How Native Americans Used The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act To Empower Their People And Improve Their Communities

Biometrica Systems, Inc.
6 min readJul 27, 2021
Photo by Kaysha on Unsplash

July 27, 2021

By Aara Ramesh

Last week, the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) held its Indian Gaming Tradeshow & Convention in Las Vegas, drawing a record crowd of 7,000 according to its own estimates. The four-day conference’s success was attributed to tribes and even commercial operators of casinos seeking out new technology and equipment as the industry continues to navigate gaming in the time of Covid-19.

Victor Rocha, the conference chairman, noted the attendance of tribes of all sizes, including smaller ones, as well as commercial-gaming operators who were hoping to meet and conduct business with vendors. By NIGA’s own estimates, over 350 vendors participated, resulting in a $10 million impact on Las Vegas’ economy over the week.

The success of NIGA’s first convention since 2018 bodes well not only for the city, but also for the overall gaming industry, the overall American economy, and Native American communities, as a whole. Per some estimates, tribal gaming accounts for around 43% of overall gaming revenue in the country.

The NIGA says that the tribal gaming industry was worth a record $34.6 billion in the 2019 financial year, a 2.5% increase from the $33.7 billion generated the previous year. According to the Association’s President, Ernie Stevens Jr., tribal gaming contributes a further $6.2 billion to the economy via “ancillary revenues from hotels, entertainment, restaurants, and retail operations.” NIGA also says that tribal gaming is ranked 11th when it comes to generating employment in the country.

Keeping this significant contribution in mind, it is worth taking a look at the inception and development of tribal gaming over the course of the last three decades.

How Native Americans Came To Be Involved In Gaming

Nearly 33 years ago, Congress enacted and President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 (IGRA). The Act was designed to “support and promote tribal economic development, self-sufficiency, and strong tribal governments through the operation of gaming on Indian lands.” It lays out how the federal government and tribal governments should work together to regulate gaming on Native American lands.

The IGRA created a whole Native American gaming industry virtually “overnight and practically nationwide,” as every state with federally recognized tribes also permitted gambling (excepting Utah).

As a result of IGRA becoming law, the Department of Interior (DOI), under whose jurisdiction the Bureau of Indian Affairs falls, created the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), an independent agency within the DOI that is tasked with regulating and supporting tribes’ mission of using gaming to generate revenue for Indigenous communities. It is also in charge of providing technical assistance and training, as well as conducting background checks of those looking to invest or participate in tribal gaming operations.

The IGRA created three classes of Indian gaming, with different games falling into different categories and being subject to its own rules and regulations. Class I gaming covers games that are considered traditional or ceremonial for Native communities, and are exclusively reserved only for tribes. These are generally social games, with prizes of “minimal value,” or are related to specific ceremonies or celebrations.

Class II games include activities such as bingo, pull-tabs, punch boards, tip jars, and card games not banked by the house. Each tribe regulates these games within its own boundaries, with the NIGC providing oversight.

Class III gaming is probably what is understood conventionally as “tribal gaming.” It spans an array of activities, from lotteries, machine gambling, and casino games, to horse racing, pari-mutuel wagering, and house-banked card games. Any tribe looking to introduce Class III gaming on its lands must sign a contract (or “compact”) with the state outlining all details. The compact then needs to be approved by the DOI.

You can find a full list of which games fall under which classification here.

Today, there are 574 federally recognized American Indian tribes and Alaska Native Villages in the U.S, and almost 2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives. Of these, 245 tribes across 29 states own over 500 gaming operations such as casinos, bingo halls, travel plazas, and convenience stores.

The Impact Of Gaming On Indigenous Communities

In the late 1990s, a report was commissioned by the federal government to study the effect that IGRA and gaming, more broadly, had on Indigenous communities. According to the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, revenues earned from gaming proved to be “a critical source of funding for many tribal governments,” used as they were for bettering the health, education, and overall well-being of those Native Americans living on reservations.

One study from 2000 concluded that tribal gaming had “provided substantial employment opportunities on rural reservations where unemployment has been endemic and pervasive for decades.” The profits from casinos, as well as the full-time productive jobs generated, helped on a psychosocial and behavioral level, impacting self-esteem and mental health, and lowering the rates of alcoholism, poverty, and crime. The report also found that the impacts had spread to the non-Native community as well, through jobs in construction and tourism.

In 2005, Harvard University released a study that looked at census data from 1990 and 2000 to gauge the socioeconomic changes that occurred on reservations over that decade (depicted in the table below). They concluded that reservations with gaming facilities outperformed those without in regards to all the indicators, except two, measured by the census. The overall improvement of all reservations over the period did indicate that gaming was not the sole driver of that progress, but it is evident, according to the researchers, that the self-determination associated with controlling gaming was a significant part of the overall improvement.

Table source: American Indians on Reservations: A Databook of Socioeconomic Change Between the 1990 and 2000 Censuses

Moving Forward

Today, the varied Native American communities all across the country are making a slow trek back to normalcy after the devastation they witnessed during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The virus disproportionately affected Indigenous Peoples, according to almost every account. The Navajo Nation alone has witnessed 30,000 infections, with 1,233 confirmed deaths. The infection rates in Native populations were 3.5 times higher than non-Hispanic whites, and they were over four times more likely to be hospitalized.

This collided in an alarming way with the prolonged forced shutdown of casinos across the country, to mitigate the spread of the virus. With gaming being a major source of revenue and employment for residents of reservations, the unfortunate cocktail of circumstances led to Native American communities truly suffering.

But things, according to some, are looking up. Going off data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, American Indians and Alaska Natives had the highest vaccination rate of any other racial group in the country — as of early July, 45.5% of Native populations had received at least one dose of the vaccine, while 39.1% are fully inoculated.

Much as with the introduction of the IGRA, there are many who hope that the rebounding of the gaming industry will lead to a similar bounceback in the fortunes of Indigenous Peoples. Certainly, those who attended the NIGA conference last week were buoyed by the record attendance and enthusiastic participation of residents.

At the conference, attendees turned their attention to pressing topics such as the post-pandemic revival, cybersecurity and domestic terrorism, federal legislation, sports betting, and online betting, leaving everyone with a sense of hope.

“Indian gaming showed up, rolled up our sleeves, and did the work united in our efforts to bring our industry back after the pandemic stopped the world in its tracks,” said Chairman Stevens. “Coming off the success of our event this week, I am confident that our industry can and will build back. We regroup and reunite to build upon the success of our Indian gaming industry that has empowered tribal communities.”

You can access thorough coverage of the NIGA convention here.

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