For a regulatory body, the National Indian Gaming Commission had several important challenges during the pandemic. Chairman Sequoyah Simermeyer says his agency used the pandemic to focus on streamlining processes and procedures to better serve the tribes and operations depending upon them. Now that the commission has its full component of three members for the first time in several years, Simermeyer is enthusiastic that his agency will exceed expectations in the primary function: the integrity of the industry. He spoke with GGB Publisher Roger Gros on Zoom in May.
GGB: Less than a year after you were appointed chairman of the NIGC, the pandemic hit. Explain what kind of challenges you had to the operation of the NIGC.
Sequoyah Simermeyer: One thing we did, soon after having to deal with the pandemic, was to focus both on our operations and on how we meet our mission. We really divided our focus into projects that were internal and external. And because of that, we’ve been able to be somewhat innovative in how we’re meeting our responsibilities. And we plan to keep addressing those by both continuing to support the staff at NIGC, who have been working hard to make the most of these circumstances, and also really remain dedicated to our partnership with tribal communities. We’ve prioritized operational work that addresses issues early so they don’t become unmanageable problems. We’ve really focused on prioritizing policies and practices that are transparent and consistent.
Tell us how technology assisted staying in touch with the tribes during this period.
Even before the pandemic, we dedicated all of our technical assistance—which is part of our statutory requirement for the agency—to being virtual. We typically will hold in-person region-training conferences, and we moved all of that to a virtual platform, and we’ve had a good amount of success at reaching a broad audience with that. We had to make adjustments and upgrade some of our virtual formats, so that we could use it not just for our technical assistance that we provided through our trainings, but also in keeping communication through region and focus meetings with tribes, and through commission outreach with tribes, at the commission level.
How did you oversee the closing of casinos in Indian Country?
Well, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act sets up a little bit different framework for how we approach an issue like this. It definitely was a closure that we had never seen before in the industry, and a Northwest tribe was one of the first ones to make that decision, and tribal decision-makers, tribal lawmakers were leading that decision-making process. They were doing it based on circumstances at the local level, that were put in place to protect employees, and make sure that customers were safe—it was driven by local conditions. It was important early on for the NIGC to help support that decision-making process, by monitoring and assisting tribal decision-makers. We also emphasize the expectation that the tribal gaming regulatory authorities, under our regulations, and under IGRA, are part of that decision-making process, and encourage coordination with local jurisdictions to be able to make that assessment that tribes were making.
This is the first time in a while that you have a full complement of commissioners. Is this the first time that all three commissioners are Native Americans?
I think in the past there’s been three Native commissioners serving at the same time. All three members of the current commission are proud to be Native, and proud to be serving on the commission. I’m a member of the Coharie tribe from North Carolina. My family has also got strong roots in northern New Mexico. So, I think that shapes my identity, but I know that Vice Chairwoman Isom-Clause and Commissioner Hovland come from tribal communities and are active in their communities, and they bring their own perspectives from Indian Country, that kind of help to inform our decision-making. But having a full complement on the commission I think is what the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act contemplated. It helps to have a broader process and really improves the work of the agency. We’re excited to have a full commission.
What is the NIGC role in overseeing sports betting in Indian Country?
One of the things we did early on was to put out guidance on sports betting, and what some of the considerations were for the NIGC, as tribes were contemplating this. As tribes contemplated if that’s an option that they wanted to pursue under their restrictions through a compact on Class III gaming, we tried to make clear that our interest was in looking at the management contract approval requirements that are laid out in IGRA, and whether or not arrangements that were being made had implications for the sole proprietary interest requirement that’s in IGRA.
But with the different options that tribes were pursuing, we try to help put that information out so tribes and their partners can consider what role the NIGC might play in there. But it really does depend a lot on how they’re structuring that relationship, and how they’re providing it. So there’s something like four different models that we saw that were laid out in that guidance. I think the most common approach that we’ve seen is that a tribe with a licensed operation will hire a vendor or a consultant that provides discreet information or advice to the tribe but allows them to hire someone to provide advice on setting the line for the wager, or to whether or not they should accept the wager. So, those are some of the considerations that go into whether or not management is occurring, or whether or not there’s a sole proprietary interest, which are the concerns under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.