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IGRA a 'Mixed Bag'

Landmark federal legislation enacted 20 years ago has helped pave the way for what is today a nearly billion American Indian gambling industry, according to scholars, attorneys and tribal leaders participating in an October conference at ArizonaÆs Ft. McDowell Resort & Casino.

But it has taken the intelligence and perseverance of tribal leaders to create an unprecedented wave of economic and social progress in Native America.

The notion tribes are progressing largely because of federal government policy and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 “vastly understates the role of people in the community and what theyÆve accomplished,” Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian, said in a keynote speech.

Much of the economic gains from IGRA and government casinos have been realized by a few dozen tribes close to metropolitan markets. Economic and social progress on Indian lands, according to Indian gaming advocates, is more the result of strong tribal leadership and the maturing of tribal governments over the last 30 years.

“WeÆre successful because of that persistence, that intellect,” Gover told attendees at “Indian CountryÆs Winning Hand: 20 Years of IGRA,” an event sponsored by Arizona State UniversityÆs Sandra Day OÆConnor College of Law.

According to Gover, elected tribal leaders and elders are “community scholars,” many of whom are victims of poverty and lacking the advantage of a formal education in their struggle for economic and social equality. “They are community scholars with doctorates in life,” Gover said. “There are many stories. There are many heroes.”

The passage of IGRA was a five-year effort that paralleled successful litigation by the Cabazon and Morongo bands of Mission Indians in Southern California and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The legislation established a regulatory framework under which tribes could operate casinos on Indian lands.

Drafting IGRA was arduous, requiring tough negotiations and concessions by sovereign tribal governments confronted with wary state and federal officials, a lucrative commercial gambling industry, a suspicious U.S. Justice Department and demanding federal regulators.

IGRA allowed tribes to operate bingo and traditional games without state interference. But it required Indian governments seeking to operate Las Vegas-style casinos to negotiate agreements, or compacts, with the states in which they were located. Many compacts demanded onerous revenue-sharing agreements and regulatory oversight infringing on tribal government jurisdiction over Indian lands.
Some 220 tribes (there are 562 federally recognized American Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages) in 28 states successfully negotiated the bureaucratic and political landscape, and today operate about 425 tribal government casinos employing more than 350,000 mostly non-Indian workers. Casinos generate government revenues for health care, education, housing, roads, water and sewer systems and other reservation infrastructure.

Many tribes have used casino revenues to strengthen their tribal governments and diversify their economies beyond gaming. Others are building museums and cultural centers to preserve tribal traditions. Some are revitalizing native languages.

Many predicted IGRA would limit Las Vegas-style casinos, referred to in IGRA as Class III gaming. Most observers did not believe tribal government gambling would reach anywhere near its current level.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who played a role in drafting and enacting IGRA, told Stephens Washington Bureau the objective was to limit tribal gaming and protect Nevada casinos from competition.

“Just the opposite has occurred,” Reid said.

The statutory language of IGRA allowing the growth of Las Vegas-style casinos “reflects the tenacity and character of the tribes,” said Frank Ducheneaux, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Nation, former counsel to the U.S. House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs and co-author of IGRA. “Tribes have made IGRA what it is today.”

Economic Imbalance
IGRAÆs impact on Native America is difficult to measure. Tribal gaming revenues nationwide have soared, from $200 million in 1988 to $26 billion in 2007. But much of the revenue is being generated by smaller tribes near metropolitan areas. Just 69 of the 425 tribal casinos won $18.8 million in 2007, or 72 percent of the national win.

In California, home to 107 federally recognized tribes, 58 casinos generated $8 billion. But the total tribal enrollment in California is just 32,000 citizens, about 10 percent of the American Indians living in the state.
Many of the larger tribes in the more rural regions of the country have not benefited greatly from tribal casinos. The Navajo Nationùwith 250,000 citizensùis opening its first casino in November. The Hopi Tribe of Arizona, with 12,000 members, does not operate casinos.
Despite the resources generated by tribal government casinos, most of Native America remains locked in poverty. American Indians rank at the bottom of the socio-economic indicators of income, health care, education and housing.

