Tribal attorney Gary Pitchlynn has spent most of his career helping Indians find equal footing in the casino industry. The self-described “half-breed” (his father was Choctaw) was among the first to take on the National Indian Gaming Commission in the 1990s, when it tried to limit the freedoms affirmed by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act by shutting down electronic bingo in his native Oklahoma.
As lead litigator for a dozen tribes, Pitchlynn helped rebuild the dismantled industry, betting that sufficient gaming revenue would allow the Indians to defend against any enforcement by the NIGC and the Department of Justice.
Over time, most of the tribes “withdrew from the battlefield,” Pitchlynn says. He fought on, alongside the Absentee Shawnee tribe of Oklahoma and the Seminole Nation. It took years, but the strategy succeeded.
“The last of our litigation was in 2001 or 2002,” says Pitchlynn, “and the first compacts were in place by 2004.”
Pitchlynn was not always so deeply invested in tribal matters. Growing up on the exhausted oil fields of Wewoka, Oklahoma, among full-blooded Seminole and Creek Indians, “we didn’t feel like we belonged anywhere,” he says.
He never learned his tribal language, and did not feel an affiliation with his heritage until the 1970s. After a brief stint in law school (“I hated it,” he says), he worked at the Native American Center in Oklahoma City. “I became interested in all things native,” he says. “I wanted to learn all about my community and culture.” Newly inspired, he returned to law school with the express purpose of representing native clients.
Now a specialist in tribal gaming, Pitchlynn has an insider’s grasp of the industry’s promise, its perils—and the politics that could stunt the development of tribes striving for economic parity.
Internet gaming “is certainly the newest of the threats,” he says. “Tribes must have a seat at the table, be written into any law that might open internet gaming, and assert that they already have that authority under IGRA.”
As existing compacts expire, he warns, “expect the states to try to solve their financial problems on the backs of the tribes.” As a fallback position, some tribes could revert to a primarily Class II industry, and thus prohibit the states from taking a share of the revenue.
Tribes must also beware of efforts to reclassify their more lucrative Class II games as Class III, and safeguard their gaming interest through “natural alliances at both the state and federal levels,” says Pitchlynn. “But as the targets move and change, it will always be important to weigh the potential for new alliances.” In the future, he suggests, “our alliances might be with labor interests, education, law enforcement, local and county governments and other gaming interests.”
No matter how the landscape changes, expect Pitchlynn to stay in the game. “He’s been around for decades on all tribal issues, starting in poverty law,” says tribal gaming expert Kate Spilde, of San Diego State University. “As young guns and fair-weather friends and the Abramoffs of the world come and go, guys like this have staying power.”