In 1988, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) set the stage for tribally owned governments to operate legal gaming facilities. This began to create a level of economic and financial independence for tribes that had not been realized to that point.
In fact, about 20 years later, Joseph Byrd is a proud beneficiary of his tribe’s highly successful gaming operations. Revenue generated from Quapaw Nation’s gaming properties ultimately provided the funds for his education, and that in turn has allowed him to lead the tribe as its chairman some 15 years later.
Though he has earned the title of chairman, his rise to that position was not always the dream. Early on, he was simply Joseph, a Quapaw, Cherokee, and Osage tribal member with a draw to help fellow tribes by working in tribal law. He understood that was going to be no small endeavor, but it was a calling for him.
Fresh out of undergrad, Byrd began his professional career not by going to law school, but by joining the Quapaw Nation’s Downstream Casino Resort. After a few years, he left to pursue his calling to help tribes by working in tribal law. However, it did not go as planned. Unable to get into law school, Byrd was dejected and down, but not out. Instead, he doubled down and made it his primary mission, which ultimately led him to the position he is in today.
After graduating from law school, Byrd was approached by a number of tribal elders to run for chairman of the tribe. Not only was this unexpected, but it was also going to be an incredibly tough undertaking, as his opponent was a 20-year incumbent and still had lots of support. Additionally, and to make matters worse, the election was to be held during the height of the recent Covid-19 pandemic. Against all odds, Byrd pulled out a victory and immediately went to work changing the culture of his tribe and the organizations that exist under it.
His first and possibly most difficult task was to create a new culture that allows leaders to lead. When things have been done one way for so long, it is very difficult to have any impact, but Byrd understood that if the Quapaw Nation was to progress and move forward, it was vital to create a space that allowed leaders to better focus on their responsibilities and duties.
“By eliminating micro-management on the part of executive leadership, it in turn allows leadership to focus on long-term strategic decisions,” Byrd says.
Even during his short time as chairman, the Quapaw Nation was the first to implement a modern cashless system at their casinos, and played a vital role in the current Oklahoma sports betting environment that has worked tirelessly to maintain independence and keep the big-box operators out of the state. Neither of these accomplishments would have occurred without understanding the task at hand.
Byrd is a self-proclaimed lifelong learner, and believes that “education is the great equalizer.” He has made this the mission for his tribal members, not only by passing legislation creating a monetary graduation incentive program, but by using himself as a great example of what gaming funds can do for tribal members.
In a way, everything has come full circle. Casinos created the funds to help with his education, his education allowed him to lead the Quapaw Nation, and as leader of the nation, he is able to effectively implement measures to hopefully impact the lives of other young tribal members as was done for him years ago.