The State of Indian Gaming: An Exit Interview With NIGC Chair Jonodev Chaudhuri

Courtesy NIGC / Jonodev Osceola Chaudhuri, Muscogee Creek, was nominated by President Barack Obama and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the NIGC Chair in April, 2015.

The State of Indian Gaming: An Exit Interview With NIGC Chair Jonodev Chaudhuri

Jonodev Osceola Chaudhuri, Muscogee Creek, was nominated by President Barack Obama and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate in April, 2015.

Jonodev Osceola Chaudhuri, Muscogee Creek, was nominated by President Barack Obama and unanimously confirmed to the National Indian Gaming Commision (NIGC) by the United States Senate in April, 2015. He is now coming to the end of his term as chair and Indian Country Today has asked him to reflect on the state of Indian gaming today.

Though the chairman is not immediately leaving his position, he spoke with Indian Country Today about his desire to reflect on his time in his position and focus on a smooth transition.

Prior to his service with the NIGC, Chairman Chaudhuri was appointed to the Commission by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, and served brief appointments as Vice Chair and Associate Commissioner.

Before the NIGC, Chairman Chaudhuri was also Senior Counselor to the Department of the Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs providing guidance to national policy issues including Indian gaming, economic development, energy, Alaskan affairs, and tribal recognition.

Chairman Chaudhuri has practiced law for more than 15 years representing tribal nations and commercial entities and also served as a judge on five different tribal courts, including Chief Justice of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Supreme Court, the highest court of the fourth largest tribe in the Nation. Chaudhuri also has served as a community organizer, adjunct professor, public defender, legal services director, and author.

Originally from Tempe, Arizona, but very much tied to his family roots in Oklahoma, Chairman Chaudhuri graduated in 1993 with a B.A. from Dartmouth College and a J.D. from Cornell Law School in 1999. Chairman Chaudhuri’s volunteer and lifetime service has been spent on many issues regarding underrepresented communities.

In 2018, Chaudhuri finished his commitment in serving the NIGC, and he says he now anticipates that his “next move will grow out of my and my family’s longstanding commitment to serving Native people and underrepresented communities.”

In an exit interview with Indian Country Today’s Vincent Schilling, Chaudhuri addressed the state of Indian gaming today and what to expect in the future for Indian country.

Vincent Schilling: Chairman Chaudhuri, in your service as Chairman of NIGC, what did you seek to accomplish in your position for your term of office?

I joined the NIGC to help strengthen tribal nations. I became Acting Chairman in October 2013 – the same month as the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, (IGRA.) Having served Indian country as an educator, attorney, and a judge, and coming from a family that has advocated for Native people and underrepresented communities for generations, I understood the profound impact of gaming on Indian country and its enduring power to provide Tribes with critical resources and fund programs. My broad goal when I started was to take every opportunity I could to advance the cause of tribal self-determination.

I recognized at the outset that the NIGC is first and foremost a regulatory agency, and significantly, one that grew out of IGRA’s compromise between tribal nations that sought to preserve their exclusive right to regulate all gaming on tribal lands and states and other non-tribal interests. But regulation is not an obstacle to self-determination and economic success. In fact, in a business such as gaming, where the reputation and integrity of the operation are so vital to its success, thorough and transparent regulations are a key component of the economic success of an operation.

Moreover, the pressures between tribal and non-tribal interests have ebbed and flowed over the years, but they have never disappeared. Despite IGRA’s constrictions on tribal sovereignty, IGRA preserved the tribes’ roles as primary regulators of their operations. The presence of the NIGC as a viable regulator is an important buffer between Indian gaming and non-tribal interests who otherwise may seek even greater infringements on tribal sovereignty.

With advancing self-determination as the overall goal, I sought to promote an agency culture and develop guiding principles and initiatives that would allow us to perform our day-to-day functions in a way that supported Indian country to the greatest extent possible while still remaining true to our statutory mandate, and while my general goal was to support tribal self-determination, I understood the importance of NIGC’s viability to the success of tribal nations operating within the IGRA framework, and as such, I knew the paths forward for advancing self-determination at the agency would sometimes be counterintuitive.

