unprecedented 20 minutes of slot play stemming solely from this free credit I cashed out with a healthy $0.34 in winnings. 

I was feeling sorta shitty that I came here to give the tribe money and wound up coming out on top. My forbearers would probably be proud, but they were most likely racist shitheads, so fuck them. I re-upped my drink and made my way over to the buffet to get started on the most important part of the Thanksgiving experience: waiting. It was only as I made my way to the end of the buffet line that I took note of just how insanely crowded this place was. I had imagined the place would look like a depressing scene from The Cooler, with only a smattering of sad sacks at the penny slots watching a tumbleweed of Bingo cards roll by. In reality, it was as busy as a Costco on a Sunday afternoon. The line for the buffet was no exception. Its winding chicanes gave any Disneyland line a run for its money and worse still, there seemed to be no forward movement.

My time in the line was not pleasant. I spent the first bit observing my surroundings and noting all the crying babies around me. I thought Casinos were for adults, but the broods here were treating Thanksgiving this place like it was a long-standing family tradition. The majority of the people in the casino seemed to be non-English speaking people from East Asia, though, and its understandable if they have no emotional ties to some random chilly November Thursday. 

Fortunately, all that time twiddling my thumbs gave me an opportunity to chat with and eavesdrop on other families. What wasn't in Mandarin, Korean, or Japanese sounded like your typical family squabbles. If this kid didn't get his shit together right now, they'd be heading home. If you didn't want to have to wait in line, honey, we should've left earlier and you could've put your makeup on in the car. The guy next to me noted that it had been "what, an hour plus?" that we'd been waiting so far. I welcomed the opportunity to start a convo. He and his wife were in from Riverside and didn't have much family out here, so "why not hit the casino?" That sounded familiar - it was like I was home for the holidays.

"Table for one?" the hostess asked when I finally reached her, as if this was the most common thing in the world. We walked through the restaurant to my table, passing exasperated parents, belly-laughing uncles, and napping-at-the-table grandpas. This place had the entire family here. It felt more like a real Thanksgiving with every step.

The buffet exceeded expectations. I embraced my inner gluttonous American and loaded up five plates knowing full well I couldn't eat that much. I came close, though, and even went back for seconds on a few of the dishes I'd merely sampled on the first pass. 

My waitress informed me that she and her boyfriend were going to rush over to her mom's after her shift ended in a few hours. I was happy that this place didn't seem to be cruelly shackling its workers to the schedule. I let her get back to work and took a moment to take in the meals going on all around me. This was a pretty introverted Thanksgiving meal, but I decided to just pretend I'd been relegated to the kids table. Boring small talk with relatives is a bit eye-rolly, but at least it's conversation with people who give a shit about you. I had finally learned to miss it.

I finished my final drink wandering around the game floor cheering on winners and engaging in small talk with other bystanders. Maybe I was leaning into the role of tipsy relative this year, if not for my own family, then for my adoptive casino one. Finally satisfied that I'd spent enough time and money in the casino to constitute a full Thanksgiving experience, I walked back to my car to begin the long drive home and, more importantly, charge my dead phone.

As I left the desert and found myself in the more familiar urban territory I realised that with all the driving, waiting, crowdedness, overeating, drinking, and general dissatisfaction, this Thanksgiving was exactly the same as every other I'd experienced in my life. No matter where you go or who you spend it with, some aspects of Thanksgiving will be constant, and some of those will always suck. At least this year I wouldn't have to do any dishes or indulge some relatives with conversations about Ferguson.

Follow Justin Caffier on ​Twitter.

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