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NIGA and Our Future: It’s About the Principles

Ivan Makil
4/3/11

My vision for the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) begins with a renewed commitment to the founding principles of NIGA, but more importantly a commitment to the founding principles that we maintain as tribes.

My vision begins with a tribal leadership that is engaged and fully committed to working together to develop and implement an agenda that is in the best interests of all Native people. This is a big vision but we have big issues—issues like sovereignty management, health care, education, land management and housing, to name only a few. Yes, these issues have always been with us. But today, on top of all of these, we have the larger issue of economic sustainability.

All of these issues coming together make this an especially critical time for tribes. I believe that our future is at stake. Yet in crisis comes opportunity. The economic challenges our nations face and the country is facing provide gaming tribes with a special opportunity. Our gaming revenues have decreased, but they are still significant enough that we have the opportunity to take control of our future. But to be effective, we must come together and recognize that, while gaming is helping us, there is also a challenge.

In today’s society almost all of our concerns/issues are influenced by economics and politics. Gaming, too, is about economics and politics. The danger with this formula is that we can lose sight of why we are doing this and how we got here. While we are successful by the standards of economics and politics, the danger is that gaming decisions can drive our agendas. We need to refocus on what is important to us as people.

While gaming has been good for tribal people, the business of gaming has left us with an unbalanced agenda. Because we are known by our neon-lit, modern casinos rather than for our ancient way of life, our political leaders and the public do not know who we really are. In my vision NIGA should play a role in educating and reshaping public opinion about who we are as a people, introducing that we are governments and telling others about what we value as societies.

As we view the various organizations in Indian country that focus on these issues that are important to our communities, my view is clear—NIGA is the organization with the resources to do the heavy lifting on these issues. It should begin by drawing on the vision of tribal leadership and the necessary expertise to gather as much objective information so leadership can evaluate the potential impacts of an issue on all tribes.

Discussing these issues openly and respectfully, coupled with the advantage of having access to the best information, provides the opportunity to build consensus.
NIGA should take the lead in launching a unified, focused public messaging campaign that is implemented locally, regionally and nationally. This campaign can introduce issues beyond gaming that tribal leaders identify as crucial to our overall agenda.

My personal experience in leading two campaigns in support of gaming helped me to understand the influence of an informed public. The support that can be generated to change public perception about who we are as tribes is imperative to our industry and our issues.

Why is this imperative? Because today we are seeing an increase of legislation introduced both nationally and in the states that is not friendly to tribes. In Arizona, for example, the immigration bill S.B. 1070 does not mention tribes. But it is an indication of the where Arizona leadership is today. They are not receptive to people who do not look or think or act as they do. It is not a reach to imagine that this exclusionary policy would not, one day, be extended to us.

What that means to me is that it is more important than ever for us to tell our story about who we are as a people and as governments. We need to make the point again and again that tribes are not casinos. We are people with ancient histories, centuries of traditions, sophisticated societies and accomplishments that are legendary.

In my vision of NIGA, we would prepare people to listen and to understand. We know that Indian gaming today is a powerful economic force for good on and off our communities. What people do not know is that it is one force, among many. Our way of life is a far more powerful force that has sustained us in the past and will sustain us in the future. Working together, we can shape and share our story which will empower our industry and all of Indian country. And NIGA should be our storyteller.

Ivan Makil is a former president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and is the founding partner of Generation Seven Strategic Partners, headquartered on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in Arizona.

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