Road to Kentucky Derby: My favorite Indian casino

Please don’t think that we took the snow detour around North Dakota so that we could stay at my favorite Indian casino. That would not be true. We went south after seeing the snow photo sent out by the North Dakota Department of Transportation. But once the decision had been made, well, the thought eventually formed in my head that a stop in the corn fields outside of Sloan, Iowa, would be right on our way and we should be arriving at check-in time.

The WinnaVegas Casino is not my favorite because of generous slots (I never play them), free drinks or blubbery buffets. I like it because of its location — standing alone out in the middle of corn fields. I wandered here some years back after seeing signs for it. Three miles down a country road after taking the Sloan exit off Interstate 29. There it stands: hotel, casino and Pony Express, where we filled our 12-gallon tank with $3.75 per gallon gas for under $50.

We checked in, and they issued me a new card (I left my old card in my gas-guzzling truck) and gave Kathy one with $10 on it to use in the casino. Getting the cards with $20 knocked off that amount off the room rate. But they got back the $20 within a few minutes after we found the electronic craps table. A video game the size of a real craps table but no side rails to stack your chips or shelves underneath to set your drinks, Put your money or your cards in a slot, push a button to place $5 on the pass line and you can lose money just as fast as at a craps table made of wood and felt. Dice are thrown across the video screen by swiping your hand over your console. They appear as red dice skittering across the table’s video surface from one side to the other rail. Numbers displayed and announced by a voice that also encourages other bets. “Line away,” the electronic woman says, as your $5 pass line bet disappears into the casino’s online bank.

The electronic version takes away the jobs of the the stickman, the boxman and their two helpers. It’s easier to follow because everything is displayed on the electronic table and the individual consoles. You don’t have to embarrassingly ask how much money to put on a $1 come bet to get the odds on a 5, but you miss the normal banter of a good stickman. It’s another step in America’s growing loneliness. Finding a gambling establishment with humans dealing craps and card games is more infrequent than hitting a hard 10.

We might have felt better about the electronic craps table if we had spent more time with it. But the $20 on our two cards didn’t last long before the electronic woman had most of them. We cashed in the $1.77 we had not lost with an apology for wasting the young Native American cashier’s time for an amount that would not buy a gallon of gas, even at the Pony Express.

The Winnebagos call themselves “Hochunkgra, a Siouan people.” The reservation is mostly in northeast Nebraska with a few corners that stick over the Missouri River into Iowa, which is where the WinnaVegas is. They were not always here. They once occupied the southern half of present day Wisconsin and the northern part of Illinois. “The Black Hawk War of 1832 and a series of treaties forced the Winnebago out of their homeland, and they were removed to reservations in Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, and finally to a portion of the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska.”

You could follow these Indian trails across America, as I have done for the Nez Perce (Nimiipuu) people from White Bird to Bears Paw. Or you could follow the Choctaws and Creek on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. None of them end happily.

Maybe it helps to follow them backwards — from where these peoples ended up in the West to a happier time and place back East, where they lived until the Europeans showed up. Our journey to the Kentucky Derby is now on that path as we travel from the Winnebago reservation to Illinois, where we stayed across the Rock River from the “Black Hawk” statue in Oregon, Illinois.

The “Black Hawk” statue in Oregon, Illinois