Ernie Stevens Jr. on How Indian Leadership Made the Best of IGRA
The National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) is a nonprofit Indian gaming advocacy organization established in 1985 in the midst of the red-hot controversy over the Cabazon and Morongo Bands conducting bingo and a card club on their reservation lands in California. That was before the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians in 1987 that Indian tribes have the right to conduct gaming on their land without state interference. Congress—and the states—scrambled to quash that kind of freedom and self-determination. The result was the passage of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) on October 17, 1988, which restricted tribal sovereignty by imposing an extensive regulatory system, and allowing states to elbow their way into tribal profits via tribal-state compacts. For the 25th anniversary, Indian Country Today Media Network spoke with NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. about IGRA, NIGA and the future of Indian gaming.
What are your thoughts on IGRA and NIGA?
The Morongo and Cabazon decision should have opened up an industry for Indian country, a new world for us, and we did ultimately do that, but [with] NIGA, we knew we were going to be up against it. We knew there were going to be challenges and we wanted to prepare for that, so we got some of our most astute leadership to stand firm, yet diplomatic and respectful, to try to tell Washington and those states that we’re not standing down and we’re not giving any ground. Obviously, when Congress makes a law we have to follow it, but those people who stood firm…are adamant that we should not have yielded to the changes that took away tribal sovereignty. Of course, we didn’t have any choice—the law is the law, we have to move forward. Those leaders, those administrators, those regulators, those gaming managers made the best of a law that took us backward, took away our rights. We celebrate the work we do despite the fact that the victory in Morongo and Cabazon became a setback in [the form of] IGRA. We do the best with that [limitation]. Those folks knew we were going to have to defend our rights and engage in Washington, D.C. and throughout the United States and deal with—how can I say it?—when people make stuff up.…
Ha, yeah—we’ve got to figure out a more diplomatic word for lies! NIGA was formulated to protect our industry, advocate for our industry and to educate about our industry, and those forefathers had a brilliant idea, and I’m just a part of utilizing their energy, their direction and their encouragement. So I don’t celebrate IGRA—I celebrate what the leadership did to make the best of their conditions. They’re the ones that have made Indian gaming the success it is.
What were you doing back then?
I was in college because I could not find a job, not even on my reservation. As gaming started to evolve I finished my education and made my way back home and in 1993 when I was first on the council working directly with gaming for my tribe, we hired 1,000 people. We were the number one or two top employers in northeastern Wisconsin. Not only did I find work for a lot of Indian people but I found work for a lot of non-Indian people who came and worked for the tribe. But I do remember having little kids and being poor, and a time when the bill collector would come to pick up my car. Memory serves to help others to not have to walk in that kind of struggle. But right now a lot of people are experiencing those struggles and guess what? Indian gaming still creates jobs and keeps people employed in one of the toughest times in American history.
I don’t think the general public has a clue about how much Indian gaming contributes to the general welfare. How do you educate people about that?
You never run out of the need to educate America about tribal gaming but even more so to reflect on history so that people can understand that because of all the terrible things done to people and the federal government not living up to their share of treaty responsibilities and promises they gave us for giving up our land, we still have to provide for ourselves. [Some] people don’t understand that. They think, Oh, they’re on the reservation and they don’t have a lot, so we gave them casinos. The fact is we had gaming long before there was any European contact. The game of lacrosse is the Creator’s game, and we played it in ceremony before it became a competitive sport. We engaged in trade and economic development long before there was a U.S.A.
What do you see as the challenges, successes and priorities for NIGA and Indian gaming in the next 10 years?
We have to take a look at potential competition, and we have to deal with this Internet world. We continue to fight to ensure that if this Internet gaming law starts to evolve, we are treated like governments. We have to make the adjustments to the economy. Too many people think this [economic downturn] is just going to go away and it’s all going to be good again. Indian country knows about struggling economies. That’s why tribes are doing well—they’re working their way through the struggle because this has always been our world. I say, ‘America, welcome to our world.’ We’re always trying to cut corners and make the most of what we have.
In the next 10 years we’ve got to take Indian gaming and economic development forward. I’m here in North Dakota meeting with Tex Hall [chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation], and that’s what we’re doing—we’re talking about tribal economic development, tribal resources being shared with other tribes and other casinos, and really trying to pull this kind of energy together and pull Indian gaming and, most important, tribal economic development to a new level. Whether it’s Internet gaming or anything else we will evaluate it and demand to be treated fairly while we keep trying to enhance our gaming market.
I’ve watched a lot of kids go through college and come out and be gaming managers, slot techs, general managers, policemen and women, lawyers. We have to continue that trend. We have to move our economies forward, not just in diversifying, but by strengthening and building upon the gaming world we’ve built.