“The economic benefit that (gaming) brought was kind of inverse to some of the needs that existed in Indian Country,” Philip Hogen, an Oglala Lakota and chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, told the San Diego Union newspaper.
To be sure, there has been economic and social progress in Native America. Harvard University studies show the rate of economic growth in Indian Country is three times that of the nation as a whole. But experts in Indian affairs credit most of the progress not to gaming, but a federal government policy of tribal self-determination introduced in the 1970s by the administration of former President Richard Nixon.

The federal policy shift from previous efforts to terminate tribes led to a slew of landmark court decisions and legislation to assist tribes emerging from near-extinction: the Indian Financing Act, Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, Indian Health Care Improvement Act, Indian Child Welfare Act, Indian Religious Freedom Act and Alaska Native Land Claims Act.

Self-determination allowed tribes to manage their own federal government programs and ignited an era of sovereignty and self-governance during which tribes began a slow process of building their economies and lifting themselves out of generational poverty.

“Tribal self-determination is driving income on tribal lands,” said Jonathan Taylor, an economist and specialist in Indian affairs.

In the seventh edition of his annual Indian Gaming Industry Report, Analysis Group Vice President Alan P. Meister notes a slowdown in the expansion of tribal gaming in 2007, with revenues climbing at a modest 5 percent. He attributed the slow growth to economic conditions, federal regulations and tribal-state compacts that artificially restrict the market.

As gaming slows, other tribal government business enterprises continue to grow, said Joseph Kalt, an economist and co-director of the Harvard University Project on American Indian Economic Development.

“The non-gaming portion of the tribal economy is growing faster than the gaming portion,” he said.

There is no empirical data on the extent of the non-gaming segment of the tribal economy. But observers predict it will continue to grow, particularly with the nationÆs desire to gain energy independence. U.S. Energy Department officials estimate that 10-14 percent of the nationÆs future traditional and renewable energy resources are found on tribal trust lands.

Politics a ÆMixed BagÆ
The role of IGRA and casinos in the emergence of American Indians as a political force in U.S. politics is not so much as success story as it is a cautionary tale.

Few in numbers (the U.S. Census puts the number of American Indians and Alaska Natives at 4.5 million, about 1.5 percent of the national population), resources from gaming have enabled tribes to be a political force in American politics. The army of tribal lobbyists and lawyers has grown immensely over the past two decades.

“Gaming has given tribes a voice at the table with key players in Washington, D.C.,” said Allison C. Binney, chief counsel and staff director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

But there has been some concern that gambling issues are diverting congressional attention from such pan-Indian issues as health care, housing and education. Growing tribal political clout and the controversy surrounding disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff has generated a public and political backlash against the tribes.

There have been increasing attempts in Congress to tax tribal revenues and infringe on tribal self-governance.

“Resentment has begun to grow and find its way outside Indian Country to Congress,” Ducheneaux said. “Indian tribes have lost, to some extent, because of IGRA.”
Meanwhile, recent federal court decisions regarding labor relations and other issues have served to erode tribal sovereignty.

Image Problem
Many of the problems tribes face on Capitol Hill and with the federal courts are attributed to the growing public and political perception of American Indians not as sovereign governments and culturally rich first Americans, but as wealthy purveyors of casino gambling.

With much of Native America locked in cyclical poverty, it is imperative that tribes continue to strengthen their governments, build their economies and present a more accurate image of American Indians to the public, the press and policymakers in Washington, D.C., says Kalt.

“Tribal self-determination is very, very unstable and fragile,” Kalt warns. “A strong tribal voice is urgently needed. ItÆs time to educate America.”
Gover agrees.

“As we emerge from our battles, we must take back our identity,” he said, reversing a pop culture that fosters stereotypes of American Indians. “We can now look the public in the eye and tell them the truth.”

The call for a new Native activism was raised the week after the conference at Ft. McDowell, when President Joe Garcia of the National Congress of American Indians addressed the groupÆs annual meeting.

“WeÆve learned from the past. We canÆt give up. We canÆt afford to be passive,” Garcia said. “WeÆve set some wheels in motion now that are going to get us to the next level in protecting our people, in protecting our children, in protecting our grandchildren.

“Right now weÆre at a transition, and this is a critical point in time and in history for us to be even more united. Unity means a whole lot to Indian Country, more than it has ever meant.”

Dave Palermo is an award-winning metropolitan newspaper reporter. He has written about American Indian governments for more than 20 years, working as an advocate for several tribes and tribal associations. He also has co-authored books on gambling and gambling law. He can be reached at

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