How a College Student from an Affluent Native American Tribe Does Money

by Aja Frost

Emily is a college sophomore living on the East Coast. She belongs to a prosperous Native American tribe in California.

Which tribe do you belong to?

My mom is from outside the reservation, but my dad is actually a part of two different tribes. He’s a part of San Manuel, and he’s also a part of Morongo.

We don’t really associate with Morongo — its reservation is extremely poor, not well-structured, and suffering a lot in comparison to the San Manuel reservation. That’s because the management of their casino has screwed the Indians out of a lot of their money, so it’s not really funding the Native Americans of Morongo. The proceeds from their casino have been seriously diminished in comparison to our own (San Manuel).

How is the money distributed?

Anybody who is blood of San Manuel will receive money from the proceeds of casino once they turn 18. It’s a monthly check.

We get much more money than a lot of tribes because we are actually still involved in the process of running it. It’s not that we don’t have any outside help; we get a lot of outside help. But we still have a committee made up of Native Americans that oversees the functions of the casino.

Do most people in the San Manuel tribe work, or is the check enough to support them?

It’s definitely enough. That’s the biggest issue with our tribe — we don’t see a lot of our members continuing on to secondary education or having a career. It’s gotten way better within the last 10 years because we totally revitalized our education department, so we’re getting a lot more Native Americans accepted into college. But it’s definitely an epidemic with the older generation. I don’t know a lot of people on the reservation that do work.

It’s also a little different with the even older generations, because the casino wasn’t making money. For example, my dad was 40 before he got the money, so he worked for a majority of his life — as a butcher, in the orange fields, so on — whereas the people that were born into the casino don’t need to work, so they don’t.

How much is it?

I couldn’t give you an exact amount, because I’m an exception. (Note: Emily is adopted.) I’m a limbo stage, because I’m considered a tribal citizen, but because I’m not blood, I don’t get a check from the casino. I think it’s about $50,000 a month.

How many people are part of the tribe?

Probably, guesstimation, 300 people. I have an enormous tribe. In fact, the entire reservation is considered my family. There’s also a lot of people living outside the state or the county.

What’s living on the reservation like?

I love the reservation so much. My next-door neighbor is my brother; we’ve become closer because we’re in such close proximity to each other. I also really enjoy it because I can go to the community center. There’s an education center there with tutoring, scholarships — we also have a language department, which has revitalized our native language. My cousins are becoming natively fluent now because they’ve been going so frequently.

The community department is also where the San Manuel committee holds tribal meetings for all members of the tribe to come and discuss any issues with the reservation or the casino.

It sounds like a tight-knit community. Do most people marry within the tribe, or does the tribe get successively bigger each generation because you’re incorporating in new members?

A lot of people don’t marry from the tribe or don’t marry other Native Americans. That’s become a community discussion, because it’s very obviously diluting the blood of the next generation. We’ve had to adjust some of our policies; for example, you need to have X fraction of blood in order to be considered a tribal benefit and receive the benefits.

I remember in high school people knew not only that you lived on a reservation, but that you had money. It was a little weird, because you weren’t the only person who had money. Did you feel like it distinguished you?

Yes. I think it was because my money came from a unique source. My family has told me many times being from the casino would make things different once people knew. But I was still surprised when it happened

For example, a teacher used it to make fun of me — I was surprised a teacher would even talk about it. People find it funny or use it to hurt me. It made me feel uncomfortable that people would define me by where I came from or the type of money I had. I didn’t find it funny — especially because my family was generous enough to donate to certain organizations, and they weren’t very grateful.

I can understand it though. The way people react, it’s because they have literally no idea what it’s like coming from the reservation.

Now I’ve developed a thicker skin.

Is it different in college, because it doesn’t come up the same way as it would in high school?

It’s been very different. I’ve found once I decide to tell people because I’m comfortable with them, some people don’t believe me. For example, I’m on the news team at my school, and I told my producers this one time we were all hanging out. And they didn’t believe me.

Especially because I don’t really look Native American, so a lot of the people’s first reactions are ‘No way.’ But then once I got more detailed, they believe me.

I like that in college I can decide to tell someone, whereas in high school, when I had parties or people coming over, it was obvious. If someone is hanging out in my dorm room, they have no idea.

I’ve been handling it very differently than my parents or family members would expect. I’m not very careful when I talk about it in the way they’d like me to be. We’ve had people being targeted because they’re from the reservation — kidnapping scares, stuff like that.

I’m more open about it because it’s a big aspect of my life. For people who get to know me, it’s something you kind of have to know. It explains a lot of who I am.

Do you ever feel like people take advantage of it?

