March 10, 2020

Researcher sees how casinos can become 'windigos' for Indigenous communities

Alberta Gambling Research Institute considers social, political, economic and cultural impact of gambling during Banff conference March 26-28

In Algonquian legends, a mythical giant cannibal — a windigo — wreaks havoc on communities, consuming people and causing illness and death. Anyone could become a windigo at any time, and people were always cautious not to transform into the creature that consumes others.  

Dr. Darrel Manitowabi, PhD, posits that Indigenous casinos are a modern expression of the windigo and he will present his work — Gambling with the Windigo: Theorizing Indigenous Casinos in Canada — later this month at the 19th annual Alberta Gambling Research Institute (AGRI) conference at the Banff Centre.

Indigenous perspective on gambling

“There is a social image of gambling that is almost inherently wrong. There are questions about morality of gambling and public perception. But from an Indigenous perspective, gambling isn't inherently evil,” says Manitowabi, associate professor in the School of Northern and Community Studies, Laurentian University in Sudbury and Three Fires Anishinaabe from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory.

“Casinos represent a modern version of the windigo in the sense that the potential is there for casinos to consume communities and people in the same way that the cannibal did in legends. And because that potential is there, communities must be careful.”

A call for community caution

Communities should be cautious in how they invest, situate and react to casinos, he says. “Community response to gambling is very calculated in the sense that communities negotiate the implications of casinos in their community and recognize that there's a lot of power within the casino in terms of new income generated, new relationships with provincial governments and even the federal government.”

Manitowabi, who holds cross-appointments in the School of Indigenous Relations, Laurentian University and the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, is one of 16 speakers at the AGRI conference, entitled Freedom, Justice and Sovereignty in Gaming. AGRI is a consortium of the University of Alberta, University of Calgary and the University of Lethbridge. The conference, March 26 to 28, is expanding its focus this year beyond gambling addiction and treatment.

Explore social issues and gambling

“We are targeting a broader audience than usual,” says conference chair Fiona Nicoll, professor in the Department of Political Science and Alberta Gambling Research Institute Chair in Gambling Policy at the University of Alberta. “Questions of freedom, sovereignty and justice in gaming are important for all citizens in Alberta and the Indigenous program will relate gambling to questions of rights, reconciliation and economic justice.”

The conference includes a diverse range of speakers and attendees including Indigenous leaders, video-gamers and lawyers as well as anthropologists, archaeologists, sociologists, literary researchers, public health experts and political scientists. “Rather than holding parallel sessions, all participants will be able to experience a continuous plenary session,” says Dr. Nicoll, PhD. “I'm really looking forward to the new dialogue about gambling between speakers and audience members that will develop.”

Social, political, cultural impact of casinos

Manitowabi, who is collaborating in a national study examining the social, political, economic and cultural impact of casinos in Canada, is also looking forward to broadening the conversation. “Gambling studies are mostly dominated by a biomedical orientation,” he says. “I see a real disconnect between the perspectives that I have to offer and those articulated at academic conferences, even to the point where it feels as though I'm not even on the same page with fellow researchers.”

Register for Freedom, Justice and Sovereignty in Gaming, March 26-28 at The Banff Centre.