More than 7,000 people converged on the San Diego Conference Center April 10-13 for the National Indian Gaming Association’s annual conference in what the organizers call a “back to basics” confab. “I came into the planning process with fresh eyes,” conference chairman Victor Rocha, Luiseño, said. “The first thing I told Ernie [Stevens Jr., NIGA’s chairman] was that this should be a business conference, not a vacation conference.” Rocha designed the four-day event to offer attendees the tools and opportunities to learn more about the business of Indian gaming. “We were so involved in the future of gaming that we weren’t focusing on the issues in front of us,” said Rocha. “We also want to be responsive to the tribes, vendors and customers who come to the conference.”
The result: a conference that offered many training and networking opportunities while still celebrating what makes Indian gaming special. “We’re not Vegas,” Rocha said. “We’re tribal gaming.” Stevens also noted that the conference broke records for training and certifications.
Garry Murrey, the general manager of Lac Vieux Desert Casino in Watersmeet, Michigan, was happy with the variety of firms on the trade floor— nearly 400 vendors. “It’s an opportunity to talk with other people besides slot machine vendors,” said Murrey. “We wouldn’t get the chance to meet smaller organizations like Native Hire [a job resource for tribes] in our Upper Peninsula community.”
A few aisles over, another firm made a very comfortable pitch for business. Skip Davis, president of Gary Platt Manufacturing, didn’t have to do much talking to sell his gaming chairs. All that his potential customers had to do was rest a spell in the ergonomically-designed seating. “This is a relationship business, and it’s so much fun to see how our Native American casinos have grown, adding resorts and great food and other amenities,” Davis said.
Although much discussion revolved around new markets like sports betting, slots are still a key player in Indian gaming. Several top firms were on hand to showcase their newest games, and one manufacturer, Novomatic, even offered an invitation-only focus group to beta test their new game. Not even an ICMN reporter could get a glimpse of the top-secret game.
Gaming has also given tribes the resources to expand into other hospitality venues. UltraStar Multi-tainment Center, which will open its second location in Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in North Carolina in September, showcased family-friendly options available at its facility in the Ak Chin Indian Community in Arizona—including one of its most popular games, the zombie shoot-em-up “The Walking Dead.”
Cautious optimism over Trump administration policy and leadership choices
Although doing business was on many peoples’ minds, another group focused on the policies that support tribes’ sovereign rights to engage in these and other enterprises. Richard Guest of the Supreme Court Project, spearheaded by the Native American Rights Fund, discussed how the new Trump administration may deal with tribal governments, including gaming. About one-third of all tribal cases involve sovereign immunity, Guest noted.
For example, in the case Nebraska v. Parker, the state of Nebraska challenged the Omaha Indian Tribe’s right to enforce a liquor ordinance on its tribal land because large numbers of non-Indians live within tribal boundaries. The court ruled in favor of the tribe; however, Guest noted that “Justice [Antonin] Scalia may have been the fifth vote against the tribe,” had he not suffered a fatal heart attack the month before. “Who sits on the Supreme Court matters,” Guest said.
Newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch may work in favor of tribes, Guest said. “Gorsuch has an intimate understanding how tribes and tribal governments operate,” he said. “He recognizes tribes as sovereigns—but whether he supports sovereignty, we’ll have to wait and see.”
Guest added that Gorsuch may align with conservative Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito, “and may be the fifth vote against a tribe’s exercise of authority, since conservatives have strong feelings against tribes exerting authority over non-Indians.” However, tribes were more leery of former President Barack Obama’s choice, Merrick Garland, as his record showed that he ruled against the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in a labor relations case, whereas several tribes advocated for Gorsuch’s confirmation.
Tribes were also applauding the appointment of Ryan Zinke as Interior Secretary. “Secretary Zinke said all the right things during his hearings,” said National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby, who was at the conference. “Neil Gorsuch voted in favor of tribal sovereignty in 14 of 17 cases. And [Secretary of Health and Human Services] Tom Price has met with us already and made a commitment to come to us.” On the other hand, Cladoosby said that tribal organizations are waiting on new Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ platform.
