Sequoyah Simermeyer, a member of the Coharie Indian Tribe of North Carolina, was appointed to the National Indian Gaming Commission in 2015 as an associate commissioner. In 2019, he was elevated by President Donald Trump to chairman and confirmed by the Senate. His term will expire in 2023. Prior to his role with NIGC, he worked as an adviser to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. He began his career with the National Congress of American Indians, a national intertribal organization focusing on the protection of tribal governments’ rights and status. He spoke with GGB Publisher Roger Gros at the Indian Gaming ’22 trade show and conference in Anaheim, California in April. (See video below).
GGB: One of the stories we did in our most recent Tribal Government Gaming magazine was basically a history of the NIGC. Many former members of the commission explained how difficult it was in the early days. They didn’t have offices of their own, and there wasn’t a lot of respect, either from the government side or the tribal side. Things have obviously changed down through the years, but why has it changed so dramatically?
Sequoyah Simermeyer: Well, the industry was already in place, and the commission was integrating a new framework into how the industry operated. That presented its own challenges and growing pains. And the early commission should absolutely be commended for the work they did to set a tone and lay down a path. I know that over the course of the agency, the opportunity to collaborate as part of a bigger regulatory community, with tribes and with operators and other stakeholders, has added to the success of it, and it’s helped to implement a more consistent and predictable implementation of policy objectives that IGRA laid out, which I think has also contributed to its growth and the role it plays today.
In the column you wrote for TGG, you announced a program called the “3 For 35 Project.” Explain the impetus behind that.
The agency’s had a focus in four areas in recent years. And one of those areas is preparedness across the regulatory community and the opportunity that exists to help prepare the regulatory workforce to fall in line with that objective. And so, we, in doing this project, are looking at the opportunity to remind the public about the unique regulatory structure and the unique aspects of the Indian gaming industry, that were affirmed in the Cabazon case 35 years ago.
We’re trying to facilitate a conversation across the regulatory community about our workforce, and how to plan for the next 35 years. And so, we identified three areas of discussion that we want to use to help facilitate that conversation: skill-planning—what skills our regulatory body is investing in, in order to prepare for the future of the always-evolving industry, from a regulator’s perspective.
Strategic recruitment, whether it’s a large community of a workforce that you’re drawing from, or a small rural community—maintaining continuity of operations is an important role that the regulatory body must play. And finally, knowledge retention. And as we grow and the industry matures and reaches different milestones, how do we incorporate the knowledge from past regulatory subject matter experts and use that to build in the future?
In addition to the quality of the chairmen and the commissioners, the staff at the agency is really important, too. You have people on the staff there that have been there for years, long-serving dedicated public servants. How will you replace them when it comes time to retire?
I think maintaining that continuity of operations is important. Being strategic and thoughtful about how we are training subject-matter experts within any organization, we’ve made that a priority. Technology’s been a strong investment area for us in recent years, and getting individuals who can help us to remain relevant in the regulatory community has been important.
The NIGC is known for doing tribal consultations about the regulatory process. How do you use the tribal consultation to find out what the real issues are in tribal government gaming?
Another focus for us has been in the area of being innovative in outreaching collaboration. Consultation is one aspect of that. It’s an important aspect—not just for good decision-making, but it’s also important because it is a way to develop and cultivate the governmental authorities, and be aware of those authorities that are so important to the federal-tribal relationship. And that’s a unique responsibility that every federal actor has.
A large role of the NIGC is to interact with the tribal gaming commissions. In many cases, appointees to regulatory agencies—tribal or commercial—don’t have a lot of knowledge about gaming to begin with. How do you participate in informing them on how gaming works, and what the regulatory process is at the federal level?
During the past two years especially, we have really expanded the reach of our training program, which is the primary way that the NIGC meets its responsibilities under IGRA to provide technical assistance. And we’ve not only used virtual tools that have come about because of the pandemic, and trying to be mindful of budgets and other uncertainty restrictions on tribes; we’ve also looked at streamlining the content of the courses we’re offering in that area. We’ve looked at making them more case-study interactive-based, and because of that, we’ve been able to be more cost-effective, more accessible, and averaged a much broader turnout. So using those tools to educate and to outreach is one important aspect of that.