With that in mind, I set out certain guiding principles to steer the agency’s direction toward supporting tribal sovereignty and self-determination as much as possible while maintaining its credibility as a regulatory body. These principles can be summarized as engaging in sound regulation without unnecessarily inhibiting the entrepreneurial spirit of tribes; to swiftly act on anything that jeopardizes the health and safety of the public at gaming establishments including employees and patrons and finally to protect against anything that amounts to gamesmanship on the backs of tribes.

From those principles, our core initiatives emerged, and I’m proud to say those initiatives are now formally embodied in the NIGC’s 2018-2022 Strategic Plan.

Vincent Schilling: What does most of the world not know or not realize about the complexities of gaming in Indian country.

Without a doubt, Indian gaming is the most heavily regulated form of gaming in the country, with up to three levels of regulatory oversight. Tribes, of course, are the primary regulators of their gaming operations, but the NIGC has its regulatory role and, when a Tribe operates Class III gaming, the State has its limited role. Additionally, not all Tribal casinos are the same. They run the gamut; from a few gaming devices in a gas station or convenience store, to some of the biggest casinos in the world. As a result, the regulatory landscape for each and every tribe is different. That, along with the diverse and complex histories and land bases of each tribe, requires flexibility from the NIGC. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work for the Indian gaming industry. As a result, we strive to recognize the unique landscape of each tribe and try to guard against unintended consequences in all we do.

Vincent Schilling: How has gaming in Indian country changed over the past few years?

Indian gaming is always changing. The last few years have seen tremendous growth in the industry, both in the number of new facilities opening up as well as in the Gross Revenues those facilities are earning. But even outside of these last few years, Tribal gaming has traditionally been at the vanguard of technology and innovation within the gaming industry at large. Indian country should be proud of the innovations it has brought to the gaming industry. Since I took over as Chairman, I have heard many discussions at conferences about the future of gaming. While there is a diversity of opinions about what that future will look like, one commonality I have seen is the tribal gaming industry’s eagerness to develop and utilize new technology. Technology is not only being thought of in terms of attracting new players, but the discussions also include how technology can and should be utilized to ensure compliance with Tribal, federal, and, where appropriate, state regulation.

Over the last few years, I have also seen Tribes begin to refocus on Class II gaming. Because IGRA classified types of gaming, each subject to a different jurisdiction, Indian Country has developed a booming Class II gaming industry from the ground up. And as technology has advanced, Tribes have begun to see Class II gaming as viable and attractive alternative to Class III gaming devices.

Finally, with success not only in the gaming industry, but in general, Tribes have become increasingly sophisticated and influential regarding federal tribal policy.

Vincent Schilling: What are you most proud to have overseen in terms of accomplishments by NIGC?

Whether its technology or the development of sound policy, I am proud of how we have served Indian country by positioning the agency and assisted Indian country, to meet the opportunities and challenges the next phase of Indian gaming will present. This is clearly reflected in the most recent approval of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians alternate technical standards for Class II Gaming using Mobile Devices. While the approval of the alternate standards should not be confused with the authorization to use mobile devices for gaming, it is an important step towards making mobile gaming available consistent with NIGC regulations.

Additionally, as Chairman I wanted to further strengthen Indian gaming and advocate that the success of IGRA should guide future federal Indian policy. Specifically, I wanted to build on the Agency’s work in Indian country to support a stable Indian gaming environment going forward. This goal has been the driving force behind my proudest accomplishment: developing a balanced approach to compliance while being faithful to the core tenants of IGRA. Being pro-tribal, pro-sovereignty doesn’t mean we shirk our responsibilities under IGRA. We have to recognize tribes as the day-to-day regulators and the NIGC as the federal regulator. But along with regulating Indian gaming, the Commission is also a champion of Indian country and the fundamental federal policy of tribal self-determination. This approach informs my major enforcement actions. And Indian country, as well as the industry, has recognized this and met those actions with considerable support. This buy-in has curbed many of the criticisms the Agency has faced in the past on enforcement actions.

Vincent Schilling: As with any new venture or office seat with an organization, there might be preconceived notions of what to expect, what did you learn most in your experience as chairman?