And many NIGA attendees expressed the hope that President Trump would work to slash regulations that they feel hinder tribes’ ability to open new businesses and grow existing ones.
Women’s leadership issues, opportunities an ‘unofficial’ focus of NIGA
One way NIGA differed from past conferences was the robust panels on indigenous women’s leadership. One of Tuesday’s all-day training tracks was devoted to indigenous women and leadership. Thursday, the final keynote panel brought prominent Native women leaders together to discuss the importance of recognizing the role of women in Native communities, said panel leader Jacqueline Pata, Tlingit, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.
Native entrepreneur Margo Gray, another facilitator, noted the “huge disparity” in women CEOs, COOs or other top gaming officials. Just two of the more than 60 women in one of Gray’s panels acknowledged that they were casino CEOs. Gray, Osage, emphasized that it’s okay for Native women to be ambitious, while other leaders such as Idaho State Rep. Paulette Jordan, Coeur d’Alene, averred that it’s still important to be humble and grounded in tribal culture. Women also participated in an all-afternoon roundtable which identified issues and opportunities for future panels to address, with the goal of a separate conference that focuses on female gaming leadership.
Stevens stressed the importance of spotlighting the role of women: “I was raised by powerful women,” he said. In fact, Stevens said that the “unofficial” focus of NIGA was on women.
“I was really glad that the woman’s forum is moving forward,” said Curley, who attended several of the panel sessions. “I hope it becomes a separate segment in Indian gaming moving forward.”
What’s next: I-gaming, sports betting, collaboration with commercial gaming group and attracting the ever-elusive Millennials
Indian gaming managers are taking note of the opportunities in new forms of gaming, such as sports betting. During a keynote session April 12 facilitated by Rocha, top gaming experts discussed what’s next in the industry. Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association, is looking forward to collaborating with his tribal counterpart after a history of tension between the two organizations. “Our goal is to fix regulatory roadblocks, legalize sports gaming outside of Nevada and grow the next generation of customers,” he said.
“We have a new president who comes from the gaming industry,” said Stevens. Gaming officials hope that the Trump administration will be more open to have a less intrusive agency environment.
One such example of what the panel called “overregulation” includes the 1992 law banning sports betting outside of Nevada. “All it did was drive it underground,” said Freeman.
Americans spend about $150 billion on sports gambling annually overseas and with bookies who operate outside the law, according to the AGA. For contrast, Las Vegas rakes in $7.25 billion for legal sports gaming; “There’s another Vegas out there each year,” he said. “All we have to do is get the feds out of the way.” He also said that “fantasy sports have awakened the U.S. to the fact that betting on sports is normal.” Freeman said that a bill to “repeal and replace” the sports gaming legislation is currently being drafted.
And, since most of the money spent on sports gambling goes to bookies or overseas, Freeman said that repatriating those dollars benefits all. “That money is funding illegal activities,” he said. In fact, Stevens added that the Indian gaming industry’s rigorous regulatory standards prevent corrupting influences, and thus “helps fight crime in America.”
Jonodev Chaudhuri, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, echoed that statement. He also noted that “non-partisanship is not mutually exclusive with accountability.” In fact, he said, “accountability is how we do things at NIGC.”
Freeman also noted that the gaming industry should look at ways to attract younger customers. “We should move forward to reinvent our product, and develop new products that are more skill-based, online, e-games and the like.”
In any case, Cladoosby, who also was the recipient of the Wendell Chino Humanitarian Award, averred that “if we want to be sovereign, we have to act sovereign.”
Stevens summed it up: “There’ll be bumps in the road and challenges working with the new president,” he said. “But reducing regulations, as long as this doesn’t cross over to compromise or undermine our tribal sovereignty, if it helps break barriers to doing business, we’re all in.”