Commercial gaming, like many industries, is very cut and dry in its pursuit of growth and profits, but tribal gaming is unique in that it takes many other factors into account—most notably the well-being and preservation of the many tribes and communities it serves on an intimate level.
As such, the biggest figures and leaders within the sector are often deeply connected with its culture and impact. Such is the case with Jeannie Hovland, vice chair of the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC).
As a member of South Dakota’s Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe, Hovland first broke into the industry in the early ’90s by working at the tribe’s Royal River Casino. This experience, she says, was essential in gaining a better understanding of how impactful the business can be, but it also highlighted the challenges that many smaller outfits face.
“Working at the Royal River Casino allowed me the opportunity to see firsthand the positive impacts of gaming on our tribe and the community,” Hovland says. “The casino provided several new job opportunities, brought in consumers from across the state and from surrounding areas…
“While all the South Dakota tribal gaming operations brought a plethora of diverse jobs, not all produced the revenues to significantly impact their economy. I observed several reasons for this, from location to basic infrastructure needs and local workforce development.”
Over the years, Hovland transitioned over to the federal government, holding a number of tribal-related positions including stints as the commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans at the Department of Health and Human Services and deputy assistant secretary for Native American affairs at the Administration for Children and Families.
In January 2021, Hovland was appointed to her current position at the NIGC, where she plays a key role in overseeing 500-plus tribal gaming facilities involving more than 250 tribes in 29 states. As we transition into 2024, she will be “continuing to provide outreach to tribes with gaming on Indian lands” while also “carrying out foundational work supporting the NIGC Strategic Plan,” which includes various integrity and preparedness-related initiatives tackling issues such as human trafficking and cybersecurity.
With regards to lessons learned over the years, the importance of communication has shown itself time and again for Hovland, as well as the need to always be working towards one’s end goals.
“Be precise on your vision, goals, priorities, and have a strategy on how to reach them,” she says. “Also, be willing to be flexible when your vision/goals/priorities don’t line up with what may be the best approach or solution.”
For those looking to follow in a similar path in the tribal space, Hovland’s advice is to “immerse yourself in getting to know the industry on the operational and regulatory sides,” and to “travel to gaming tribes and see the diversity that exists at each facility.”