Looking 30 years ahead: Forum on Indian gaming focuses on self-determination

A diverse group of academics, regulators and researchers came together for a historic symposium on Indian gaming at the Brookings Institution

In 1928, the Institute for Government Research in Washington, D.C., released a report that completely transformed federal policy toward Native Americans. “The Problem of Indian Administration” or “The Meriam Report,” is thought to have influenced the creation of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which officially established federal recognition of many tribal nations and helped promote their self-sufficiency and self-determination.

So it was fitting that the birthplace of this pivotal report, the Institute for Government Research, later renamed the Brookings Institution, was the site of a symposium entitled, “The Future of American Indian Gaming: The Next 30 Years.” The forum was held  onThursday.

The event emphasized the self-determination aspects of Indian gaming and brought together a diverse group of people representing the industry. These included regulators, tribal officials, researchers and federal agency officials who discussed the effects of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act on tribal nations and the prospects of Indian gaming for the future.

The think tank event opens with a Hawaiian prayer

Randall Akee
Randall Akee - Twitter

Randall Akee, a Native Hawaiian who organized the event and is a David Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution, opened with a prayer in his Native language.

“I’m pretty sure that was the first time the Hawaiian language was spoken at Brookings,” Akee joked. “There will be a lot of firsts here.” He went on to describe the purpose of the symposium.

“I see this as the beginning of a broad discussion on the American Indian gaming industry, identifying ways in which we can support better research that informs policymaking at all levels of government whether it be tribal, state or federal.”

The keynote speech was delivered by Jonodev Chaudhuri, Chair of the National Indian Gaming Commission. Chaudhuri, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, was appointed in 2015 by President Barack Obama. His speech put the subject of Indian gaming in perspective by outlining the origin of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, or IGRA, which was passed in 1988.

What IGRA did for tribes

“In ‘88 when the act was passed, as many of us know, it came on the heels of the California v. Cabazon decision, a watershed Supreme Court decision in which the Supreme Court upheld the inherent authority of tribal nations to regulate gaming activities on their own lands,” Chaudhuri explained.

Tribal Attorneys California v. Cabazon Supreme Court Ruling 30th Anniversary
Tribal attorneys honored for their work on the landmark ruling. L to R: Morongo Vice Chair Mary Ann Andreas, Cabazon attorney Glenn Feldman, Morongo attorney George Forman, Cabazon Chairman Doug Welmas, Cabazon Vice Chair San Juanita Calloway, Morongo Chairman Robert Martin.

See Related: California v. Cabazon, 30 Years Later: Tribes Celebrate Historic Ruling

He went on to clarify Indian gaming began long before IGRA and the legislation didn’t actually give anything to tribes. What it did do was officially recognize the right of tribes to regulate gaming on their lands and to be the primary beneficiaries of their operations.

“We see that as our lodestar or our guiding star in the implementation of IGRA. We see everything within IGRA, in terms of our regulatory authority, our compliance responsibilities, our enforcement authorities, as a means to a greater end and that end is supporting, at the end of the day, self-determination.”

Indian gaming drives self-determination

Chaudhuri explained how Indian gaming is not just about economic development. It also demonstrates that tribal regulation, as opposed to state regulation, works.

To illustrate this, Chaudhuri pointed out that although in 2017 Indian gaming officially generated $32.4 billion in revenue, the “boogeyman” of organized crime infiltrating the industry has never appeared.

“Why?” Chaudhuri asked. “Because tribal regulators had the most interest in protecting tribal assets and operations and have worked hand-in-hand with federal regulators to make sure that organized crime’s been kept at bay.”

Chaudhuri stated he and the commission have seen first-hand how this built-in aspect of self-determination, that of protecting one’s own people, which is not present in state-run regulation, is a major cause of IGRA’s success.

“These self-determination principles all reflect the idea that not only should tribes have authority, jurisdictional authority, over activities within their lands, but tribes themselves are best suited to understanding the needs and solutions for matters within their lands.”

Also, Chaudhuri believes the success of the tribal regulatory mechanisms established by IGRA will ultimately influence future federal policymaking in other areas and will help keep those policies tilted toward self-determination and away from state control. In a very real way, Indian gaming drives self-determination.

The panel discussions

The first of the two-panel discussions at the symposium considered the future challenges faced by Indian gaming. Moderated by Dr, Katherine Spilde, Chair of the Sycuan Institute on Tribal Gaming, the participants were Cody Martinez, Chairman of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, Ernest L. Stevens, Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, Patrice Kunesh, director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Center for Indian Country Development, and John Tahsuda, Acting Secretary/Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior.

Although the panelists discussed many different topics, three stood out: taking land-into-trust, the over-reliance on casinos for tribal employment, and the need to educate the public about the benefits of Indian gaming to both Indian and non-Indian communities.

The second panel was moderated by Miriam Jorgensen, Research Director of the Native Nations Institute. It focused on the importance of research on Indian gaming and the need for further research to analyze trends and inform public policymaking.

The participants were Raymond Foxworth, Vice President of the First Nations Development Institute, Randall Akee, a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Jonathan B. Taylor of The Taylor Policy Group and Thaddeus Conner, Assistant Professor at New Mexico State University.

The symposium provided a wealth of good information and discussion about the role of Indian gaming and its future in Indian Country. 

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Chairman Ernest Stevens of the National Indian Gaming Association. (Photo YouTube)

But Chairman Ernest Stevens of the National Indian Gaming Association brought it down to a relatable level when he said:

“We need the world not to be afraid of Indian people expanding our horizons because we got a long way to go. In the next six months, I’m going to hold two more brand new grandbabies. So I’ll be up around 17 grandchildren. I want these kids to have something to live for and I want America’s children to have something to live for. That’s what Indian gaming is all about.”

For more information about this event visit the site event page.

Frank Hopper is a Tlingit, Kagwaantaan, freelance writer, born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised in Seattle. He now resides in Washington, D.C.

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