IGRA requires the NIGC to walk a fine line between serving IGRA’s goals and purposes to support tribal self-determination and economic development on the one hand, and ensuring that IGRA’s regulatory requirements are adhered to on the other. As I’ve said repeatedly, everything we do is with an understanding of the success of the self-determination policy embedded in IGRA. Case in point, when considering an enforcement action, the temptation is to take a hands-off approach or a lesser enforcement action, because this allows me to be supportive of tribal decision-making. However, because I view everything through a lens of self-determination, that approach comes at a cost; that cost being the reputation of Indian gaming is muddied or the efficacy of the tribal-federal regulatory balance is undermined. In turn, this damage would have serious implications for self-determination policy.

It must also be remembered that although the NIGC is the Federal regulatory agency for tribal gaming, we are part of the federal family and although everyone may be working toward a common goal, like any family, we sometime have differing opinions on how a particular issue should be addressed. In my time at NIGC I learned the importance of working with those agencies; be it DOJ on a litigation matter or DOI on some issue of common interest.

Vincent Schilling: What is the foreseeable future for the world of Indian gaming?

I have no doubt that the tribal gaming industry will continue to lead the way on gaming technology and innovation. Emerging platforms will allow Tribes to increase their market base. The challenge here arises as lawmakers consider regulatory approaches and structures for these emerging platforms such as i-gaming, mobile gaming, skill based and any other new gaming innovations. It is imperative that Tribes have a voice in those discussions to ensure the longstanding federal Indian self-determination policy principles explicitly referenced in IGRA inform those discussions.

Vincent Schilling: What is next for you?

When asked this question over the last year, I have repeatedly said that I was committed to honoring my commitment to Indian country by finishing out my term as NIGC Chairman and run through the finish line free from distractions. I have been highly committed to this role, and for that reason, I have not thought about what my next position will be until very recently.

Instead, I wanted to work with the team to do all that we could in our finite time together to strengthen Indian gaming and advocate that the successes of the industry help guide future federal Indian policy. Because of this commitment, I have not actively sought out other positions post NIGC. I do anticipate that my next move will grow out of my and my family’s longstanding commitment to serving Native people and underrepresented communities. With this is mind I am confident that I will continue to serve Indian country and hopefully do so in a way that builds on my most recent experience having a front row seat to technological changes on the horizon.

Vincent Schilling: Are there any additional thoughts you’d like to share?

I have worked with extraordinary professionals day-in and day-out here at the NIGC, and for this I am honored and grateful. We have made it a point every day to promote tribal self-determination while upholding our responsibilities outlined in IGRA, a success I would like to thank all those I have been able to work with over the years. I would like to wish for continued success of the agency and the industry. I hope to see the NIGC continue to build upon vital partnerships and stay on the same track we have created during my time as Chair. I will be forever grateful to President Obama and Secretary Jewell for their confidence and support they showed me by allowing me to serve Indian Country in this capacity.

At the end of my statutory term, I greatly appreciated the opportunity to reflect on my time as chairman. It has been an incredible honor to serve Indian country and the general public in my capacity as chairman, and as my time at NIGC winds down, I want to do whatever I can to ensure stability at the agency and the industry. While the conclusion of my statutory term does not require that I immediately depart the agency, it does present an opportunity for reflection and planning. I should be clear however that I have no intention of leaving immediately. I have been and remain committed to a smooth transition and, in the near future, will announce a departure date. In the meantime, though, I anticipate working with our incredible team through at least a good part of the summer to close out as many matters as possible.

About the NIGC

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act created the National Indian Gaming Commission to support tribal self-sufficiency and the integrity of Indian gaming. The NIGC has developed four initiatives to support its mission including (1) To protect against anything that amounts to gamesmanship on the backs of tribes; (2) To stay ahead of the Technology Curve; (3) Rural outreach; and (4) To maintain a strong workforce within NIGC and with its tribal regulatory partners. NIGC oversees the efficient regulation of 499 gaming establishments operated by 244 tribes across 28 states. The Commission’s dedication to compliance with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act ensures the integrity of the growing $31.2 billion Indian gaming industry.

To learn more, visit www.nigc.gov you can also follow the NIGC on Facebook and Twitter.

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