Yeah, that totally happened to me when I was younger. In fact, it happened very early. When I was in fourth or fifth grade, I had a best friend. She had another friend who came over a lot, and I really had a fun time with them. One day we went to Walmart, and — this is me trying really hard to be accepted by my friends and wanting them to like me — and her friend wanted to buy something, and asked me if I’d buy it for him. I remember thinking, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t do this, it’s a lot of money,’ but I really wanted them to like me and think I was cool, so I bought it for him. After, I realized he didn’t really like me and didn’t want to hang out with me.

I was naïve and didn’t really know how to handle my money and didn’t realize people would be so shady to choose to hang out without me because of it, so I was targeted a lot.

I wouldn’t say that problem has gone away entirely, but I don’t think it’s as strong, because now I’m more careful about who I tell.

How do you handle having more money than your peers?

That’s definitely something I struggle with. My sophomore year, when I started to go to more concerts, I realized not everybody would be able to go to concerts as frequently as I wanted to, which was difficult because I needed someone to go with me.

I haven’t fully figured it out, but as I learned when I was younger, when you buy things for other people, they do begin to expect it. No matter how good a person is, even if they don’t mean to, there’s this expectation that you’ll pay for them. I had to give up a lot of the concerts I wanted to go to because my friends couldn’t go, and I recognized I would rather not go than build up an expectation.

It especially affects me in college. You know, most college students can’t afford anything, and I definitely don’t fit in that category. It can make me feel really bad when I see my friends struggling with not being able to pay for food, and knowing I don’t struggle with that. I feel really, really guilty a lot of the time, I’d say.

I’ve noticed myself cutting back on spending because of that.

Do you gravitate toward people your age who have more money and can afford to do what you want or don’t make you feel guilty for having more?

Absolutely not. When I was younger, I had a lot of friends who were very poor, just because of the school I went to. I found myself hanging out at their houses in very bad neighborhoods, and I had fun no matter where I was, what we were doing, because the people were fun.

I’d rather have a friend who’d be fun when we had zero things to do than one who needs to be in an exciting environment, needs to go to a club, needs to go to Disneyland, etc.

I’ve never made a friendship decision based on how much money they have. I’ve only thought about it when I’m picking a friend to go somewhere with me — like who would have the means to do this.

For example, my cousin is in the exact same financial situation as me, so I go to a lot of concerts with her. I wouldn’t ask her to go to a museum or anything intellectual with me; those aren’t her interests. But if I want to go to a concert or spend money, I know I can call her and she’ll be able to go.

If you wanted to go to Urban Outfitters and spend $1,000, could you?

Yeah … not every day. But if I wanted to do it on the weekends, if I wanted to, I could.

I could see where the guilt would come in. That’s so far from most people’s realities.

It especially affected me when I found out I was adopted. I even found myself making up financial issues.

I know it sounds like rich kid problems, but it really did affect my relationships. I’d have this constant internal struggle, like, ‘Why do I even deserve this money? Why is it fair I can go and spend so much money in Urban and my friends can’t even get things they need for school?’

Have you heard that saying, ‘Just because someone else’s problems are worse doesn’t mean yours don’t exist too?’ Some people may roll their eyes, but it doesn’t mean you don’t still feel bad.

Exactly! I’m trying to recognize that I shouldn’t diminish my issues because other people have bigger issues. But it is hard to forget, especially during something like the 2008 recession. That affected virtually everyone I knew, except me.

I heard about it all the time, on TV, from friends, parents having conversations with them about cutting back spending — and I could not tell you one aspect of my life that changed because of the 2008 recession.

You’re going into journalism. It’s recognized as a low-paying, even unstable field — you can lose your job really easily, and we don’t even know what it’ll look like in the future. Was your decision to become a journalist shaped by the fact you don’t have to worry about making a lot of money?

Yes. As I said, I’m an exception and I don’t get the monthly check. Instead, I’ll get money from my parents. I knew I’d need a career, unlike my cousins, because I can’t live off my parents’ income forever.

But having a brother with no career who’s told me he doesn’t feel like anything he’s done has had a massive impact on the world really made me realize I needed to do something meaningful.

I looked at my life and I found I could live without a lot of things I currently had. And because I’ve had a lot of experiences, I don’t need those experiences in the future. Being very rich, I know what it’s like to have an elevator in my house, I know what it’s like to have an infinity pool, I know what it’s like to have a nice car.

I’ve lived with so many cousins that don’t have jobs. Yeah, it’s really cool to have a yacht. It’s really cool to have a big house. I watch my cousins go on trips all the time, to the same places, doing the same things. Honestly, it gets boring.

Are those things I want in the future? No. I don’t find being rich something that’ll be valuable to me in the future. Instead, I want to be a journalist and do something meaningful.

Aja Frost is a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who loves writing… and dessert. Follow her on Twitter @ajavuu.

Photo: Rafał Próchniak